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Exhibit at O.C. fairgrounds’ Heroes Hall shows life through the eyes of local veterans

An oil on wood panel painting by David Vargo at the new art exhibit "Through Their Eyes" at Heroes Hall in Costa Mesa.
An oil on wood panel painting by first-place winner Anaheim’s David Vargo at the new art exhibit “Through Their Eyes” at Heroes Hall in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

If you looked into the eyes of a veteran or active U.S. serviceman or woman, what would you see? Conflict? Duty? Triumph? Hope?

A new exhibit opening this week at the Heroes Hall veterans museum on the O.C. fairgrounds in Costa Mesa gives visitors a look at life through the perspective of those who’ve served in the U.S. military from World War II to the present.

“Through Their Eyes: Artwork by Active Military and Veterans” is a juried show featuring nearly 50 multimedia works created by 24 Southern California artists, many of whom live and work in Orange County. It will be the first time local veterans have showcased their work at the site, Heroes Hall Supervisor Carol Singleton said Tuesday.

“We usually do a lot of rented traveling exhibits, but we wanted to take a pause and showcase the veterans in our local community,” Singleton said, explaining how many turned to art to help cope during the pandemic. “Now just felt like a good time to do it.”

Heroes Hall Supervisor Carol Singleton at "Through Their Eyes: Artwork by Active Military and Veterans," opening Wednesday.
Heroes Hall Supervisor Carol Singleton at the exhibit “Through Their Eyes: Artwork by Active Military and Veterans,” which opens Wednesday at the O.C. fairgrounds veterans museum in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The free exhibit, which opens Wednesday and runs through Jan. 20, includes photographs, paintings, carvings and sculptures covering an even wider range of subject matter. Not every piece is related to an artist’s service or time in combat, but each one tells a story of someone who’s served.

“Our exhibits are here to tell the stories of our veterans, so that can be passed down to the next generation and so people don’t forget the sacrifices our servicemen and women have made,” Singleton said. “Somehow, this space feels safe for veterans, because it’s all about them.”

Costa Mesa resident Gary Tegel served in the U.S. Navy from 1981 to 2013 before retiring as a senior chief petty officer. In that time, he traveled the world and served in Iraq in 2009. But it wasn’t until he recently began making wooden plaques to honor other veterans’ service that Tegel began to enjoy the benefits of art.

“I’d call my work trench art — it’s kind of gritty,” the 59-year-old said Tuesday. “[But] for me, it kind of helps with stress.”

U.S. Navy veteran Gary Tegel, 59, of Costa Mesa, poses with his wood-burnt art at the new art exhibit "Through Their Eyes."
U.S. Navy veteran Gary Tegel, 59, of Costa Mesa, poses Tuesday with his wood-burnt art at the new art exhibit “Through Their Eyes” at Heroes Hall in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Tegel carved a placard honoring a member of the U.S. Army he’d once assisted in the field who later died, feeling a need to pay tribute to the fallen soldier. He said creating the piece was a healing experience for him.

Fountain Valley’s Giovanni Berdejo won a second-place award from the judges of “Through Their Eyes” for a black and white photograph he took in 2019 titled “Hope.” It shows a friend holding his young daughter after she’d received a liver transplant.

The son of Peruvian immigrants, Berdejo joined the U.S. Army, in part, to repay a debt to the nation and make something of his life. He served from 2002 to 2010, achieving the rank of sergeant, but found returning to civilian life challenging.

Photography by Fountain Valley resident Giovanni Berdejo at "Through Their Eyes" exhibit at Heroes Hall in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“I had a rough transition coming back. When you get out there’s no one to tell you what to do or how to get a job or an apartment,” he said. “Now, I do whatever I can to help others.”

He discovered photography in 2016 and has since taught photography workshops at Chapman University for other veterans. In 2019, he authored a book chronicling his experiences with PTSD called “One Angry Veteran.”

Berdejo said Tuesday he hopes the Heroes Hall exhibit will make an impression on viewers.

“My hope is that the community can see there’s more to veterans than war and the military,” he said. “We have the capacity to express more emotions than anger and bitterness.

“We all have the unifying fact of being in the military, but I’m not just a veteran,” Berdejo continued. “There’s so much more to me.”

Heroes Hall is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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