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Soldiers as artists
Of course, not all art about war — not even all art about war made by soldiers — need have cathartic ends. Renee Klish, retired art curator for the U.S. Army, will talk Sunday about Army-commissioned artwork created since World War I, when a group of soldier-artists were first sent to the field with the mission, according to Klish, to “paint what you see, in whatever style and whatever medium, as long as it’s recognizable.”
They were charged to create art as reportage, with the Army also keeping an eye toward its propaganda value. Klish distinguishes this body of work, created by artists employed by all branches of the armed forces up to present, from that created by soldiers years after their war experiences. Not that the artists didn’t create work with significant emotional impact, including graphic pieces that show the Army in less than the greatest light.
On the whole the collection is valuable, according to Klish, because it shows “the everyday life of the soldier. You don’t have just war scenes. You also have scenes in camp, of soldiers interacting with civilians. You have every aspect, from the mundane to the battle.” Some great talents were engaged by the Army, which still maintains a permanent post of soldier-artist, over the years.
“I love the collection, which is kind of ironic because I’m pretty much a pacifist,” Klish said. “You really have the creme de la creme of mid-century artists, a lot of people who came from the WPA program. I had curators come from other museums and their jaws dropped. That’s why I called the collection the greatest collection that nobody had ever heard of.”
So It Goes
The library’s new literary journal, So It Goes, the first issue of which should appear Nov. 11 (assuming Hurricane Sandy’s interruptions haven’t interrupted the supply chain), may likewise offer possible discoveries or re-discoveries for the reader looking to better understand war and the soldier’s life.
J.T. Whitehead, the journal’s editor and husband to Julia Whitehead, the library’s executive director, saw So It Goes through an incredibly short gestation period. The journal’s team had about two months to put the journal together after a grant was received in mid-July. One month was spent collecting material, the other in dealing with proofing, editing, layout and all other concerns.
“The first-ever reader of So It Goes told us that we should never (have to) explain to anyone that we did this thing in one month, that it stands on its own, that it needs no excuses,” Whitehead said. “And I like to think that’s true, but the chaos that accompanied the shrunken time-line is one of the things that makes the story behind the magazine interesting, I think.”
The journal draws from four groups of contributors. First there were the “dead people,” some of whose works were drawn from Whitehead’s personal anthology, a collection Whitehead has compiled over the past two decades, typing up quotes or poems that catch his fancy.
“Second, I went for new work from living poets, and for that I used my own personal anthology again, but I also looked through all of the contributors copies that magazines send you when they publish your poetry,” Whitehead said. He found work by Donald W. Baker, Robert Bly, Hayden Carruth, James Norcliffe, David Pointer using his anthology; and Marge Piercy, Robert West, Gerald Locklin, Julie Kane, A.D. Winans, Elana Bell rose to the top by looking through those free journals. Some of the living poets contributed new work; Whitehead says there are about 40 new works and 25 previously published work included in the first issues.
Then Whitehead drew from friends of Vonnegut and friends of the library, soliciting work from Dan Wakefield, James Alexander Thom, Morley Safer, and Sidney Offit. And finally he pulled from unsolicited manuscripts sent to the library, some of which turned out to be excellent.
Whitehead said the idea had been out there to create literary magazine from the library’s founding — and maybe even before that, given that he and his wife, who met as English students in college, had always dreamed of founding some kind of little magazine. Julia Whitehead said she was concerned about how it would look for her husband to be the editor, but that he was simply the best person for the job. J.T. Whitehead notes that, given that he has 120 poems in print, was a Pushcart nominee and knows the territory, he was uniquely poised to jump into the scene and connect with fellow writers and editors.
But Whitehead (J.T. this time, though Julia would spread this love) is quick to give credit to his collaborators, including production designer Shannon Bahler and designer Sara Lunsford. Copies will be available for $12, more than likely by Nov. 10, when the library will host an book launch for the new Dan Wakefield-edited collection of Vonnegut’s letters. Veterans will get a free copy on at the Nov. 11 event, as will all contributors.