Exquisite Gorge 10: The Truth-Teller

As Saturday's finale of Maryhill Museum's Columbia Gorge print project approaches, artist and veteran Drew Cameron talks about art and war.


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


“Truth-telling is often very unpleasant when it contradicts the opinion of the majority. Telling the truth can easily lead to a minority position and exposes the truth-teller to the pressure of the majority. To resist this pressure demands courage. Therefore, courage is not only the virtue of political action par excellence, but also quite evidently the virtue of truth-telling. To tell an inconvenient truth is not only a statement, but also an action.”

From: When Telling the Truth Demands Courage Volume 1 of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College. (2018)

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Courage was visible all around me during my recent visit to the Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum in The Dalles, right next to American Legion Post 19. It was documented in displays about those who have served our country, both on active duty and back home supporting the soldiers during the many wars in recent history, displays that recalled stories of loyalty and sacrifice.

Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum, The Dalles, Oregon

There was the courage of museum director Lisa Commander, recently and unexpectedly widowed, to establish and run a small museum (it opened but two years ago) in times as economically precarious as these.

Lisa Commander, Museum Director

The idea for the museum had been under discussion with Jean Maxwell from the Advisory Board of the non-profit Mid-Columbia Veteran Memorial Committee and folks from Legion Post 19 who had space. It took form when Commander, who holds an MA in International Policy Studies from the Monterey Institute for International Studies (now part of Middlebury,) inherited a large collection of military memorabilia from her uncle Tony Commander, a highly decorated Air Force veteran. During two tours in Vietnam he sustained multiple cancers as a pilot flying directly behind the Agent Orange dispense units.

Artifacts from the collection. The next exhibit, in conjunction with the Big Read/Hispanic History Month of the Wasco County Library, will focus on Latinos in uniform. If you have pertinent materials for loan, please contact the museum.

There was the courage of a community committed to making this work; they included Oliver’s Floor Covering, which donated new flooring; The Dalles/Wasco County Library, which provided bookshelves; J.C. Penney’s provision of several mannequins, now dressed in military uniforms; Stratton Insurance with several file cabinets; and Northern Wasco County Public Utility District for $15,000 to pay for renovations such as sheet rock, lighting, new air conditioning, and construction of a conference room.

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AND THEN THERE WAS THE COURAGE OF THE TRUTH-TELLER. I met artist, papermaker and printmaker Drew Cameron in my perpetual quest to interview all the artists involved in the Exquisite Gorge project by Maryhill Museum, literally three days before scheduled printing day of a series of wood blocks that depict assorted sections of the Columbia River Gorge. It will take place on Saturday, Aug. 24, in the museum’s parking lot, when the wood blocks will be joined and a steamroller will run over them to create a 66-foot-long print.

Drew Cameron, artist, papermaker, co-founder of Combat Paper and veteran.

THE EXQUISITE GORGE PROJECT

“…a collaborative printmaking project featuring 11 artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette River confluence to the Snake River confluence to create a massive 66-foot steamrolled print. The unique project takes inspiration from the Surrealist art practice known as exquisite corpse. In the most well-known exquisite corpse drawing game, participants took turns creating sections of a body on a piece of paper folded to hide each successive contribution. When unfolded, the whole body is revealed. In the case of The Exquisite Gorge Project, the Columbia River will become the ‘body’ that unifies the collaboration between artists and communities, revealing a flowing 66-foot work that tells 10 conceptual stories of the Columbia River and its people.”


 Louise Palermo, Curator of Education at Maryhill Museum


Drew Cameron was born on a military base in New Hampshire into a military family. He enlisted at age 18, fresh out of high school, where recruiters had found easy pickings, given that many of the kids were familiar enough with military culture that they did not find it alien or scary. He was on active duty during 9/11, preparing for Field Artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Fort Sill was established as an observation camp in Indian Territory and later served as an internment camp for members of the Native American nations displaced from their land. It is now an elite training facility.

Sharpening carving tools.

