NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The veteran experience is at once personal, and universal. It’s something countless people have experienced and endured, and something many people cannot fathom or comprehend.
A new exhibit at the Wickford Art Association attempts to bridge this gap through art devoted to and created by veterans and their family members.
Titled “Journey’s Onward: Veterans experiences in words and art,” the show opens tomorrow at the association’s gallery, 36 Beach Street, North Kingstown, and will be on display through June 16. An opening reception will be held Sunday from 1-3 p.m.
This is the sixth variation of the exhibit to be shown around Rhode Island or Connecticut, all of them organized by Paul Murray of Jamestown. Its first iteration was an exhibit at The VETS Gallery in Providence in 2016 under the name “Support and Defend.”
“The whole premise behind this set of exhibits is that art is a way of communicating,” Murray said. He was speaking from the association’s gallery earlier this week, where he was busy organizing the artwork ahead of Sunday’s opening. “It encourages people to express ideas about how they felt,” he added, explaining that for many veterans, talking about their experiences is extremely hard, especially with family members. Often, it’s limited to other veterans, or simply not discussed at all.
About 35 artists are featured in the show, some of them veterans or active service members, and others are family members of veterans and service members. About half the artists hail from New England, a dozen from Rhode Island, and at least eight are Wickford Art Association members.
Each piece exhibited in the show is accompanied by a story, or some sort of text to contextualize the work, which Murray refers to as a “relevancy statement.”
Murray said he has seen intense conversations develop between artists and veterans in attendance at previous shows — strangers suddenly connected by shared experiences, in a space where they feel comfortable speaking on the subject.
“The fundamental idea here is communication,” Murray said, noting the show not only creates a space for people within the veteran community, but also allows for dialogue between the military community and the civilian community at large.
The art in this show highlights a range of military experiences, from World War II, to the South Pacific, Vietnam, Korea, Sarajevo, Iraq, Afghanistan. Some of the work is less obviously “veteran art,” and simply artwork made by veterans. It ranges in mediums, from sculptures created with metal, glass or wood, to paintings, pastels, prints and photographs.
On Tuesday afternoon, Richard Boudreau of Warwick stopped by the gallery to drop-off a selection of his mixed-metal sculptures, including a nearly life-size “Jazz Man,” who will be stationed outside the entrance to the show. Boudreau served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where he was assigned to a tank named “Easy Rider.” “Although there was nothing easy about it,” he said.
A long time employee at Electric Boat in Quonset, Boudreau picked up metalsmithing and eventually started making sculptures. Now, he’ll come across certain items and visualize exactly what they will become: keys on a typewriter will be the keys of the Jazz Man’s saxophone, and a particular piece of driftwood the body of a bird.
He said he’s been making “the big stuff, about 10 years, and the other stuff, forever,” probably 40 years or so.
Another artist featured is Ralph Williams, an association member who lives in North Kingstown and paints prolifically and is a retired commander with the U.S. Navy. At the age of 88, he has created 750 works so far, producing about two-three pieces a week, and painting every day. Williams is also a founding member of the association, and one of the first artists to show his work in the gallery.
Murray’s interest in the veteran experience stems from being the son of a mother who served in the Army and a father who served in the Coast Guard. He grew up in Newport when it was really known as a Navy town, graduating from Rogers High School in 1968, amidst the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Murray recalls half his class members going on to serve in the Navy.
He became unsettled by the discriminatory practices of the conscription service and worked with a group in Rhode Island to change the draft system to a lottery system, which was eventually enacted nationwide. Murray thought a lottery system was fairer and less likely to target poorer communities and minority populations, especially those of color.
“Some people like me for that, some people don’t,” Murray said. “It gave people a way to not be automatically biased [in the draft].”
He went on to become a photographer and writer, working with the U.S. Army and the Rhode Island Air National Guard. Through this work, he met people “going through a lot,” and also witnessed a lack of communication. “I wanted to find a way to bridge that gap,” Murray said, and art seemed a way to do this “without being intrusive.”
The results, he said, have been tremendous. “I was actually surprised at how immediate it was,” he said of the show and its ability to spark conversations between strangers. “It’s probably the best experience I’ve ever had of working with artists — they are genuinely thankful that someone is talking to them, and listening to them.”
This exhibit is the first time the show has been juried by Alicia Dietz and Paul Bouchard. Dietz is a sculptor, furniture maker and mixed media artist, and a U.S. Army veteran Blackhawk (UH-60) pilot and company commander who served in Iraq and worldwide. She has an installation piece in the show titled “Fallen Soldier,” which has been in all six of Murray’s exhibits. Bouchard is a sculptor and painter, and U.S. Navy veteran who served aboard the destroyer USS Ramsey in the Western Pacific during the Vietnam War. More information about their experiences, including links to short videos, can be found on the Wickford Art Association website.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the association will screen four films, all of which will be shown on a Thursday beginning at 7 p.m., with doors opening at 6:30 p.m.:
May 23: “Art in the Face of War” (2006)
May 30: “Is Anyone Listening?” (2015)
June 6: “Craft in America — Service: Season 6” (2014)
June 13: “Where Soldiers Come From | POV” (PBS, 2012)
For more information about the exhibit and related programming, visit wickfordart.org/journeys-onward.