Drew Cameron joined the Army in 2000, right out of high school, and served as a Sergeant in Iraq. In an interview, he says he realized fairly early on that what was happening in Iraq was all wrong and that “we shouldn’t be here,” but he served his tour of duty anyway. When he came home in 2006, he sought ways to express his experiences, without success, until one day, he said, he put on his uniform and then began cutting it off his body.
Thus was born his Combat Paper Project. As Cameron puts it, “Language to articulate the complex associations and memories wrapped up in military service can be a mountainous task. Starting with a non-verbal activity, with the intention of exploring those places, is a phenomenally empowering act.” An artist and paper maker, Cameron took his cut up uniform and began transforming it into handmade paper, which he then painted or drew or wrote on. Slowly, he began to contact other veterans who wanted to take part in this process, who were interested in fiber art and in how “we might transform [materials] into a narrative that illustrates our collective stories.”
I first met Cameron a year or so ago in Chicago, where he was exhibiting his work in connection with the world premiere of composer Jonathan Berger’s “My Lai,” which tells the story of Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who tried to stop the My Lai Massacre, who was reviled and ostracized for his actions and only 30 years after the fact recognized with a Soldier’s Medal for bravery. Sung by Rinde Eckert (with lush and moving libretto by Harriet Chessman) and performed by The Kronos Quartet, “My Lai” is one of the most gripping and memorable musical works I have ever heard. It was after the haunting performance that I met Cameron, along with one of the two 18-year-old crew members who was with him during March 16, 1968 (the second young soldier died in battle three weeks later). I believe that this work will be touring the country for the 50th anniversary of this tragedy: if you and your students can possibly see it, do so.
Recently I encountered Cameron again, this time at UCLA where he was leading papermaking workshops with first-year undergraduates (and others). Students were bringing in all kinds of materials: some, of course, were veterans themselves, with uniforms and other materials from their service; others had relatives who had given them articles, like the young woman whose grandfather had given her parachute cloth. Together, they were learning to create a remix, a mashup, as they turned the cloth into pulpy fiber and then learned to make sheets of handmade paper with it.
What struck me during this encounter was how Cameron spoke about the stories that these artifacts tell, and about the stories that they elicit from the people who work with them. Somehow, he says, this process of unmaking and remaking seems to release the words necessary to share experiences further, as a visual art leads to a verbal one and back again. Some of the paper makers have gone on to write blogs, articles, essays, even books. And continue to make visual art as well.
I left wishing that every college in the country could have a visit from Drew Cameron and his Combat Paper Project. He has conducted them from coast to coast and is currently engaged in teaching others to carry out similar projects. The college frosh who either drop in or sign up for these workshops may never have heard of My Lai, may have thought very little about war, about the way war is inscribed on the bodies of those who are caught in its vice. But they leave with new knowledge, as well as with the experience of having made something good and strong and real out of the materials of war.
You can read more about Combat Paper on PBS News hour’s “The Rundown” from April 30, 2012.