New Hampshire’s motto of “Live Free or Die” was engraved on a Zippo Lighter given to him by his brother when he was deployed to Iraq, and for years it was his most cherished possession. When Cameron left the service after the war, as did the majority of soldiers, with only a few seeking longterm careers in the military, he earned degrees in forestry and ecology at the University of Vermont. His interests turned to paper-making, and he co-founded Combat Paper, a collaborative project by veterans where paper is hand-made from donated old military uniforms. His prints, portfolios and books are housed in more than 40 public collections, including the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He travels around the country for workshops and special projects. His most recent exhibition was in Chicago in the context of the National Veterans Art Museum’s Triennial this summer.

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THE NAME OF THE EXHIBIT WAS CONFLICT EXCHANGE (CX). It was intended to facilitate exchange and interaction between (former) soldiers and civilians to help understand the unresolved issues of post-conflict eras. Cameron had a platform designed like a small store, where he made paper on-site and sold the hand-made books to raise funds going toward the restoration of the destroyed College of Fine Arts Library at the post-conflict University of Baghdad.

Bandaids prevent hot spots from continuous carving.

Communicating with the public about the implications of war is of utmost importance to Cameron. In direct conversation or through his art, the focus is on meaning and the use of symbolism to shape meaning in ways that often obscure the underlying factual truth. So much of veteran art has been interpreted as acts of healing, of working through trauma, of offering a subjective truth. This completely ignores, according to the artist, that these traumas are also a political phenomenon, often aggravated by the fact that service(wo)men feel that their war engagement is not justified, but unalterable given their devotion to being a professional soldier. Anti-war activism in all its forms is only possible once you have left the military.

Cameron’s work on hand made paper derived from donated uniforms.

Iraq, for example, was popularly referred to in the Army as “the Wild West,” with a tacit understanding that that implied not only the violent ways of interaction associated with the original Wild West, but also the causes for the engagement, then and now: killing people for land or the resources buried in that land. The artist wants to bear witness and have us, too, look at the reality of war rather than look away. Paper made from uniforms reminds us of the dual role experienced by our soldiers clad in those now recycled fatigues: victim and perpetrator; the ones who are maimed or maim others. Paper is fragile, just like the physical and psychological health of so many veterans, just like those uncountable lives lost in wars, on all sides.

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THE WOODBLOCK (SECTION 9, COVERING ROUGHLY the area from Roosevelt/Arlington to Hat Rock) that I saw emerge under Cameron’s carving knife bears witness, indeed. It hints at what we find once we remove the flag, represented by stars on lifted folds: the physical bodies of those buried underneath. The river is symbolically reflecting parts of humanity – namely hands belonging to members of The Dalles’ community of veterans. The design reminds us of the physical existence of bodies that war threatens. The board is thus at once local, referring to the sacrifice made by so many in these areas, and also universal, asking us to look under the surface for the implications of what humans are doing to each other. Representing the river through human features also points to the urgent notion that we are part of it: Tending to it means protecting ourselves.

Stars representing the flag, folds being lifted to unveil what’s underneath.
Hands photographed and modeled by local veterans.

Cameron quoted Howard Zinn’s famous dictum about the flag: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”  It’s from Zinn’s 1986 essay “Terrorism Over Tripoli,” and is even more powerful when you look up the whole thing: [Those] who defend this, tried to wrap their moral nakedness in the American flag.  But it dishonors the flag to wave it proudly over the killing of a college student, or a child sleeping in a crib. There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable.” Honor and dishonor, use and abuse, can all be linked to the flag. Veterans who have become anti-war activists know this better than the rest of us, but that does not excuse the rest of us from not trying to understand the issues.

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Who says what is…always tells a story, and in this story the particular facts lose their contingency and acquire some humanly comprehensible meaning.” This was written by Hannah Arendt in her essay “Truth and Politics” from her Denktagebuch (Diary of Thoughts) 1950–1973.

THE COLUMBIA GORGE VETERANS MUSEUM is telling a story of what is and was: a story of service. More than 10,000 veterans live in the combined Oregon counties of Wasco, Sherman, Hood River and, across the Columbia River in Washington state, in Klickitat and Skamania. They are over-proportionally decorated for their courage. Whether they desired to enlist or did so for lack of better options, there is meaning to what they did. Whether we agree with the decision to go to war or not, their suffering deserves our unequivocal support.

