by Anna Schier
After facing combat in Vietnam and fighting a mental battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, in 1980 a group of Vietnam veterans put on an art show that expressed their experiences. That show built the foundation for what has grown into the National Veteran’s Art Museum.
Thirty years later, museum curator and chair of the board of directors Mike Helbing remembers that first show, stating, “It wasn’t your everyday Chicago style artwork, more introspective, intuitive and emotional.”
The NVAM still displays works which incorporate insight and intimacy in a collection that combines anguish, pride, trauma, strength and loss. The works on display are much more complicated than the veneer of violence, masculinity and patriotism of the military stereotype. Equally moving is Above and Beyond, a memorial to those who died in Vietnam. Found below the third floor museum, the memorial is made of assembled dog tags dangling by their chains from a platform attached to the ceiling. Each dog tag symbolizes an individual who died in Vietnam. The 10×40 foot installation creates a simultaneously eerie and stirring homage to those who gave their lives in Vietnam. The sheer size of the structure and the meaning attached to the over 58,000 dog tags, demands viewers recognize the incredible sacrifices made by men and women at war.
Helbing reflects on the depth of the NVAM’s collection, explaining, “It has a particular statement to make about service to the country. It is a niche, but it’s an important niche.”
The collection is comprised of pieces by veterans who have turned to art as a way to work through their PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder caused by extreme trauma) or reflect on their experiences of war. Although the museum’s initial focus was on Vietnam, work by veterans of World War II, Korea and more recent military conflicts are also welcome. Current special exhibits include Battle Dress: A Woman’s View (work by exclusively female artists) and Japan R&R: 1969 (a look at a week off for soldiers in Vietnam).
“The content allows for the emotional response to the situation, serving your country, being shot at, having your life on the line and realizing it,” says Helbing.
The work on display depicts the mental and emotional pain that comes with military life. This suffering is reflected in the collection, which depicts violence, death and the agony of being separated from family and loved ones. The loneliness of reading a letter from home when you’re thousands of miles away in the throes of combat, the innocent children who have become victims of war and skeletal specters leaning in too close for comfort are all rendered with cutting emotional clarity.
Helbing remembers his realization of what military life holds, recalling how he thought to himself “‘This isn’t boy scouts, here.’ And it really isn’t,” he states. “It’s a long history of people who went before you. And that all starts to soak in. It did for me. It’s our history.”
While all the featured artists are united by a common experience, the media they work in varies widely. Material includes skulls, bones, paint, dirt, mud and in one case, a sheet of paper made from a pulped uniform with an image silkscreened onto it. But, Helbing remarks, “That’s not the identifying factor. It’s not one particular technique. It’s how you represent an idea.”
The NVAM’s exceptional portrayal of the veteran experience has captured the attention of high profile political figures, including Mayor Daley and his wife, Maggie. Says Helbing, “[the mayor]was going to spend about five minutes and he spent a couple hours and then basically said, ‘What can I do to help?’”
You can help by donating money and office supplies or by volunteering. More information about making donations or volunteering can be found on the NVAM website. At present, the museum is also in need of help in the form of a new location. While the work on display is incredibly moving, it is also overcrowded. The frames of the pieces practically touch each other, which drastically detracts from the collection’s size and emotional impact. Fortunately, Helbing, who is also head of the museum’s relocation comittee is working to solve the problem. “We are looking at seeking a building, benefactors, money,” he says. In two years, the museum plans to move, hopefully to a more accommodating space.
Until then, the NVAM is located at 1801 S. Indiana Ave. It is open from Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm.