Outside the Box/a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch Copyright 2014

Nathan Lewis grew up in the village of Barker, New York, about three hours from Meadville. He joined the U.S. Army straight out of high school. He was 19.

Roman Baca was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and grew up in Spanaway, Washington, just south of Tacoma. After high school, he studied classical ballet at a conservatory in Connecticut. At 24, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

Both men served in Iraq. Lewis deployed with an artillery unit in 2003. Baca deployed to Fallujah in 2005.

They came home changed by their experiences. They came home with questions.

Lewis and Baca are part of Combat Paper: Word Made Flesh, a week of events addressing issues of trauma, grief and loss through the arts and artistic expression.

The conference and art exhibit represent the collaboration between two new faculty members, who found a common interest and purpose. Alexis Hart is a Navy veteran and professor of English and director of the Writing. Steve Prince is a printmaker, sculptor and professor of art. Together they created a program that crosses disciplines and seeks to bridge the military/civilian divide by creating art and conversations around the artistic experience.

“What does a person do when you come back from war?” That was Baca’s question.

His sole role model was his grandfather. Baca tried to follow his grandfather’s example. Get a good job, a desk job. Buy a house. Settle down. For his first six months, he thought he was transitioning back well.

His wife told him wasn’t. He was angry, anxious, depressed.

She asked him a question: if you could do anything in the world, what would you do?

“Start a dance company,” Baca said. His wife is a ballerina. Let’s do it.

Together they built Exit 12 Dance Company.

His early efforts missed the mark. He got feedback.

“This is crap.” “You have to find your voice. You have to find what’s aching to come out.”

Exit 12 Dance Company performed on the opening night of the conference. On Tuesday, they lead a dance workshop with Allegheny students.

With the dances, Baca said he wants to bring the military experience to the people back home. He wants them to feel the fear, anxiety, longing that is so prevalent in day-to-day life in war.

Lewis came home and wrote in journals. He was having trouble reconciling the values he was raised with and what he did in Iraq. Lewis said his trauma was not from what he saw, not from what was done to him. His trauma was from what he did.

In 2007, he started working with The Combat Paper Project. In 2009, he published his first book, I Hacky Sacked in Iraq, which has a sewn binding and covers of handmade combat paper.

Paper-making is an ancient art and process, originating in China. Paper was made from rags, Lewis said. In The Combat Paper Project, people can bring any natural fiber cloth that has sentimental value. Veterans donate uniforms.

On Tuesday, journalism students cut up uniforms that had been donated by active-duty members of the military at Walter Reed Military Medical Center. The pieces were turned to pulp in a big tumbler/blender called a hollander beater. The students dipped a framed screen into the water and pulp mixture and “pulled” the paper onto the screen. After draining the excess water, they turned the screen over and gently lifted it to reveal a sheet of handmade combat paper.

Prince believes the paper-making process is a metaphor for transformation, creation and healing.

“The deconstruction is not destroying. Those are two different words,” Prince said.

Through the creative process of breaking down and rebuilding, people can find empathy for another human being, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, he said.

“That’s the power of this project. It calls you to use your heart,” Prince said.

Lewis has a tattoo of a paper clip on the outside of his right arm, near his elbow. His paperclip is embedded in each piece of combat paper he creates. It’s his watermark.

It’s also a historic anti-war symbol.

“I identify strongly with being an anti-war vet, which doesn’t mean I’m against the troops,” Lewis said. “My morals were off in Iraq.

“What I did, what we did collectively, is terrible,” Lewis said. “I’m not mad that I went to war. I’m mad that it’s still going on. You want closure with the conflict. World War II ended. Vietnam ended. When is this going to end?”

Baca and Lewis have broken down their war experiences and turned them into dance, poetry and paper.

“It boils down to purpose and the future,” Baca said.

He wants to expose the nation to the experiences of people living in war zones.

“Transform these horrible experiences into a glimmer of hope,” Baca said. “It’s that possibility that excites me as an artist.”

Lewis noted that in Vietnam, the people have turned old weapons into agricultural equipment, musical instruments, rolling pins. People who’ve seen a lot of war have found ways to transform weapons.

“You’re a weapon in the military,” Lewis said. He is not religious though he fond of one verse, Isaiah 2:4.

“They shall beat their swords to plowshares,” Lewis said. “I just love that idea.”

To learn more about The Combat Paper Project: http://www.combatpaper.org

To learn more about Exit 12 Dance Company: http://www.exit12danceco.com

 http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/article_f4286752-498b-11e4-8690-9f3d33d41312.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

 

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