Trench art is a category of collectible decorative objects made by soldiers, on and off the battlefield, and civilians with access to the detritus of war. Brass shell casings from American, French, British, German, and Armenian artillery in World War I were engraved with scenes of battle and then used as flower vases. Prisoners of war turned mutton bones into napkin rings, and visitors to battle sites scavenged scraps of fabric, discarded cigarette lighters, military buttons, and other remnants as souvenirs and then created craft items out of them. Trench art, some of which is quite valuable, can be found at flea markets and estate sales, having spent decades in family attics, the significance of the pieces lost to time or purposely put away in order to forget.
One of the foremost collectors of trench art, Jane Kimball, lives in Santa Fe. She is the author of Trench Art: An Illustrated History (Silverpenny Press, 2004), and a complementary website, www.trenchart.org. Pieces of her collection are included in a new installation by Allison Smith, Source Materiel, opening at 6 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 19, at the Muñoz Waxman Gallery at the Center for Contemporary Arts. Smith, chair of the sculpture program at California College of the Arts, works in public practice rooted in American history, often focusing on military reenactment. Rudiments of Fife & Drum, a 2013 performance held in conjunction with the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, included a costumed band in parade playing snare drums she made from wood, calfskin, linen, brass, and leather. For Source Materiel, she will use trench art made from bombshells, bullet casings, cannonballs, shrapnel fragments, airplane propellers, and fallen zeppelins, as well as quilted utility blankets with images on them inspired by objects in Kimball’s collection, and a sculptural pile of crates and wood scaffolding that replicate World War I- era materials. The project looks at the intersection of art and craft as well as that of soldier and artist, utilizing “materiel,” a French word meaning hardware and equipment that refers to military supplies.
“Trench art isn’t something you usually see in military museums or art museums. It’s sort of fallen through the cracks of decorative art history,” Smith told Pasatiempo. “World War I was the first war where weapons were being mass- produced, and the level of destruction created by these bombs and other weapons was really something that was unimaginable prior to World War I.” Smith said that women who worked in munitions factories would often include love notes in the bombs sent to soldiers on the front lines, and soldiers would in turn engrave messages to the enemy on them. “The battlefields were littered with thousands of empty shell casings. They were supposed to collect these so that they could be recycled into new bombs, but there was a practice that started, literally in the trenches, of hiding the bombshells and then in the off-hours, making them into art.” — J. L.
Trench art made of soup bones in prisoner-of-war camps during WWI; top right, 37mm French shell casing with an attached rifle cartridge and bullet applied to each side; collection of Jane Kimball