Seeds of change
At a new Logan Square gallery, artists and soldiers team up to help traumatized veterans.
In January 2006, two days before her second deployment to Iraq, 21-year-old Army specialist Suzanne Swift went AWOL. Arrested six months later at her Oregon home, Swift claimed she ran away because she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder—and because she’d experienced months of sexual harassment from three men in her unit.
Last month, you might have seen Swift in Chicago: not the soldier-turned-activist herself, but her portrait. The Justseeds artists’ cooperative and Iraq Veterans Against the War used Swift’s image to illustrate a poster about military sexual trauma. It’s one of 20 prints the two groups created for their collaboration Operation Exposure, which raises awareness of the redeployment of traumatized troops.
On November 15, IVAW and Justseeds wheatpasted the prints on “commercial ad spaces or boarded-up buildings” around the city, according to local Justseeds artist Nicolas Lampert, as well as at Co-Prosperity Sphere and Eastern Expansion in Bridgeport and for one night at Rogers Park’s Mess Hall. The artists and activists also put up stencils of Swift and two other soldiers who refused to redeploy, along with the veterans’ statements explaining their actions.
“About 20 percent of these soldiers [returning from Iraq and Afghanistan] have post-traumatic stress disorder,” says IVAW organizing team leader Aaron Hughes. A 2008 RAND Corporation study confirms his alarming statistic. “There’s a suicide epidemic going on across the United States of G.I.s and veterans,” he adds. Hughes joined the Illinois Army National Guard in 2000, was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and left the armed forces in 2006—the same year he became a member of IVAW. He’s also an artist who received his M.F.A. from Northwestern earlier this year. “Intrusive Thoughts,” an exhibition of soldiers’ art and writing that Hughes curated, is on view at Chicago’s National Veterans Art Museum through May.
I spoke with Hughes and Lampert as they installed a huge mural made up of Operation Exposure prints (pictured, above right) at 2040 North Milwaukee Avenue, the headquarters of In These Times. The mural and “Resourced,” a portfolio of Justseeds prints addressing environmental issues, launch the lefty magazine’s new in-house gallery Art In These Times. (To visit the gallery by appointment through June, e-mail email@example.com.)
Though Justseeds is now based in Pittsburgh and its 26 members live all over the U.S., Canada and Mexico, the cooperative was founded in Chicago in 1998 by artist Josh MacPhee. When he lived here, MacPhee curated a few art exhibitions at In These Times. That’s how his friends, activists Lauren Cumbia and Daniel Tucker, got the idea to start Art In These Times and invite Justseeds to exhibit there, the duo tells me by phone. Both rent offices from the magazine: Cumbia’s a member of the Illinois Transformative Justice Law Project, and AREA Chicago founder Tucker is a writer and consultant. They wanted to reach out to In These Times’ other progessive tenants at 2040 North Milwaukee Avenue, who include the United Taxidrivers Community Council and the Alternative Press Center, as well as members of Chicago’s art world.
The Justseeds artists began working closely with IVAW about six months ago, developing stark, mostly figurative prints that provide information about PTSD, war resisters in the military and individual soldiers’ experiences. YOU ARE NOT ALONE, the portrait of Swift assures victims afraid to speak up.
“It’s really humbling that Justseeds did this. Most people don’t care,” Hughes says. “A lot of artists dealing with the war don’t want to work with veterans.”
While ads immediately encroached on the outdoor Operation Exposure posters, numerous passersby asked Justseeds and IVAW members about the project as they put up their work, Lampert recalls. “So much of our urban landscape is ads,” he says. “You never see any messages in public space about G.I. resistance or any type of critical voice against the war.… It’s kind of metaphoric that [the posters] are covered up so fast by ad teams because it’s like the war gets forgotten again. ‘Go back to shopping.’”
Art In These Times opens with a reception Thursday 9, 6–9pm.