“I remember being out in the field in Iraq. We’re getting constantly mortared and I looked across at a buddy of mine, and we just started laughing. Because there’s absolutely nothing you can do.”
This is Thomas Dang. From 2004 to 2008, he served as a Marine Corps Staff Sergeant over two tours in the Iraq War. Now, he’s an artist. We’re standing below a cluster of Dang’s “toy bombs”, torpedo-shaped mobiles of earthenware and resin, decorated with vibrant colors and fantastical designs, aspects that let these bomb-like sculptures take on a very unbomb-like quality: playfulness.
Dang’s take on war— what he calls the “cynical comedy” behind combat— is one of many perspectives conveyed in Art and Other Tactics, an exhibit at Los Angeles’ Craft and Folk Art Museum through September, displaying the work of 23 different artist-veterans. And though each of their takes is different— stemming from unique experiences, diverse backgrounds, and varying proximities to wars in which they served— the common through line for every piece is a specific intent to spark discussion.
Dang faces this twofold, both in the content of his pieces and the way they are actually displayed in the space. In an homage to his biology background (Dang has a Master’s in microbiology), each of the pieces has an aquarium-like center, filled with cartoonish floating organisms, which Dang explains are meant to disarm the audience as well as invite them in for close inspection.
“The idea behind the organisms was to be able to create something that would entice people to come in and take a look, make them interested to see what’s inside of it.” He likens it to his experiences on patrol, when he and other military personnel had to examine roadside objects up close in order to verify “one hundred and ten percent that it is or is not a bomb.”
This mirrored experience creates a focal point for the audience and a conversation-starter all in one. “Sooner or later, the viewer finds themselves in the piece, talking around it, talking in it, becoming a part of the piece.”
Though present in any art piece or exhibit, the facet of conversation is specifically important to the “veteran” story in this artist-veteran exhibit. As exhibit curator Emily Zaiden explains, “For all of these artists, their idea is that they want people to understand in some small way what their experiences are. And that’s even more an essential now that such a small percentage of the population serves.”
She also believes that craft as a sub-genre- familiar materials such as clay, paper, metal, wood and the intimacy between craft artists and their mediums- amplify the relatability of such pieces, making them “resonate differently than other mediums.”
In addition to sparking conversation amongst viewers of each of these pieces, the exhibit helped to open communication channels between the artist veterans themselves. Zaiden explains that the process of curating this show was a unique one because of the strong networks between artist veterans: “What’s really interesting about this group is a lot of them are interconnected. It’s uncharacteristic of other parts of the art world, but they band together, and I think that’s something that probably speaks to the military background.”
Even so, these networks don’t always allow for direct contact. Michael Aschenbrenner, an Alta Loma-based glass sculptor, and Thomas Orr, a ceramicist based out of Portland, Oregon, have been aware of each other’s work for years, but didn’t meet in person until being featured together in this exhibit.
Their pieces are very different down to the essence of their intention and tone. Aschenbrenner’s sculptures, bone-like glass pieces fused together with sticks and wraps, connote mended injuries and are about the healing process Aschenbrenner went through after the war. Orr’s pieces are more commemorative. He employs recurring symbolism like three suns, which Orr says first represented the three men in his infantry platoon who were killed in action. More recently, they dually represent the three men in his platoon who returned home.
Aschenbrenner recounts a conversation he and Orr had while they spent the day in Aschenbrenner’s studio: “Tom’s been a terrific guy to talk to. He was in Vietnam, he was a lieutenanet, and he was telling me these really dark memories, and all I could say was, ‘Yeah, but it’s over. That’s stuck in the past.’” Orr’s memories and Aschenbrenner’s healing process are both meaningful in the context of their specific pieces, but by putting the pieces and the artists together, the ensuing dialogue honors and complements both points of view, and builds out their support network that extends beyond inspiration for their art.
Aschenbrenner goes on to highlight his inner-conversation that helped him to move on from his own lingering memories of Vietnam. “Those are the things that nightmares are made out of. And you gotta deal with it. And it’s hard for anybody in combat to deal with. Mine took ten years before I could even address what I’d been going through. I didn’t know why I was so f****d up.”
Aschenbrenner was wounded in Vietnam and spent a year in a hospital. “Least wounded on the ward. All [the others were] amputees. So it totally penetrated my thinking.” He knows now that he was drawn to glass because of its reflection of the human condition. “The glass is interesting because it’s transparent. It’s fragile, and it’s very strong. So it’s a contradiction. The fragility being us as humans.”
But the glass sculptures were once much more abstract, and as he says, it was nearly a full decade after Vietnam until he realized he was using the pieces to work through his own healing process. In 1977, he was getting his M.F.A. at the University of Minnesota-most of these artist veterans picked up art through studying it by way of the GI Bill. “I shared a studio with a guy in Minnesota, and he goes, ‘Michael. These look like bones.’” Aschenbrenner didn’t shy away from this interpretation as he realized that the wrap portion of his sculptures were shaping his pieces into metaphors for healing.
“When I was wounded, I was in a long range recon. There were only thirteen of us. And half the team had to split up and go their own way, and half stayed with me. Because I couldn’t walk. I could hop, at least. So they stayed with me. They didn’t abandon me. It is true, no one left behind. And over the years, it started to come out that these pieces are about healing, and not about being abandoned. Most of us have abandonment issues for other reasons. But these pieces are not about being abandoned. They’re cared for, they’re nursed, and they’re representative of that time period. But it’s timeless. Look at what we’re doing today in terms of the world. We don’t learn much.”
Some of the artists who have served more recently echo this sentiment, adding to the conversation musings on the current state of combat. Jenn Hassin, an Air Force Dental Technician from 2005 to 2009, created a mosaic titled “A Battle Lost: 8030,” which is made from 8,030 rolls of paper to commemorate and raise awareness for the 8,030 veterans who committed suicide in 2014 alone.
“When I first heard that, I thought, ‘It’s not a veteran issue because civilians commit suicide too.’ But then I did the research. We’re such a small percentage of the United States population, and we account for a fifth of the suicides nationwide. That’s really disturbing. The big question is ‘Why?’ So we created this piece so I could be part of the solution to raise awareness about it and to bring attention to the topic.”
Ash Kyrie, a sergeant in the Army National Guard from 2003-2006 in the Iraq War, takes an approach that is literally hands on. As a site-specific installation, Kyrie affixed a picture of an Iraqi girl killed by an IED directly to the wall, inviting visitors to peel the picture off of the wall. “Basically, anyone can tear it whenever they want, through the whole exhibit.” He tears off one piece and holds it in his hand. “These are the little memories that you get, and they just get left on the floor.”
Kyrie says that he allows people to take home the pieces of paper they rip off the wall, but most often they’re just left on the floor. It’s a metaphor for the way we choose to forget, especially jarring memories like those of war. The image itself, as it’s ripped apart and made unintelligible over the course of the exhibit, thereby mimicking the way that our memories of war are faded and distorted over time. Kyrie explains, “The conversations, and the act of removing this image, this is what the art is. It takes a little bit of time, it takes a little bit of effort, but it’s well worth it.”
The artists on display in Art and Other Tactics are artists first and foremost. But their status as veterans adds a context to every single piece and the way we should consume them and take the experiences of these pieces into our own lives. As Dang puts it, “Everything about this is just so empowering. Every piece here stands alone, but the idea behind it for us as a group to be able to speak as one powerful voice is just incredible. And I couldn’t ask for anything more to be able to spread the word and acknowledge the veterans that are making changes.”