2004 was a big year for Drew Cameron. He had just returned home from an eight month tour of duty with the US Army in Iraq and moved to Vermont to start college. He enlisted in the National Guard, but the transition to civilian life was still proving difficult.
“I felt like I had to get the hell out of somewhere, but I didn’t know where that was and I didn’t know where to go.”i
One fateful day he saw a flyer for a paper-making workshop and decided to check it out, unknowingly planting the seed for a monumental future collaboration.
The man teaching the workshop was Drew Matott, Vermont artist and activist known for stunts like painting portraits of George Bush in public spaces and deep frying books to “make them more palatable to American readers.” ii The two Drew’s became friends over the next months and then years, exchanging knowledge of paper techniques and stories of war. Drew Cameron continued to study forestry and make paper as a hobby until veteran’s day of 2007, when he had a novel idea. He dug up his old uniform, still stained with sweat and dust, and asked a photographer friend to document a moment that could only happen once. Standing in his old desert camouflage, he took a pair of scissors and snipped away first at his rank, then the name patch, and on until the whole uniform lay in pieces around him on the floor. Standing there disrobed, his identity firmly divorced from the uniform that once defined him, was a profound moment.
“I felt overwhelmed with this swelling empowerment, it felt good. It felt good to create my own personal narrative in something, a uniform, which is meant to take away your identity, and turn it into something very personal, very me.”iii
He gathered the pieces and fed them into the studio’s paper beater, a machine that methodically churns water and bits of cloth or plant fiber into paper pulp. After an hour of grinding and stirring the pulp was ready to be scooped onto screens and then squeezed dry until unique sheets of green-gray handmade paper were born. With some help from Drew Matott images of the uniform cutting were later printed onto the paper. Not only had Drew Cameron taken ownership of his identity as a veteran; he had literally produced a pile of blank pages inviting continued creative reflection upon his service.
These sheets of “combat paper” were the first of many. Inspired by Drew Cameron’s feeling of empowerment, Drew and Drew founded the Combat Paper Project. They set out to share this compelling experience with other veterans, their families, and other civilians touched by war. Since 2007 they have travelled all over the country hosting workshops in which uniforms are processed by hand into paper.
Veterans from WWII, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Iraq have taken part in this poetic gesture. The act evokes a multitude of complex emotions associated with military service, patriotism, and the return to civilian life. Some cherish the uniform and feel proud to immortalize their service. Others have strongly negative associations with their time served and the scars they bear, and find cutting up the uniform and literally grinding it to a pulp a cathartic release. But most fall somewhere in between, and the process of making paper can help them express a nuanced coexistence of both positive and negative associations.
In a 2012 interview with Barbara Gates, Drew Matott recalls a workshop held outdoors at a university in Texas in which a passerby squealed to a halt on his bike and asked what they were doing to the uniforms. He was a former marine and, after an explanation of the project, quickly fetched his old uniform so he could join in. Drew recalls how the man furiously chopped and tore up the uniform while sharing how difficult his life had been since being discharged. After a few days of methodically processing and pulling sheets of paper he expressed how cathartic the experience had been. He said he felt like he was “washing his experiences” and that he even remembered some positive moments from his time in Iraq. He told Drew, “I thought that the military brought me nothing but misery and angst. But actually, you know what? There were some good experiences there. It wasn’t all bad.”iv
While participants in Combat Paper can find solace in the act of making paper, there are other benefits to attending a workshop. When such a variety of ages and experiences come together in the same studio fascinating dialogues are inevitably sparked.
“…in Combat Paper workshops, someone might say, “I love my uniform, I love my buddies, my family that I served with. The military has done a lot of good things for me.” Then somebody else might cut in, “I suffer PTSD. I am messed up and I hate the military.” For me, a workshop isn’t really successful unless I see that exchange.”iv
Both the value of making something meaningful by hand and the novel discussions that occur during the process lead Drew Cameron to describe the workshops as a form of “sophisticated activism”. They offer unique opportunities for healing through making art and are sophisticated because they accomplish so much without preaching a specific agenda. The gesture of pulping a uniform is simple but it opens up the minds of those who partake to unique conversations about war and its affect on their lives.
The potential for conversation between veterans about their lives reminds me of a type of art I covered back in August called social practice. Social practice work is challenging to define but always strives to spark some kind of discussion about an issue. During their numerous workshops Drew and Drew have refined a unique brand of social practice art by combining elements of art therapy, political activism, and community building. Like all social practice art it fosters a dialogue that is unique to that situation and group. Drew Cameron eloquently describes its power:
“For me, making combat paper has transcended the polarity of peace and war, and it’s become more and more about a landscape of portraits—like 100,000 voices; sometimes they’re saying the same thing at the same time, but other times, they’re not, so it sounds like a sea of crickets, and you’re just trying to find your way through it. It becomes so much bigger than any one person. But all together, it’s deafening.”iv
The powerful collaboration between these two talented artists has touched lives all over this country and abroad in England, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and other nations affected by war. From the international legacy of the Combat Paper Project the Peace Paper Project was born, and has broadened the original mission to help empower communities and to “foster positive forward thinking, enhanced communication, and peaceful reconciliation.”
See some work made on combat paper
Read about the Combat Paper project from workshop participant Barbara Gates
Hear Drew Cameron’s interview with Radio Netherlands Worldwide
iGates, Barbara. “Combat Papermakers Drew Cameron and Drew Matott: An Interview in Two Voices.” Conversations.org: Combat Papermakers Drew Cameron and Drew Matott, by Barbara Gates. Works and Conversations, May 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.
iiGates, Barbara. “Combat Papermakers Drew Cameron and Drew Matott: An Interview in Two Voices.” Conversations.org: Combat Papermakers Drew Cameron and Drew Matott, by Barbara Gates. Works and Conversations, May 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.
iii“Veteran’s Day Special: Tearing Up the Uniform.” Interview. The State We’re In. Radio Netherlands World. RNW, Oct. 2009. Radio.
ivGates, Barbara. “Combat Papermakers Drew Cameron and Drew Matott: An Interview in Two Voices.” Conversations.org: Combat Papermakers Drew Cameron and Drew Matott, by Barbara Gates. Works and Conversations, May 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.