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Joe Bonham Project documents devastation of war

Artists share 'Stories of America’s Wounded Veterans'

4/15/2014
Artists Steve Mumford (left) and Michael D. Fay

By Andy Gilmore l University Communications

AURORA, Colo. - The courageous and traumatic stories of injured U.S. service members and their families are depicted in the "Joe Bonham Project:  Drawing the Stories of America's Wounded Veterans" now on display at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at CU Anschutz. 

(Photo above, artists Steve Mumford (left) and Michael D. Fay discuss their work in front of Mumford's 2010 realistic oil painting 'We Could Be Heros.')

During the recent opening event, exhibit curator Simon Zalkind said he was inspired to bring the Joe Bonham Project to the university after reading about it in the New York Times. "The human face and the human cost of war was gazing at me unflinchingly, without rage, contempt or remorse." Zalkind spoke of the "unbridged gap that war creates between soldiers and civilians" and he hopes the Joe Bonham Project can bridge this gap.

The exhibit idea emerged in 2011 when a group of war artists began using pencil and paint to document the experiences of devastatingly injured service members at in-patient shock and trauma wards in military hospitals. The artists were inspired by Joe Bonham, the central character in Dalton Trumbo's 1938 novel, Johnny Got His Gun. Horribly wounded in combat, Bonham's plan to highlight the grim realities of war by touring the U.S. in a glass box was never realized as he lived out his days alone and forgotten. 

The 'new normal': Waiting to be wounded
Michael D. Fay, director of the Joe Bonham Project, artist, and a former official combat artist in the U.S. Marine Corps, spoke of the project's origins while sharing a number of his art pieces and the stories of his subjects. Fay told of the freedom he and the other artists were given by the soldiers who made themselves "totally available. There wasn't much you couldn't ask them." Fay recounted the story of one wounded soldier who told Fay "chicks dig scars."

A soldier's experience of "waiting to be wounded" also was described by Fay, something he called "the new normal. It's all eyes down. When in the most mined place in the world, you walk a certain way and have a certain kind of body language." Fay explained that for many soldiers it's not 'if' they will get injured, but 'when.' Fay came to be familiar with what he describes as "the look" which comes from the weight, often up to 100 pounds, that solders have to carry around. He explained that even after a solider removes the weight, "the look" often remains.

Fay also linked his experiences to humanities and bioethics and spoke of the struggles, and sometimes guilt, that is often felt by caregivers. A doctor, nurse or fellow soldier may have saved the life of a profoundly wounded soldier but their future quality of life is often awful. "Science is allowing us to save people," said Fay, "but the caregivers carry a weight, even asking 'should I have done that?'"

The most moving, and often harrowing stories of the evening, were provided by artist, Steve Mumford. He spoke at length about creating art and discussed often seeing soldiers being rushed into the hospital "looking whole when doctors were cutting their clothes off, but then coming out of the operating room with missing limbs." Mumford also spoke of the tight spaces in the operating rooms where he was drawing while procedures were taking place, explaining that the lack of space meant that he was often required to pass instruments to doctors.

Featuring original artworks created by 16 artists in oil, ​watercolor and graphite on paper, the Joe Bonham Project depictss the personal stories of injured veterans and their families to provide insight into the realities of war and to ensure a new generation of "Joe Bonhams" are not forgotten.

The Joe Bonham Project is free to the public and runs through June 12.

To coincide with the Joe Bonham Project, the Veterans Film Festival (pdf) offers a series of four films chosen by Howie Movshovitz, PhD, Director of Film Education, College of Arts and Media at University of Colorado Denver and Tess Jones, Director of the Arts and Humanities in Healthcare Program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. All films are free and open to the public. Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. (Gallery hours are 5:30-9 p.m. on these four Saturdays)

  • April 26  The Best Years of Our Lives
  • May 10    MASH
  • May 17    Kandahar

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