I ran into an artist across the street from the Federal Plaza painting Alexander Culver’s, “Flamingo” sculpture in the rain.
Where art and understanding meet.
A Vietnam veteran helps give a retrospective look into war
Flipping through a book of artwork sold in the gift shop of the National Veterans Art Museum, art director Joe Fornelli explains he wasn’t the most educated growing up. But at a young age he discovered a talent for art and brought it with him when drafted into the Vietnam War at 21. With just a piece of notepad paper, a self made brush, and instant coffee for ink, he would create elaborate paintings sitting in his bunker to pass the time. Once, after a bunker had been destroyed by a mortar attack, he pulled a piece of lumber from the debris, carved it into a head, created a headdress for it from used .50 caliber rifle shells, and dubbed it an Asian deity.
He finds the picture of it in the book and points to the description—“’Dressed to Kill,’ by Joseph Fornelli.”
“I told you I was a famous artist,” he laughs. “I just don’t have any money.”
Walking through the museum’s airy, industrial loft-like space, Fornelli transitions between details of the war-inspired artwork created by veterans and the museum’s history before opening its doors at 1801 S. Indiana Avenue in 1996. Passionate and outspoken to discuss his love for art, Fornelli emphasizes the value of art to those traumatized by war as both a form of expression and therapy.
He stops at Marcus Eriksen’s sculpture, “Angel in the Desert,” lying center in of one of the rooms. On a convoy in Iraq, Ericksen witnessed a dead Iraqi soldier blown from a jeep, lying in the sand with wing-like markings around where he lay; markings from waving his hands in the last moments of life, Erickson assumed. The image forever burned into his mind, now on display at the museum. Also, hanging from the ceiling is Jon Turner’s “Prayer Boots,” filled with hundreds of messages written by visitors, acting as a vehicle to deliver thoughts of peace to veterans affected by war.
“There’s a bond here that goes beyond family, beyond religion,” the 69-year-old Chicago native said. “It may not be sophisticated, but it’s powerful.”
Working with Fornelli is Anjalee Verma, Special Projects Coordinator at the Museum. An artist herself and attending graduate school for art therapy this Fall at the Art Institute, she began her employment in 2011 and since then has attained a deeper insight of the importance of art, more than for art’s sake.
“The experiences of war can strip someone of their identity,” Verma said. “But art gives them a chance to see themselves again and regain their individuality.”
To Verma, the gallery is evidence that regardless of experience or training, everyone is a creative agent able to ascend to a higher level of communication and expression through art, reaching out to those who come visit the museum.
“Sometimes people don’t even know how to react because they didn’t know art could be so powerful,” she said. “It’s an overall moving experience for them.
People like Ron Schinleber, quietly walking through the gallery observing the different pieces.Schinleber is also a Vietnam veteran and he understands how debilitating the mental effect of war can be for veterans.
“What we experienced back then is something we carry with ourselves for the rest of our lives,” Ron said. “I just hope art helps them comes to terms with it.”
Vietnam was the first war ever televised, creating a negative perspective of U.S. soldiers as Americans were exposed to uncensored horrific footage. Author Bob Greene described in his book, “Returning Home,” the poor public reception of returning soldiers, spat on and deemed as savages due to their image in the media. Disconnect between the public and veterans increased as the majority of soldiers could not express what they had been through, debilitated by their experiences.
“Vietnam was a word that no one could understand,” Fornelli said. “For soldiers, the pain of Vietnam was something better locked away.”
In 1981, believing in the power of empathy found in art, Fornelli joined with other veteran artists to form the Vietnam Veterans Art Group, and created collection of artwork inspired by the experiences of combat veterans. Their first exhibit, “Reflexes and Reflections,” gave a unique, humanistic perspective of the war through the artistic psyche of the soldier, widely received by the ten thousand visitors it welcomed in just five weeks.
“I even started getting calls from veteran artists from all over the place,” Fornelli said. “The first thing [one artist ] told me was, ‘I thought I was the only one who did this stuff!’”
After touring in galleries and museums across the country, with the support of Richard M. Daley the exhibit found its permanent home in the South Loop. It stands as a gateway for hundreds of war artists—including those of Iraq and Afghanistan—using art as a medium of expression to introduce their work to the public. With pieces coming in from all over the world, Fornelli rotates exhibits with the thousands of pieces stacked high to the ceiling of its storage area, each with a unique story to tell.
“The fact we’re still here today is the power of art,” Fornelli said. “If it had no meaning, it would have disappeared with everything else.”
So unfortunately, I’ve been so busy lately and caught up with life I can’t even find the time to do any writing for my own personal enjoyment. But even though I’ve been so into the news lately, I’m in the process of getting some good feature stories published, so hopefully I’ll get that out soon enough.
So, I decided that, although I can’t do as much writing as I would like to, I decided to try and start doing “video journals.” I’m working on this print piece for the National Veterans Art Museum and Art Director Joe Fornelli (That’s going to be published next week!), and after taking my photos, I decided to shoot some video as well.
So while I was working on my piece, I had a really nice talk with Anjalee Verma, special projects coordinator at the museum, and we discussed how amazing art is when it ascends to a higher level of communication, especially when it’s created for reasons greater than just, “art for arts sake.” She really put it into words better than I ever could:
“It seems that with [some veteran] artists, something has been stripped from within them after experiencing the trauma of war. But art helps them reintroduce themselves to their individuality, regaining what was lost.”- Anjalee Verma.
Now I can write for days on how art has affected my life- being a military veteran, writer and actor- but that’s just time I don’t have at the moment. But I’ll take note of it for later. Let’s just say art and my passion for creative expression is something that has really become a part of me over the past few years. It’s given me the ability to think deeper within myself as well as outside of my own perspective towards life and the world of my existence. And although it seems I sometimes can’t allocate the time for it, It’s something I trust I can always turn to when needed.
Here’s a little video montage of the museum, something I whipped up in like 5 minutes with whatever footage I had. Whoever lives in Chicago should really visit this gallery at 1801 S Indiana Chicago, IL 60616 .