National Veterans Art Museum

I visited the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago’s South Loop last week on a Groupon – $5 admission! I ride my bike past it often and always tell myself I should stop in and check it out. Well, I finally did, and I’m glad I did it.

The Museum is on the 3rd floor and had three exhibitions up at the time. The one that most interested me was Intrusive Thoughts: An exhibition of work by veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror curated by Aaron Hughes. Its statement starts with a general definition of intrusion:

Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome, involuntary thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas that are upsetting or distressing and can be difficult to manage or eliminate.

One of my colleagues at SAIC, Liz Medoff, who also keeps a blog “Traumablog,” wrote a paper that I read last year on trauma that focused on this concept of intrusion. In the paper, she discussed psychologist Judith Herman’s work on trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and intrusion. Herman wrote a book called Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror and I found a psychology class posted online that discusses the book and the concept of intrusion. In this class site, intrusion is described as

Long after the danger is past, traumatized people relive the event as though it were continually recurring in the present. The trauma interrupts daily life.

Traumatic memories lack verbal narrative and context; rather they are encoded in the form of vivid sensations and images. They resemble the memories of young children.

Traumatized people find themselves reenacting some aspect of the trauma scene in disguised form without realizing what they’re doing.

Seen as a possible attempt at integration–to relive and master the overwhelming feelings of the traumatic moment(s).

Attempts to avoid reliving the trauma too often result in a narrowing of consciousness or withdrawal from engagement with others and an impoverished life. (all from http://www.uic.edu/classes/psych/psych270/PTSD.htm)

From this discussion, it seems like trauma is something that is experienced personally, privately, and is something that the person is supposed to eventually “get over.” However, the show Intrusive Thoughts at the National Veterans Art Museum aims to open up these experiences of trauma and its following intrusion to the public:

Although they are commonly unseen, there are silent signs of our current occupations in our local communities, households, and memories. This show features work by veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror that brings these signs from the shadows to the forefront and gives these traumas a voice in the political and cultural discussions of today.

One project at the Museum that I particularly responded to was the Warrior Writers Project. From the exhibition take-away: “The Warrior Writers Project brings together recent veterans and current service members to be in [a] creative community and utilize art-making processes to express themselves. There is a deep necessity for veterans to create when so much has been shattered and stolen.”

The project took up an entire wall with writing in charcoal right on the wall. Different stories by different authors intermingled and smeared together. I sat in the gallery and read these stories. Some were more easily distinguishable from others, but some overflowed their spatial boundaries and intruded upon other stories. Sometimes the jumble of letters was too hard to discern and I had to move on; an experience that reflects the confusion of time and memory that is part of the condition of intrusion. The writing bears witness to experiences that will never be forgotten. Some of the writers unveil things that were done in the name of war. Some talk about their sickness now with the traumas – sleeplessness, emptiness. Most, if not all, admit to their feelings of regret.

I am intrigued by the blank space left on the wall. How does this void speak to these traumas? What does it have to say? The blackness of the charcoal and its heaviness of words uncomfortably sinks below the lofty empty space. What is that space supposed to be filled with? More trauma? Or some hope?

A list of the Warrior Writers and titles of individual pieces:

Chantelle Bateman, The Woman I Used to Be; Maurice DeCaul, Shush and Cries; Kelly Dougherty, Women Wailing; Vince Emanuele, Deadly Days; Jen Hogg, The Sexual Politics of War; Jeff Key, Passion’s Hearts; Maggie Martin, Paradelle of the Haunted; Robynn Murray, A Picturesque Moment; Jennifer Pacanowski, The Sickness; Garett Reppenhagen, Duffel Bags; Cloy Richards, Blood, Sweat, and Tears; Leonard Shelton, Combat: What I Lost; Jon Turner, Lift Away Your Pain and April 2.

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