Vietnam War artists' works on display

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

In the late 1960s, the United States Army sent nine groups of artists to Vietnam.

These Combat Art Teams, as soldier artists, spent 60 days on the ground. They photographed, sketched, absorbed and experienced.

Then, they created.

The resulting artwork, and other pieces from the Army Art Program, remain in the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C.

But 39 reproductions, part of a traveling exhibition, will display in the Williamsburg Contemporary Art Center through June 17. More than 50 years later, "Beyond the Trenches: Vietnam Combat Art" provides a rare viewpoint into a controversial war.

As the generation that experienced the Vietnam War ages, the art created during that era endures.

"These are renditions of what was actually going on in the field," said Wendi Schultz. "It's an incredibly moving and very powerful exhibit."

As tourism and events director for Roanoke County's Parks, Recreation and Tourism department, Schultz oversees the traveling exhibit.

The prints were displayed originally last spring at Hollins College, organized to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war by the League of Roanoke Artists, Roanoke County, cities of Roanoke and Salem, Town of Vinton and Association of the United States Army's Stonewall Jackson Chapter.

"They'd never been shown to the public really," said Apryl Altman, artistic director and vice president of Williamsburg Contemporary Art Center.

Since making the exhibit available to localities around Virginia, Schultz said it has been requested by 13 locations so far.

Altman said the art center learned of the exhibit and thought it would be a good fit for the local area. It's also the first show in the gallery that hasn't been for sale, Altman said.

"It's nice to get a first-hand look from an artist's viewpoint on war," Altman said.

Each piece of art varies in not just its style and medium, but also its subject and interpretation – from a soldier's portrait sketched in ink to a convoy painted in vibrant watercolors, from scenes of war to scenes of daily life.

"It shows a different viewpoint," Altman said, "really in a beautifully artistic way."

And not just a different viewpoint, but one that's complex.

"I think when an artist is actually using oils or acrylics or charcoal, it's an expression of what they're seeing, so it adds a whole (other) dimension to the artwork," Schultz said.

The Army art program was innovative, according to James Pollock.

Pollock was one of those soldier-artists, on the ground in Vietnam in 1967. He described his experience in an essay published in 2009 in "War, Literature and the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities."

"The idea of rotating teams of young soldier-artists from a variety of backgrounds and experiences through Vietnam was innovative," Pollock wrote in the essay. "What was even more remarkable is that these soldier-artists were encouraged to freely express and interpret their individual experience in their own distinct styles."

"Certainly, a lasting legacy of the army's soldier art program is that it helped bring military art into the modern era," Pollock continued.

"It's important for people to look back and realize what our troops went through," Altman said – particularly during the Vietnam War, when troops largely weren't well-received.

They still put their lives on the line, she said.

"It shouldn't be forgotten."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Beyond the Trenches: Vietnam Combat Art

When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Tuesdays-Saturdays and 1-5 p.m., Sundays, through June 17.

Where: 219 N. Boundary St.

Admission: Free and open to the public.

Info: 229-4949, visitwcac.org

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