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Veterans give combat uniforms second life as art

Courtesy of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center

"Breaking Rank" was created out of combat uniform material by Drew Cameron and Drew Matott, co-founders of the Combat Paper Project.

Most veterans might stash their old combat uniforms in the closet, but Drew Cameron had a different notion: Why not turn them into handmade paper that becomes the foundation for artwork?

The idea was born out of a collaboration between Cameron, a former Army sergeant with field artillery experience, and Drew Matott, a friend and paper maker. In 2007, the pair  formed the Combat Paper Project, which offers art-making workshops to former service members as well as the public.

In the five years since the project's founding, there have been nearly 70 exhibitions across the country featuring combat-uniform art made by veterans. This month, there are pieces showing at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, Calif., the Fe Arts Gallery in Pittsburgh, and at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

Veterans produce artwork on a number of themes, Cameron said, including difficulty receiving VA benefits, challenges to reintegrating into the community, struggling with substance abuse, thoughts of suicide, confronting memories of wartime violence and dealing with survivor's guilt.

"It seems to be an intuitive response to be able to share and articulate one's own military experience," Cameron told NBC News. Through the papermaking process, "we’re able to develop the language that speaks to those memories."

At the Muckenthaler, there are more than 40 large and small pieces as well as a room where viewers can see the raw materials and watch the paper-making process in a video presentation. Transforming a uniform is easier than it seems: The fabric is cut up and then beaten into the pulp that becomes paper.

Courtesy of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center

"Standard Operating Procedure" by Chris Arendt.

The Muckenthaler had earlier hosted a four-day paper-making workshop for veterans -- some of whom had no previous art experience -- and included pieces from that session in the exhibit. Matthew Leslie, director of exhibitions, described their artwork as "really arresting and professional imagery." Many of the artists used a silk screen or stencil to transfer an image to the paper. Some wrote phrases or sentences evoking their experience atop or around images or symbols.

Cameron, who served from 2000 to 2006 and was deployed to Iraq in 2003, said that the ease of paper-making has given veterans in the project an avenue of creative expression that they might not have tried if the technique had been oil painting or glass blowing, which are more challenging.

"You don’t have to overcome the hindrance of people not feeling they’re an artist," he said. 

Some veterans come to the project with previous art experience, and there is a longstanding but little-known tradition of art in the military.

The Army, for example, has sent soldier artists into the field since World War I, Sarah Forgey, art curator at the Army Center of Military History, told NBC News. Since that conflict, teams of artists -- who are prepared both to sketch and to fight -- have gone to  the front lines, and each of the branches has its own program for art. The Army currently sponsors an artist-in-residence who is deployed; the last artist was sent to Afghanistan in spring of 2011. 

"Everybody thinks the Army and art are like oil and water," said Forgey. "But when you think about great masterpieces, many have been inspired by war. In a way, war is one of the oldest subjects in art."

Using a combat uniform as a medium, Cameron said, adds another layer of meaning to the artwork.

Veterans often leave the military with several extra uniforms depending on their length of service. Some will choose to turn all of their uniforms into paper, but save other pieces of significant clothing.

Cameron kept the full-brimmed, desert camouflage hat he received for Iraq, but each of his uniforms became a piece of art. "They suit me much better in that form," he said. 

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at NBC News. Follow her on Twitter here.

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