Veterans Focus Art on Vietnam : A Full Psychic Jacket Seeks to Bind Up the Wounds of War in Orange

Poetry, photographs, paintings and sculpture are the psychic balm applied in “Healing the Wounds,” a traveling art exhibit by California’s Vietnam veterans on display at the Chapman College Guggenheim Gallery in Orange.

The show, which features more than 65 works based on wartime experiences of veterans, is a “nonpolitical, non-threatening way to look at something with a very deep, personal meaning,” project director Leslie Freeland said.

“For many people, the war is not over yet,” Freeland said at her home in Cambria, San Luis Obispo County. “Vietnam affected the whole country and continues to do so. (The show) is a way of bringing reconciliation . . . of giving all of us a personal glimpse of what it was really like.

“It’s like ‘the Wall,’ ” she said, referring to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. “People go there and they’re healed. It’s very emotional. How could it be anything else?”


The exhibit, which continues at Chapman’s Guggenheim Gallery through Oct. 14, includes pieces by professional and amateur artists. The moods vary widely, from poignant and bittersweet--as in Jim Garret’s stippled ink drawings of weary GIs--to the panic and desolation of Severhill’s poetry, to the wrenching despair of Donnie Lee Shearer’s bronze, “Help for a Brother, Memorial,” and his plaster and clay “The Dead . . . The Dying.”

Two kinds of homecomings are remembered in works by Anthony Santolla and Danny McGee in “Parade Rest.” Santolla’s stylized Polaroid prints depict row upon row of pristine, white gravestones in a military cemetery. McGee’s three-dimensional montage, “24-Hour Adjustment” traces the footsteps of a returning GI through battlefield mud and punji sticks (sharpened bamboo stakes smeared with an infectious substance, used as booby traps) to the asphalt and gutters of city streets.

“The point . . . is to get everything out into the open, and hopefully clean the wounds and start the healing,” said Mike Crook of Newport Beach, whose black-and-white photographic series, “Amid the War . . . Life Goes On,” depicts the domestic and often seamy side of life in mid-war Saigon.

“I think looking at this stuff . . . helps people bring it all back to the surface and lets them deal with their feelings,” Crook said. “I think it’s helped me. It sure brought some strong feelings back.”


Crook was a member of an Army combat-artist team while stationed at Tan Son Nhut outside Saigon. The year was 1966. Armed with sketch pads and cameras, Crook and his buddies were sent into the midst of heavy fighting to re-create the action for the Army’s military history section.

“We were right out there in the bush with the grunts,” Crook said. “We carried the body bags. So yes, it did make a deep impression on me.”

Unlike many of the pieces in “Healing the Wounds,” Crook’s photo series does not focus on violence in the field. Instead it gives viewers a quieter, more personal view of Vietnam, capturing the locals at work and at rest in war-torn Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

“The first thing I did when I got there was buy a 35-millimeter camera on the black market,” Crook said. “When I had free time, I would wander Saigon, trying to communicate with the locals, generally being a tourist and trying to forget the war. (The photos) show the city as it was, irrespective of the war that was going on outside.”

Project director Freeland took almost two years to create “Healing the Wounds.” Her motivation for the show came initially from a close friendship she had shared with a Vietnam veteran but soon “blossomed from a personal experience to a transpersonal one,” she said.

With the help of veteran Denver Mills, Freeland contacted veteran centers across the state, soliciting works for the show.

“Healing the Wounds” premiered on Veterans Day, 1987, at the San Luis Obispo Art Center and since has traveled to veteran and community art centers across the state. Seed money for the project was provided in part by the Vietnam Veteran Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and private donations. The group is also selling a four-color show poster to raise operating funds.

Most students viewing the show at Chapman were in diapers when the war was at its peak, but viewer response has been surprisingly strong, according to gallery director Richard Turner.


“The kids really don’t have much of a historical understanding of the war, but they are getting an emotional understanding of it,” said Turner, who brought the show on campus as part of a multidisciplinary seminar on war and peace.

The show’s impact on youth is important to Freeland: “I have two sons, 17 and 24. When I think that that was the age range of most of these guys when they went over . . . well, it’s something else.

“I once heard an Army nurse say that she figured she’d go over, because after a year she could come back with enough money for a Mustang. . . . We all thought we were bulletproof.”

Freeland paused, then added with a wistful laugh, “We were all just so young.”

“Healing the Wounds” will continue at the Chapman College Guggenheim Gallery through Oct . 14. The college is at 333 North Glassell St. Hours are Monday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m.; admission is free. The public is invited to attend a reception and poetry reading with several artists from the show Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. Call (714) 997-6729 for information.