Show spot­lights ex­pe­ri­ences of vet­er­ans

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY ALYSSA PRESSLER Arts cor­re­spon­dent

Vet­er­ans are of­ten “pitied or cel­e­brated as heroes,” says Sonya Pfeif­fer, owner of Elder Gallery of Con­tem­po­rary Art. She’s hop­ing Elder’s up­com­ing mul­ti­me­dia ex­hi­bi­tion, “Vi­car­i­ous,” will chal­lenge these stereo­types.

“Vi­car­i­ous” will fea­ture artists who are vet­er­ans or are ex­plor­ing the vet­eran ex­pe­ri­ence through av­enues, in­clud­ing sculp­ture, char­coal draw­ings, a doc­u­men­tary and a vir­tual re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence.

The goal, Pfeif­fer said, is to cre­ate em­pa­thy, not sym­pa­thy, by en­cour­ag­ing un­com­fort­able con­ver­sa­tions among those who at­tend the show. The idea for the show started be­fore she took full own­er­ship of the gallery last spring, when she met with San Fran­cisco artist Dan Bay­less.

“He was work­ing on a brand new se­ries where he was sit­ting down with vet­er­ans who were try­ing to read­just to life out­side of the mil­i­tary,” Pfeif­fer said. “He felt as though this was an ex­pe­ri­ence he couldn’t iden­tify with, but he wanted to un­der­stand.”

His com­mit­ment to ex­plor­ing the com­bat vet­eran ex­pe­ri­ence aligns with what Pfeif­fer has said she wants to do with the gallery: Use art as an av­enue for dis­cus­sion on di­vi­sive top­ics.

“I think we can take these un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tions or top­ics and use some­thing like art to talk about it in a non­threat­en­ing way,” she said.

The show will aim to do this by in­clud­ing artists both with and with­out the vet­eran ex­peri-

ence, and by host­ing events through­out Novem­ber. Most of the art pieces will be on dis­play through Jan. 5.

These in­cludes Bay­less’ por­traits of com­bat vets, which he said he had been think­ing about for sev­eral years be­fore mak­ing the jump, af­ter speak­ing with Pfeif­fer. His back­ground is in jew­elry mak­ing and paint­ing in sev­eral styles. But this se­ries, he said, is his most emotional.

“You hear their sto­ries and if you’re at all em­pa­thetic, it’s dif­fi­cult to not ab­sorb some of that,” he said. “You see that the heroic part of it isn’t just when they’re in com­bat, it’s also when they come back and they’re try­ing to put their lives to­gether.”

Em­pa­thy is the com­mon thread, but the vir­tual re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing cre­ated by Wheel­house Me­dia and Think Broader foun­da­tion espe­cially fo­cuses on this. Be­cause of the equip­ment nec­es­sary for this piece, it will be on dis­play only on spe­cific days.

The piece will take view­ers through a three­minute, day-in-the-life of a for­mer com­bat vet­eran who has lost his legs. The idea is to not only show gallery-go­ers the chal­lenges as­so­ci­ated with am­pu­ta­tion, but to show the dig­nity in de­vel­op­ing a new nor­mal, said di­rec­tor and Wheel­house Me­dia co-founder John Allred.

The work is based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of lo­cal vet­eran Dale Beatty, who helped con­ceive the film but died this year. Allred said the piece be­gins with footage from the ac­tual ex­plo­sion that took Beatty’s legs, be­fore mov­ing into ev­ery­day chal­lenges, like get­ting a mug from the top shelf in a kitchen or go­ing to the bath­room.

Paula Kranz Broad­well, CEO and co-founder of Think Broader and a vet­eran, said she and Wheel­house Me­dia have part­nered for a se­ries of em­pa­thetic videos, and that re­search sug­gests these can help bridge gaps in un­der­stand­ing.

“We tend to think of wounded war­riors as dam­aged goods, but they can over­come and have a strong sense of re­silience,” she said. “We try to fo­cus on the pos­i­tive in the video.”

“Vi­car­i­ous” will also of­fer more tra­di­tional art­work cre­ated by vet­er­ans.

One ex­am­ple is Wil Bos­byshell, a Char­lot­te­based artist and vet­eran, who will show sev­eral works from his “Weight” se­ries, a col­lec­tion of 6foot-tall char­coal draw­ings de­pict­ing women car­ry­ing boul­ders – so­ci­etal ex­pec­ta­tions, he said.

His in­spi­ra­tion came dur­ing the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis and af­ter the birth of his child, he said. Bos­byshell said he no­ticed that peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly women, seemed to be deal­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ately with pres­sure. It’s not di­rectly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of his mil­i­tary ser­vice, he said, but his ex­pe­ri­ences in­flu­enced the se­ries.

“I think vet­er­ans get pi­geon­holed in so­ci­ety; we stick them in one thing,” Bos­byshell said. “So we should al­ways be stuck in that time in the mil­i­tary and de­pict­ing boots or com­bat sit­u­a­tions. I’m an artist who is a vet­eran, but I’m past that.”

Other com­bat vet­er­ans’ art­work de­picts the heal­ing process they went through as they re­turned home and dealt with post­trau­matic stress: Four dif­fer­ent artists cre­ated work through CreatiVets, a non­profit that helps vet­er­ans work through emo­tions us­ing art and song­writ­ing.

“We try to find vet­er­ans that have not ex­per­i­mented with arts and mu­sic,” said Gar­rett Au­gustyn, CreatiVets art di­rec­tor. “The thought to make art or ex­press your­self vis­ual- ly doesn’t al­ways come to mind, but when it does, it helps.”

Also in­cluded is Cal­i­for­nia artist Michael Aschen­bren­ner, a Viet­nam vet­eran who works with glass to cre­ate bro­ken bones, a di­rect cor­re­la­tion with his time as a med­i­cal field tech­ni­cian dur­ing the war.

A doc­u­men­tary about Char­lotte-based Navy vet­eran Mary Wil­son’s chal­lenges in re­turn­ing to civil­ian life, cre­ated by Susie Films, will be shown at the gallery. Then it will be do­nated to Vet­er­ans Bridge Home to use; it’s a net­work that helps con­nect vets with ser­vices, from help find­ing hous­ing to men­tal health ser­vices. Pfeif­fer said a por­tion of the gallery pro­ceeds will also be do­nated to the non­profit.

Pfeif­fer hopes peo­ple leave the ex­hi­bi­tion with a new un­der­stand­ing of vet­er­ans.

“It’s easy to be in a space and look at some­thing, but it’s much harder to walk out on that space and act on that,” she said. “That’s my hope: that it en­cour­ages di­a­logue, that it en­cour­ages ask­ing ques­tions, it en­cour­ages this sense of paus­ing and sit­ting with things that are un­com­fort­able and find­ing a way to sen­si­tively nav­i­gate that.”

This story is part of an Observer un­der­writ­ing project with the Thrive Cam­paign for the Arts, sup­port­ing arts jour­nal­ism in Char­lotte.

Cour­tesy of Elder Gallery of Con­tem­po­rary Art

“Dam­aged Bone Se­ries” by Michael Aschen­bren­ner is made of glass and steel.

Elder Gallery of Con­tem­po­rary Art

“Weight 6” is by Wil Bos­byshell.

Elder Gallery of Con­tem­po­rary Art

“Lt. Col. Nina D’Am­ato USMC” is by Dan Bay­less.

Elder Gallery of Con­tem­po­rary Art

“Capt. Karl Kadon USMC” is by Dan Bay­less.

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