Combat Paper: Beating uniforms to a pulp

This week's NUVO cover was created using two pieces from the archives of the Combat Paper Project.

"I am sewn with the stolen threads of youth," reads a broadside in the Herron's Berkshire, Reese and Paul Galleries. It was created as part of the Combat Paper Project, and it effectively sums up the project's goals and philosophy.

A quick overview: Veterans bring their service uniforms to a papermaking workshop. With the help of trained artists, they cut up those uniforms, beat them into pulp, then form them into sheets of paper. They're then free to use that paper however they wish.

The project is setting up at the Herron School of Art + Design this week. Two workshops for veteran artists are already full, but all are welcome to a talk by project co-founder and veteran Drew Cameron at 6 p.m., Sept. 25 in Herron's Eskenazi Hall, and an exhibition of work featuring 60-plus pieces from the project runs Sept. 25 through Oct. 16.

They range from the abstract to the didactic. Some include words and familiar imagery. "But what really ties them together is that they're all so expressive," says Paula Katz, director and curator of the Herron Galleries.

Katz says the exhibition is the "right fit for this campus," with its art therapy graduate program (the only one of its kind in Midwest, she says) and a student body that includes the most veterans per capita of any in the state. "We try to do as many thematic shows as possible - and civic engagement is important to Herron and IUPUI," Katz says. "And it's an amazing project in terms of social entrepreneurship."

Herron book arts expert Karen Baldner has been plotting the Combat Paper Project's visit to IUPUI for about five years. Her own work aligns with the project in uncanny ways. She's interested in the "crossroads between community and trauma," and since 2000, has directed the Bloomington Breast Project, which invites women to make casts of their breasts, and then make copies of that cast using handmade paper, whose pulp is often made up of plant material picked from Baldner's backyard.

She says she "saw a similar caliber of work" in the Combat Paper Project, "one that's very significant for our times." The project's visit may be good for the student body, this kind of social practice art being "a very important thing to present to students wondering what they're going to do." And it appeals to Baldner on another level. She says she found it rewarding to work with non-artists on the Bloomington Breast Project, "seeing a transformation where people who aren't aware that art can change them being changed by art." The same forces are often at work in any given Combat Paper Project workshop.

Cameron talks about how the starkest, least polished work is often produced by newcomers whose experiences are fresh: "When someone's just leaving the service - and by happenstance they find themselves in the workshop - they end up printing more immediate things. Photographs, ideas. Even the color palettes can represent their anger. There's an immediate story, the stuff that's boiling over the top. The paper's a conduit, a way to develop a language."

For Cameron, even if some workshops are designed for vets, he's "super-keen on the idea of it being a community process, because all of us share in the war experience in a variety of different ways." The gallery show presents a variety of those war experiences, including recent work by Cameron himself. He says for his most recent work - a series of portraits - he's taken the fiber from one person's uniform and used it to create a large sheet of paper (as opposed to mixing various fibers or combining more than one piece of clothing).

Baldner hopes to learn from Cameron during his visit to Herron: "Reintegration is incredibly important; it's an ongoing process. Coming back from war is not something you just do. What is offered here is significant; reintegration is a real issue, and I think it becomes a societal issue. What I'm interested in is how it's effective."