Cameron’s work as an artist, wood-block carving, paper-making and all, tells a story. There is courage in the fact that the story deviates from the institutionalized narratives around war, soldiering and glory. His narrative provides meaning centered on the economically and politically driven causes of war, the reach of war’s consequences beyond the veterans themselves, into their families and networks, and across time, with decades needed to recover from destruction both on a personal and a public level.

Artwork by Drew Cameron.

My children have several cousins who were on active duty in the U.S. Army until two years ago. I am the granddaughter of a man who fought in WW I, the daughter and daughter-in-law of men who fought in WW II (on opposite sides, no less). The story of war was smothered in alcohol and silence by one, and remembered in eagerly anticipated reunions of his U.S. Navy crew by the other. War is formative. War is futile. War is horror. These diverse narratives provide insight to those of us who live once-removed from the experience.

During our conversation I was repeatedly thinking of a book by Berthold Brecht, Die Kriegs Fibel (War ABC) published in 1955in which he juxtaposed photographs from the fascist reign with short poems while he was in exile in Denmark. Hans Eissler later set it to music – here is a link that has an English translation of the German songs and the photographs. One enhanced the other in ways that are hard to describe. I found this also to be true for watching the visual carving patterns emerge while listening to the thoughts behind it.

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I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN. IT HAPPENED AGAIN. Every time I left after visiting an artist – 10 times in all – I thought: “It can’t get more interesting than that.” Wrong, every time. I am not talking about the quality of the carvings. I am not talking about the beauty of the boards – I found them all appealing and creative in their own ways.

I am talking about the window into the thought processes of these diverse printmakers, the way their art is shaped by their beliefs, their experiences, their hopes, their fears. They all share a deep commitment to protecting our world from destruction and exploitation; to being stewards of the land however removed and however tangential the approach. Some are lyrical, some are didactic. Some spread happy optimism or excited curiosity; others stand by their worries, bordering on despair. All of their stories convey what IS – and thus create humanly comprehensible meanings.

And print day will get even MORE interesting that that!

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I LEFT THE DALLES IN POURING RAIN, dark skies, barely able to see the road even with the windshield wipers on high. Jefferson Starship’s If only you believed in miracles blared on Spotify. Maybe the art, I thought, once consolidated into one long print representing our beloved, endangered river, will produce a miracle: a successful call to action heard and followed by us all.


This is Part 10 in a series of stories and photographs by Friderike Heuer, published on Oregon ArtsWatch in collaboration with Heuer and her web site YDP – Your Daily PictureIt is also published on YDP, on Friday, August 23, 2019.

  • Exquisite Gorge 1: Getting Started. Introduction to the project, and meeting with artist and master printmaker Jane Pagliarulo of Portland’s Atelier Meridian.
  • Exquisite Gorge 2: The Witness. Printmaker and muralist Roger Peet conducts a community woodblock-carving session in the courtyard of the Goldendale Public Library.
  • Exquisite Gorge 3: The Listener. Arkansas printmaker Neal Harrington mixes ospreys and computer mice in The Dalles.
  • Exquisite Gorge 4: The Bee Maven. In White Salmon, artist Steven Muñoz engages a hive of community creativity to make art highlighting the danger of ecological collapse.
  • Exquisite Gorge 5: The Alchemist. In snippets of words, sounds, slivers, shreds, scraps, slices, and fragments, artist Mike McGovern transforms a stretch of the Columbia.
  • Exquisite Gorge 6: The Guardian. Greg Archuleta, artist and cultural policy analyst for the Grand Ronde tribes, links past and future in the print project.
  • Exquisite Gorge 7: The Explorer. Printmaker and teacher Molly Gaston Johnston follows Lewis & Clark’s westward path to make her mark on Maryhill’s Columbia River project.
  • Exquisite Gorge 8 & 9: The Map Makers. Two teams – Matthew Johnston and Tammy Jo Wilson, from Troutdale to the Bridge of the Gods; Sarah Finger and Nicole Pietrantoni, from Hat Rock to the Snake River confluence – consider thed differences between maps and territories.

One Response.

  1. Leonard A Magazine says:

    What a beautiful and insightful piece. As a veteran, I can relate.

Comments are closed.