Lorraine Derowitsch went to Iraq in 2005 as a soldier in the U.S. Army. During a weeklong workshop on Deer Isle, she produced this print using paper made from an old military uniform. The print depicts two of her friends and fellow veterans, who are now married. Using a computer program, she made a screen print from a photo of the friends, then sprayed dyed paper pulp over the print to produce the image. PHOTO BY CHARLES EICHACKER

Vets make paper from old threads to tell their stories

DEER ISLE — “They carried the land itself — Vietnam, the place, the soil — a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces,” Tim O’Brien wrote in “The Things They Carried,” his semi-autobiographical novel about U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War. “They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.”

As captured in that passage, every soldier carries multiple loads during and after war. Some of them are concrete: dust, fungus, boots, fatigues. Others are more existential: those who haven’t been to war (including this writer) can only imagine what it felt like for O’Brien, a veteran, to carry the sky.

When 30 veterans gathered at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts for a weeklong workshop in late May, it was a chance to do some unpacking.

The participants took actual military fatigues (in many cases their own), cut them into small squares and mashed them into a pulp. By stretching and drying the material, they created sheets of paper.     They then used the blank canvases to express themselves however they saw fit: painting, printmaking, writing, whatever.

Aaron Hughes (at left) and Sarah Mess (pink shirt) make paper out of old military uniforms as part of a weeklong workshop at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in late May. Run by an organization called Combat Paper N.J., the experience helps veterans connect and tell their stories. PHOTO BY CHARLES EICHACKER
Aaron Hughes (at left) and Sarah Mess (pink shirt) make paper out of old military uniforms as part of a weeklong workshop at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in late May. Run by an organization called Combat Paper N.J., the experience helps veterans connect and tell their stories.

The uniform “becomes another medium,” said David Keefe, a former U.S. Marine and Iraq War veteran who runs Combat Paper N.J. (CPNJ), the organization that facilitated the workshop.

CPNJ is an offshoot of the San Francisco-based Combat Paper Project, started by a veteran named Drew Cameron in 2007.

Keefe has led workshops at Haystack for the last three summers, after connecting with Stu Kestenbaum, the school’s recently retired director, in 2012.

This particular session was funded by a $12,000 grant from the Maine Community Foundation. According to Kestenbaum, donations from the Windgate Charitable Foundation also will allow the program to continue for another two summers. Roughly half of this year’s participants came from Maine.

For Terry Grasse, 68, of Lisbon Falls, the Combat Paper workshop was a good opportunity to make art with those who can relate to his own experience as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. “I like the fact you’re doing it with other vets,” he said. “You don’t get that opportunity a lot.”

Grasse served in Vietnam, Germany and stateside from 1967 to 1968, and he’s never forgotten those years.

“I came back being very confused and upset,” Grasse said, calling that conflict a mistake and pointing to the 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese who died in it. “You’re a different person when you come back… Whether it’s been 60 years or six years, you’re still dealing with it.”

Grasse also is a poet and artist, and on a balmy May afternoon, one of his works was drying on a deck at Haystack.

He’d cut pieces of tin into the shapes of stars and stripes, and laid them under paper he’d made from a used pair of desert camo trousers he’d be given. Rust was slowly bleeding through, suggesting a minimalist, sepia version of Old Glory.

“It’s kind of an American flag,” Grasse said of his design. “I can take it or leave it.”

Another participant, 43-year-old Sarah Mess of N.J., expressed similar appreciation for the companionship offered through the Combat Paper workshop. As a surgical technician for the U.S. Army in the early 1990s, she was working in a field hospital in Somalia in 1993.

Afterwards, Mess said she experienced severe post traumatic stress disorder. And after U.S. troops started fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, she had trouble finding veterans programs that would accept vets who served in previous conflicts.

Then she discovered CPNJ. “It saved my life… literally,” Mess said of the experience. “It’s connected me with veterans in my community… We don’t have to be quiet. We don’t have to apologize.”

While she talked, Mess was creating blue paper out of old scrubs. Gesturing at her hands —covered in bluish pulp — and then her head, Mess added that she also liked the way papermaking “keeps you down here and not up here.”

She planned on printing a poem and the image of a frog on the paper, and then giving the work to a friend. That friend is a veteran who she met only a few years ago. He was the first “Somalia vet” she’d connected with since her service, Mess recalled, and the two broke down in tears when they first met.

Keefe, 34, the workshop’s organizer, is now an adjunct art instructor at Montclair State University in N.J.

He said the Combat Paper experience can be therapeutic for participants still grappling with the trauma of their wartime experiences, if that’s their goal, but it’s other things, too.

He enlisted in the Marines on September 22, 2001, and served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, primarily patrolling the Euphrates River. Now, images from his service — helmets, mortars, Iraqi children — infuse many of his prints and paintings.

By making Combat Paper, he said, “You reclaim [your service] into something new. It’s a platform to communicate your stories.”

Charles Eichacker

Charles Eichacker

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Charles Eichacker covers the towns of Bucksport, Orland, Castine, Verona Island, Penobscot, Brooksville and Dedham. When not working on stories, he likes books, beer and the outdoors. [email protected]

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