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Wednesday, March 21,2012

Craft and catharsis

Visiting workshops transform military uniforms into paper

by Lawrence Cosentino

Lips zipped, jaw clenched, uniform in the attic — that’s still the way many veterans deal with their time in the military. Their stoicism suits civilians who’d rather not think about war.

The costs of America’s long wars, from depression and suicide among veterans and active duty members to civilians forgetting we’re in one, suggest the approach isn’t working well for either camp.

In 2007, artist and papermaker Drew Cameron took a different approach. He put on the desert camouflage uniform he wore in Iraq, cut it from his own body and turned the strips into paper, using ancient rag papermaking techniques.

He used the paper to create prints about his military experiences and shared the paper with other veterans, many of whom seized upon the idea and gave him more uniforms to work with.

He soon realized he had found a powerful mental hatchway between war and peace.

“You’re altering the way those threads have been arranged,” Cameron said. “It’s transformation.”

The idea evolved into the Combat Paper Project, a traveling workshop that comes to Michigan State University March 26 to30, with open studio sessions at Snyder Hall Tuesday and Thursday nights.

Veterans are invited to bring uniforms, but anyone can bring any fabric they would like to see turned into paper.

The unpredictable workshops range in mood from quiet craft session to emotional catharsis. 

“Some of the people at the workshops have significant trauma,” Cameron said. “That is fresh on their mind.”

If hackles rise at the prospect of publicly shredding military uniforms — and Cameron acknowledged they do — that’s only when people first hear about the project.

“For those who see the process, it’s never an issue,” he said. “In practice, it’s a commemoration, done with reverence. People tell their story, whatever their story is.” 

The Combat Paper Project started after Cameron returned from his deployment in Iraq in 2007 and took a paper-making workshop taught by paper and book artist Drew Matott in Burlington, Vt.

“I came into it as a craftsperson, interested in how to mimic the ways of old in contemporary fashion,” Cameron said.

For nearly a millennium, across a spectrum of world civilizations, paper has been made from rags. At their core, Combat Paper workshops are about papermaking: gathering shreds of fabric, pulping them with water and other chemicals in a “beater,” dipping a frame mold into the vat of goo to produce a thin sheet, and pressing and drying.

Making paper that way in 2012 may seem like a quaint exercise, but there was something about the shredding of the fabric, the water bath and the transformation into a blank slate that struck a chord with Cameron.

Cameron admired the work of John Risseeuw, a teacher at Arizona State University who creates politically charged prints on paper made from clothing worn by land mine victims. Another influence was Eric Avery, an activist Texas doctor who carves prints with his scalpel to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and third-world health issues.

Obviously, the most significant raw material in Cameron’s life was his Army uniform.

“At the beginning, it was the perfect melding of two things: my passion for paper making and the stuff I was going through coming back from the military and wanting to do something positive from it,” he said.

When Cameron gave sheets from his first batch of combat paper to other veterans, he was surprised at the response. Several veterans asked him to do the same with their uniforms and others asked him how to do it for themselves.

“It quickly turned into informal workshops, long weekends where me and my friends were taking our uniforms and making them into paper,” Cameron said.

With grant support, Cameron and Matott developed a traveling workshop, including an affordable paper making mill.

They held their first workshop, at St. Lawrence University in New York on Armistice Day 2007. Since then, they’ve held dozens of workshops where hundreds of veterans have either shredded their uniforms or given him uniforms to make into paper.

The idea has branched into civilian applications too.

“Someone approached me about wanting to do that with his wedding tuxedo after a terrible divorce,” Cameron said. “I was, of course, happy to facilitate.”

A related non-profit venture, Combat Paper Press, has published four limited-edition books by veterans, from poetry to veterans’ stories. Along the way, Combat Paper has spawned four independent paper mills around the country. 

Stephanie Grazier of MSU’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, said the college is “proud and honored” to host the workshop. In addition to the public workshops, Cameron and Matott will visit five MSU classes and give a talk at the March 26 Michigan National Guard conference at the Kellogg Center.

“We’re trying to show students that art can be activism, and there are other ways to be an artist in the world,” Grazier said. “You don’t have to go into academia to be useful.” 

Combat Paper Project

Open studios

7-10 p.m. Tuesday, March 27 and Thursday, March 29

Lower level, Snyder Hall, MSU

Open to veterans and general public

Free

(517) 355-0210

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