Creative Arts Project presents diversity in arts to illustrate the war experience
Story and photos by Mike Strasser
WEST POINT, N.Y. (April 3, 2014) — The Creative Arts Project’s spring program proved to be an awe-inspiring and thought-provoking mix of mediums offering many perspectives on war and the military.
Hosted by the Department of English and Philosophy, the events included the Graffiti of War art exhibit and the GI Film Festival, which featured panel discussions with directors, producers and special guests.
One of those guests was the festival’s founder, Laura Law-Millet, a Class of 1994 graduate.
Although she’s spoken in front of large festival crowds before, she was admittedly nervous being introduced to the academy superintendent. As a cadet, she had never had a conversation with a three-star general. She said she was thrilled to meet Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr. in his office and talk about how the arts can be used to advance civil-military relations while emphasizing the importance of preserving the stories of veterans.
Hence, the festival’s tag line “Reel Stories, Real Heroes.” Law-Millet said she launched the festival because, after having served in the Army and Army Reserves for 14 years, she was tired of seeing Hollywood’s version of war.
“There’s definitely a disconnect between Hollywood and the military, and we wanted to show the real experiences of being in the military,” the former Military Intelligence officer said.
After meeting the commanding general, she returned to her comfort zone, facilitating a panel discussion following the presentation of four short films.
These included two animated shorts—one, a comical and over-the-top story of a misfit flying squadron tasked with bombing a bridge during World War II. Mark Nelson’s “Jockstrap Raiders” has won several awards and was completed at UCLA as a thesis project. It can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/59376506.
The other was by director-animator memoralizing his younger brother using real audio from the Soldier’s last mission in Iraq that ended in an IED attack. Dustin Grella’s short, “Prayers for Peace” can be viewed at www.vimeo.com/7520674.
“Spitfire944,” directed by William Lorton, originated when he inherited a collection of old 16 mm film from a relative. In it, he saw a fighter plane crash at an airbase in Great Britain during World War II, and then footage of a young pilot—seemingly unshaken, smiling and smoking a cigarette.
The film team did plenty of research and ultimately located the pilot 60 years later to get the story behind that crash. The reaction of the veteran seeing this footage for the first time is worth watching. The short documentary can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ie3SrjLlcUY.
No offense to Quentin Tarantino or his ultraviolent epic “Inglorious Basterds,” but the true story behind that real-life World War II campaign beats his fiction to a pulp.
“The Real Inglorious Bastards” was the last of four short films presented inside Thayer Hall to an audience of cadets, faculty members and guests. One of the heroes of the film, Fred Mayer, couldn’t attend the panel discussion, but his daughter Claudette spoke on his behalf and was joined by producer Ed Barreveld who appeared via Skype.
The film, directed by Min Sook Lee, tells the story of Operation Greenup and the Soldiers who trained for this dangerous espionage and infiltration mission.
Mayer, a German-born Jewish American, disguised himself as a wounded Gestapo officer, even drawing a salary while collecting information from the enemy. Later he would transform into a French electrician to infiltrate a German factory. Mayer had established an incredible network of informants and contacts before his capture. While imprisoned, Mayer was interrogated and severely tortured—whipped bloody, he never talked.
After Germany surrendered, Mayer, Franz Weber and Hans Wijnberg were all decorated for their part in the operation developed by the Office of Strategic Services. Former director of the CIA William Casey called this operation “by far the most successful of OSS operations” in southern Europe.
Barreveld said at the screening that Mayer should be considered for the Medal of Honor.
The screenings showed the dynamic between satire and historical drama to evoke different emotions in the audience.
“The experiences of Soldiers is not all tragic,” Law-Millet said. "During deployments there are times where you laugh and do silly things. It’s OK to laugh and it’s OK to cry, and so the films show those aspects of being a Soldier.”
She also presented an advanced screening of the full-length film, “Walking with the Enemy,” starring Ben Kingsley which ended with an engaging dialogue among audience members and the film’s director and producer.
Law-Millet understands the rigors of academy life, but hoped cadets who were able to attend some of the event realize the importance of seeing the bigger picture—especially when it’s presented free and in HD.
“Art allows us to take a breath, step back and realize that in the big scheme of things there is more to life than what’s within these walls,” she said. “It shows us, yes, we are all connected and there are things happening in the world that have equal, if not greater, importance than what you are currently experiencing.”
Audience members were unable to ask question to one of the heroes of the short documentary "The Real Inglorious Bastards," Fred Mayer, but his daughter Claudette was in attendance in the Thayer Hall auditorium to join a panel discussion on the samples of films screened at the GI Film Festival March 25.
Mark Schmidt, director of “Walking with the Enemy,” answers a question from the audience. Seated next to him is Laura Law-Millet, a U.S. Military Academy Class of 1994 graduate and founder of the GI Film Festival. She presented an advanced screening of the film and a panel discussion in Arnold Auditorium March 27.
Graffiti of War
Before entering the Graffiti of War exhibit inside the Haig Room, attendees could view a static display on the history of drawing and the fine arts at West Point from as far back as 1803.
While cartography was certainly a useful military skill taught at the academy, some of the most famous graduates spent hours over tables and easels, perfecting brush strokes.
“You may not know this, but in the 1800s if you were a cadet here you would take drawing,” he said. “As an engineer you had to know mechanical drawing,” Lt. Col. Dave Harper, Department of English and Philosophy professor, said. “But they also had a room with statues and objects so they could practice fine arts skills as well.”
Harper brought his class into Jefferson Hall to discuss the works of Joseph Stilwell, Jefferson Davis and Ulysses Grant with his class and then receive a guided tour of the Graffiti of War exhibit.
Jaeson “Doc” Parsons, a former combat medic, is the founder of The Graffiti of War Project. The traveling art exhibit, he said, has proven to be impactful.
The exhibit features artwork of American veterans, as well as foreign nationals and from allied forces. Much of the Graffiti of War exhibit at the Haig Room showcased the artwork found painted on barriers outside forward operating bases.
These slabs of concrete are often decorated by units as morale-boosters, honoring its traditions and marking it place in history.
“These barriers protect them from shrapnel and explosions, but for these Soldiers, Sailors and Marines it’s also a canvas,” Parsons said.
Parsons said he’s spoken with service members who remember that artwork, and family members who see their Soldiers’ units.
“Soldiers and Marines returning from tours oftentimes don’t want to talk about it, and the family members don’t know how to get them to talk,” he said. “Sometimes art can start that conversation.”
Parsons hopes the project can make a difference in the healing process for veterans by showcasing military artists, family members and local nationals from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The goal, he said, is to raise awareness for the development of alternative solutions to the invisible wounds of war.
“Art is very therapeutic,” he said. “It can be a viable solution for our veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress. It is for me. I can’t draw, but I write and that’s my art which has become very therapeutic for me.”
Parsons sees the Graffiti of War Project as a bridge—one that crosses over the cultural gap between those who have experienced the horrors of conflict and those who haven’t, to bring empathy and understanding and eventually healing to shattered communities across the world.
“I think this is a good start for that. Doing this show at West Point has been a dream of ours,” Parsons said. “It’s an honor.”
Cadets view the art exhibit, “Graffiti of War,” inside the Haig Room after being guided by its founder Jaeson “Doc” Parsons, a former combat medic. The book that cadets were looking at contain more of the artwork collected for The Graffiti of War Project.