DEER ISLE, Maine — Vietnam War veteran, sculptor and poet Terry Grasse of Lisbon Falls cut up his combat pants, mashed them into pulp and made a special type of paper that he used to create a sculpture of a prisoner behind bars.
“It’s called ‘POW or PTSD or ?’” the Army veteran explained about the art, which provides a glimpse into his wartime and postwar experiences.
Even though the pants were a pair he picked up well after the war, the experience changed him.
“It’s kind of like a whole journey,” Grasse said Wednesday while taking a break from his second project as part of the Combat Paper group, a veteran-run arts organization held at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle. “It took me 40 years to climb out of my hole and not be in denial about it.”
The combat paper is made from military uniforms that are cut up by the veterans who wore them and then turned into pulp by adding water and using a pulverizing machine. The fabric pulp slurry is put through a screen press and dried into sheets of paper, which can be used to create all kinds of art.
“It’s a very intimidating thing to do, to cut up one’s uniform,” David Keefe, Combat Paper New Jersey director who served in the U.S. Marines, said while this year’s group of veterans worked on their art projects. “I know I was looking for some conduit to tell my honest story. Cutting up my uniform gave me permission. It was liberating.”
By transforming uniforms into art, veterans share personal stories they might not otherwise, Keefe said.
“We teach them the techniques of handmade papermaking using military uniforms and at the same time they’re deconstructing their experiences,” he said later. “We deconstruct the uniform and reclaim it and make it into something hard. That paper becomes a platform to share that experience.”
A total of 27 veterans, seven from Maine, are participating in this year’s Combat Paper project, Keefe said. The week-long session was made possible by a grant from the Maine Community Foundation, said Haystack director Stuart Kestenbaum.
“We feel like for them it’s a tremendous avenue for art expression and a way to expand their expertise,” said Kestenbaum, who is retiring after the show. “I wanted to go out with Combat Paper as a last project.”
The veterans art movement project is not “art therapy,” but a way for veterans to tell their individual stories, said Keefe, who met Kestenbaum in 2012.
Keefe joined the Marines 11 days after 9/11 and served in Iraq during 2006-07. While there, he met a young boy named Razule whose fate may have been tied to his unit’s visits to the child’s village. During one visit Keefe accidentally broke Razule’s toy gun, which made the boy cry. The moment was caught by a fellow soldier who took a picture. Shortly thereafter, the unit returned and found the village deserted.
Keefe said some militants were known to kill those who associated with the U.S. military, but he has no way of knowing what happened to the boy or if his actions had any role in the disappearance of the villagers.
“To this day it haunts me,” Keefe said.
He used the image of him kneeling near the crying boy to make his first Combat Paper project, a screenprint of the image.
“I don’t call it healing,” Keefe said. “I’d put it into another process of owning my experience.”
“We’re here to give them an opportunity to speak” and for the community to ask questions, Keefe said.
“We want you to come in the circle and we will come out,” he said. “We will meet you on the bridge. It’s not art unless it’s shown and talked about.”
Grasse, who said he once barged into a veterans clinic while screaming, “I want my life back,” said he found a way to live with his post-traumatic stress disorder and he wants other veterans to know it’s possible for them as well.
“This helps,” he said of the veterans art class.
For this year’s project, he cut and placed antique metal ceiling tiles in the fabric-paper in the shape of a flag that featured rust from the cut-metal star and stripes “bleeding through the paper,” Grasse said.
He’ll also read a poem or two at a culminating event planned for Friday, including one that is titled ‘Nothingness.”
The Combat Paper group’s art will be displayed at an opening and reading 7-9 p.m. Friday at the Haystack Gallery at 22 Church St. on Deer Isle.