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Veterans Transform Uniforms Into Art
The Combat Paper Project turns old military uniforms into paper for artwork about the military experience. The UA will host Combat Paper workshops and an exhibit to celebrate Veterans Day.
In Ricardo Pereyda’s closet hang several reminders of the six years he spent in the United States Army, and of the 13 months he spent on the ground in Iraq. They are uniforms that saw the blood, sweat and tears of basic training, service in the Military Police Corps and, ultimately, combat.
Next week, Pereyda, a University of Arizona senior and president of the UA chapter of Student Veterans of America, will join with other veterans in the Tucson community to give some of their retired uniforms new life as works of art.
As part of a weeklong celebration of Veterans Day, the UA’s SVA chapter is hosting a series of papermaking workshops Nov. 12-16 where local veterans or their loved ones can transform old military uniforms into canvases for artwork expressing their feelings about the military experience.
A selection of finished pieces will be displayed on Nov. 17 in the Kachina Lounge at the Student Union Memorial Center from noon-6 p.m.
The workshops, to be held at the UA Book Art and Letterpress Lab, are open to all, veterans and non-veterans. They will be led by Drew Cameron, a San-Francisco-based artist, Army veteran and director of the national Combat Paper Project, which began in 2007 and has since traveled to 24 U.S. states and five countries.
Cameron started the Combat Paper Project after studying the traditional craft of rag papermaking. Having served in the military for six years, he had the idea to use old uniforms to create paper with a deeply personal meaning.
“This is about using the creative art practice as a means to share and investigate the military experience,” he said.
During the workshops, uniforms are cut up and then literally beaten to a pulp in a machine known as a Hollander beater. The pulp is then formed, by hand, into paper that can be used to create items like personal journals, masks or canvases for writings and images.
A single pound of fabric can produce up to 30 sheets of paper, Cameron said.
Pereyda, who is majoring in public management and policy with an emphasis on criminal justice, learned about the Combat Paper Project just as he was preparing to donate a duffel bag full of old uniforms. He now plans to make art from five of his uniforms, as well as two trench coats worn by his late grandfathers, one who served in Korea and the other in World War II. With the coats, he will create journals to give to his father and grandmother to fill with memories. With his own uniforms, he plans to create canvases for photographs and poetry he’s written.
“It’s meant to express your experience in the military, in combat, and in coming home and transitioning back into society,” he said.
Pereyda, 30, warns some of the pieces could contain language or images not appropriate for all audiences.
“It’s not all going to be nice; it’s not all going to be politically correct. There’s going to be raw emotion there,” he said.
Natasha Crawford, an Army veteran and UA senior majoring in nutritional sciences, plans to transform a few of her uniforms into backdrops for poems, drawings and photographs.
Crawford, 30, was deployed to Iraq three times during her nine years in the Army.
“It changes you, sometimes for the good, and sometimes not for the good, but it will always be a part of us, those memories of what we did,” said Crawford, who acts as historian for the UA SVA, which is housed in the University’s V.E.T.S. (Veterans Education and Transition Services) office.
Like Pereyda, Crawford plans to honor her veteran grandfather by copying a photograph of him onto uniform-paper to give to her grandmother.
Pereyda and Crawford said they hope the Combat Paper exhibit, which is free and open to the public, will give the community a better understanding of who veterans are and what they’ve been through.
“We’ve been forever changed through what we’ve seen and what we’ve done,” Pereyda said. “A lot of people say they support our troops, but what do they really know about our struggles?”
However, the students point out that their military service, while significant, does not solely define who they are.
“We were soldiers; we’re veterans now, but we’re also students now, and we’re transitioning to become professionals,” Crawford said.
Pereyda said he hopes the Combat Paper Project can help other veterans process some of their experiences with the military and returning home.
“In my mind, art is therapy,” he said. “I’m looking to transform some of my negative experiences in combat and my struggles to transition back into society and academia and express that through art. If this helps someone else do the same and start to heal from those wounds, in my mind the project will be a success.”