Workshop turns military uniforms into art


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In an increasingly digital world, paper is often regarded as obsolete or trivial, from books and newspapers to grocery bags and plates.

But imagine a sheet of paper whose components are personal and meaningful, infused with the murky, complicated resonance of a tour of military service in a faraway land.

This is the dream Iraqi War veteran Drew Cameron endeavors to build on every day.

Cameron directs, and is a cofounder of, a series of free papermaking workshops held across the country called Combat Paper. The Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St., will host one of these workshops from 5 to 8 p.m. today. The event is part of Hancher’s “Worth Fighting For” event series exploring the effect of war.

Combat Paper guides veterans from any era on how to turn their old military uniforms into pulped material and then into handmade sheets of paper. Often, the paper is also overlaid with various colored dyes and silk-screen images.

Cameron said numerous uniforms will sometimes be used for the same sheet of paper. For instance, a grandfather, father, and son may combine their service uniforms into a single sheet of freshly pulped familial history. Those uniforms will have traveled across continents during their owners’ tours of duty, becoming “points from which we tell stories.”

“The physical geography of the fibers [we create] is impressive,” he said. “A quarter of a million miles in a sheet of paper, that’s really interesting to me.” 

Jesse Albrecht, an Iraq veteran and artist who helps run the workshops, said the uniforms help “facilitate a stroll down memory lane.”

Combat Paper began in 2007, when Cameron decided to turn his own uniform into paper while rediscovering his childhood love for the art form, instilled by his father. His experiment fueled a trip across the nation, during which he gave away the paper to veterans.

The gesture went over so well his trunk was soon full of uniforms donated by veterans nationwide for Cameron’s paper mill.

“The act of deconstructing [the uniform] you’re issued, with its mix of positive and negative experiences, and then reconstructing it and making something new is powerful,” Albrecht said.

Some veterans initially have difficulty repurposing the uniforms, which they see as a “reverent thing,” he said. However, because attendance at workshops is voluntary, it is never a significant obstacle.

Cameron said Combat Paper’s mission is not focused on alleviating the specific problems of veterans; instead, it aims to get people to think about armed conflicts and their role in our lives. None of the staff involved are trained therapists or grief specialists.

“Combat Paper heavily emphasizes process over artifacts,” he said.

Albrecht said this fixation with the act of creation helps make the whole process approachable to people who are not confident in their artistic abilities.

“Paper is such an everyday commodity … and the process [of papermaking] is wet, messy, and not precise-seeming,” said Combat Paper book artist and bookkeeper Pam DeLuco.

Albrecht said the textures and even the sounds involved in papermaking — which evoke rushing water —  are pleasant for people.

Making paper is a simple discipline, requiring, with suitable guidance, barely any technical skill to create a finished product, Albrecht added. Cameron said the introspection inherent to the process is important to the workshops.

“You come in and make paper, and maybe it opens up some doors for you … it turns people on to art, and maybe they start painting and stop having nightmares,” Cameron said, noting that this method is as valuable for civilians as it is for veterans.

Since 2007, Combat Paper has led more than 100 workshops across 29 states and six countries, and the organization is responsible for fostering the development of a portable paper mill (the machine used to hammer the uniforms into pulp), freeing the workshop from requiring potential locations to already possess a paper mill. 

Now, more than 30 models have been produced and are in use by papermakers not affiliated with Cameron’s organization.

Combat Paper is not a nonprofit organization, but its workshops are always free. Cameron said the source of a workshop’s funding varies from location to location; his office in San Francisco sustains itself through donations, grants, selling work, and producing bulk orders of specialty paper.

However, working with military uniforms remains Cameron’s overriding passion.

“The great tragedy of my work is I’ll never run out of uniforms,” he said. “We need more people [pulping uniforms] … the urgency around this work has yet to lessen.”

Combat Paper Workshop
Where: Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn
When: 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5
Admission: Free

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