Armistice Day, once a widely celebrated holiday commemorating the close of World War I, has decidedly fallen out of fashion (well, except in France and Belgium). The name itself was jettisoned following World War II in favor of Veterans Day, in order to better celebrate veterans of all wars. That change was borne out of an admirably egalitarian sentiment. But no longer do we celebrate peace — the end to war, and even the notion of an end to all war — on the same day that we recognize vets.
But just as one might curse Columbus on his day for his wholesale dismemberment of those whom he figured just had to be West Indians, it stands to reason that Armistice Day can be reclaimed for our own ends. Thus, we have what bodes to be one of Spirit & Place’s most outstanding events — Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day: Healing through the Humanities, an afternoon’s worth of talks, activities and conversation devoted to better understanding the relationship between creativity and the soldier, with a little extra attention to one veteran and native son, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Vonnegut, whose birthday just happens to be Nov. 11, returned again and again to the battlefield in his work. His Slaughterhouse-Five might be said to mimic in its structure the experience of a veteran suffering from PTSD. It roams from past to present, with seemingly little cause and effect. One moment, a middle-aged, befuddled Billy Pilgrim is sitting in his basement, his feet turning blue from the cold; the next he’s trudging through the cold, a chaplain’s assistant captured by the Germans.
It’s not hard to find other examples in Vonnegut’s work: His Bluebeard ends as its narrator shows off a mural that reproduces a single, obsessively-recalled scene from World War II, a memory from his days spent with other freed prisoners of war abandoned to their devices in the German countryside. Each detail is meticulously rendered, every facial expression, maybe every blade of grass, in immersive, larger-than-life form.
Those writings, according to Kurt’s son Mark Vonnegut, who will take part in Sunday’s event, are a record of his father’s attempt to process his memories. “When I look at my father, he was really a privileged, smart aleck kid before he went through what he went through,” Vonnegut, a pediatrician, said from his Massachusetts office. “In coming to terms with what he went through as a prisoner of war and everything else, he grew up in a hurry, and he really made a lot of it, and I think that’s a good model of 'don’t let it get you down.’"
While Vonnegut is concerned that a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder might be used to invalidate veterans by labeling them as something less than sane, he emphasized that his father “overcame what would have been called PTSD by being involved in the arts, and I think that works for other people, as well.”
And it’s those other people who are paramount for Vonnegut, who noted that Sunday’s event ought not to be merely about his Dad, but “should be controlled and determined by the vets.” That’s part and parcel of Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Executive Director Julia Whitehead’s vision for the library as an organization that not only advocates for Vonnegut’s legacy, but also for those causes to which Vonnegut gave full-throated support via his work.
It’s safe to call this one of the library’s biggest programs yet, though Whitehead would likely hasten to add that the library isn’t the only presenting organization (several veterans groups are on that list, as well as Indiana Humanities, the Indiana National Guard and WFYI). Participants include Dr. Jonathan Shay, who has devoted much of working life to studying PTSD and help-ing vets to heal wounds, both internal and external; Steve Inskeep, the NPR host, who will interview Shay; and Ehren Tool, an Iraq war soldier turned ceramicist who has given away over 14,000 cups that bear some manner of war-related imagery. The day begins with keynote speech by Shay, before breaking into workshops and closing with a panel discussion and performance.
While “healing” is a key part of the event’s title, it’s interesting to note that the Berkeley, Calif.-based Tool, who plans to create hundreds of cups while visiting Indianapolis, wasn’t initially compelled by the notion that art, in and of itself, can have a cathartic effect. “But I had this show in Los Angeles, and I made 1200 cups, and I laid them all out to make sure I made the right kind of shelves and things,” he said in a phone interview. “Looking at 1200 cups I thought, 'Oh, shit,’ I might have crossed that line between productive and obsessive.”
Tool freely gives his cups away to people from all walks of life, notably fellow vets and family members of vets. “Yeah, I’m not a religious person but as for vocation, what God calls you to do — for me, it’s making these fucking cups!” he said. “If I was a doctor, I’d volunteer for Doctors Without Borders. But cups is what I make, and the message in the cups is what I believe in. It seems a very small and very impotent thing to do, but it’s what I believe in.”
Compared rather unfairly to Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in Full Metal Jacket in one profile, Tool nonetheless looks more like the stereotype of a craftsman and artisan than a rarefied fine artist. He calls himself an “object maker,” notes that he’s a “mediocre potter” who’s happy to shirk the responsibility of having to defend his work in the “true art world,” and is aware of the double-edged nature of fame: He abandoned a project that saw him writing letters and sending cups to those somehow connected to the the U.S. military because he found that some correspondents looked him up on Google before replying.
“A lot of the work I make now is for specific people: Fathers or sons or whoever,” he said, noting that he doesn’t stamp any sort of military insignias on his cups unless supplied by a vet’s family. “I don’t show that to anybody; I don’t even photograph a lot of work that I make for people like that. It’s the best work I’ve made! But it’s not mine, almost. As an object maker, making something for somebody that really appreciates it is the goal. I made some cups for this woman in Los Angeles, and I thought she was gonna drop them; she started crying right away, and it looked like she got weak in the knees. It’s an honor and a privilege to be part of that person’s life.”
“It’s cool to see those cups as part of an exhibition, on the wall, that sort of shit, but it’s so much cooler for me to think about them traveling through time and space, from hand to hand,” he continued. “You get a cup, and because somebody loves you, you pass that to them, and they hold on to that cup because it was special to you. That’s magic to me, to think that I put it in your hand, and you put it in someone else’s, and then, 500,000 to a million years later if somebody’s around, they pick it up and have the same experience. It takes some of the pressure off me too because I have 500,000 to 1 million years to find an audience for my work, right?”
[A+E] Sports + Recreation
[A+E] Festivals + Parties
[A+E] Classical Music
[A+E] Festivals + Parties, DJs + Dancing, Rock, Hip-hop
[A+E] Sports + Recreation