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Art during wartime

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s Trench Art exhibit highlights a remarkable genre of folk art

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


A little talked about fact of military life is that there a long stretches where time hangs heavy on a soldier’s hands, even during wartime. For various reasons, there is virtually nothing to do, and to stave off boredom, restlessness, and fear — and to prevent the sort of trouble that might come from young men in a pressure-filled situation having nothing to distract them — commanders often encouraged their soldiers to keep busy by exercising their creative side.

“Commanders would sometimes supply a certain amount of tools to their troops to keep them employed and stay out of trouble,” explains Brian Williamson, the Technical Director at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. “So they would paint their helmets, paint their gas mask bags… they would do all kinds of things as an outlet for their creativity and to relieve boredom.”

And sometimes, these exercises to relieve boredom and stay out of trouble resulted in some pretty remarkable work. A current exhibit at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art called Trench Art: Productive Past Times from the Debris of War offers a wide range of work produced by servicemen from the past 150 years or so.

While some of the works were made during service, many of the pieces were created afterwards. Soldiers returning home fashioned ashtrays, lighters, lamps and other utilitarian objects from the “souvenirs” — shell casings, bullet casings, and other debris of war“ — they brought back with them. “In this exhibit we have lots of lamps that I guarantee you were not in somebody’s duffle bag,” says Williamson, who curates the exhibit. “Soldiers typically collect souvenirs from their travels and experiences, so someone would bring home a shell and later, make something out of it.”

“There is a lot of brass,” he jokes. “It’s a lot of… I guess we’d call it ‘man cave’ type stuff.”

He’s right — there is a lot of brass, and the lamps, ashtrays, match safes and other works seem like the kind of items you’d find in whatever room in the house was reserved as exclusively male territory (it used to call it “the den.”)

But the detail, craftwork, and care evident in many of these items is incredible, and the exhibit goes beyond the brass items to include painted helmets, mess kits, and other work that could be called more strictly decorative. Williamson describes a first aid pouch with beadwork on it. “It was found second, third, fourth hand, so the original artist we don’t know, but it’s very typical of Native American beadwork,” he says. “There were a lot of Native Americans that were in the service during the second world war, and it’s very likely that this bead work was done by a Native American soldier at that time. We can’t prove it, but it’s a neat piece.”

And though Williamson may joke about the “man cave” aspect of some of the items, he has a tremendous reverence and respect for “trench art,” a recognized genre of folk art that includes any decorative item made by soldiers — or even prisoners of war or civilians — where the items used and the construction of the piece is linked to war.

Williamson has been Technical Director at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art since 1987. “I install the shows, I de-install them, I light them, I do matting and framing, I do photography,” he says. “But I typically don’t curate a show.”

His passion is military history — he’s a founding board member of the Museum of the Soldier down in Portland — and his extensive knowledge in the field made him the most obvious choice to curate the trench art exhibit.

Williamson has been collecting trench art since the 70s, and there’s more of it out there than you probably imagine, often in the homes of the original artists’ descendants. “Literally millions of pieces have been produced over the years,” he says. “Some of the pieces (in the FWMoA show) date to the Civil War, some date to the Vietnam War era. You hear a lot of people say things like ‘oh, I saw something like this at the antique mall.’ And that’s probably true. It’s out there, and it’s generally not very expensive when you consider classical art.”

Williamson estimates that almost half of the items in the FWMoA’s Trench Art exhibit are from the World War I era. “That’s considered the classic era of trench art, and that’s when people started actually using that term,” he says. “A French publication did a story shortly after World War I on ‘artisans of the trenches,’ and as far as anyone can tell, that’s the first time that term was used.”

While trench warfare is probably most closely associated with World War I, the term came to include any of this kind of folk art made by soldiers before and after that era. “It’s soldier art in a broader sense,” adds Williamson. “It’s not a term to get wrapped around, but collectors know what that means.”

As we said above, many of the items are utilitarian — soldiers would make lamps, match safes, lighters, ashtrays, bookends, vases, letter openers and the like. Others are decorative, like painted helmets and the bead work pouch. And there even a few items that don’t really fit into either category, that might be called more expressive. Williamson mentions a drawing he acquired several years ago, made by a paratrooper shortly after the invasion of Normandy. “It’s pretty graphic for the time,” he says. “You see an eviscerated soldier lying there… but it’s an interesting piece because of the time frame. It was literally made by a solider during the war, shortly after the Normandy invasion, and you can see that he’s using his mind’s eye to put down his experiences.”

Still more trench art was created as a kind of therapy — soldiers recuperating from injury were encouraged to make things either to (once again) relieve boredom or keep their fingers and hands active. “We don’t know the story behind some of these things,” Williamson says. “We don’t know where or when or why it was created. A lot of it was obviously made by people after they returned home, but other items… we’re not sure.”

In addition to his work as Technical Director at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and as part of the Museum of the Soldier, Williamson is also a member of the National Guard, and will be deployed to Afghanistan in a few months as part of the 519 Agri-business Development Team, a group that is helping the Afghan farmers make the move from subsistence farming to commercial farming. This is Williamson’s first trip to Afghanistan and he says he’s very excited about the mission.

One thing he doesn’t think we’ll find coming out of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq is much trench art in the traditional sense. For one, he says, the rules are different — soldiers aren’t allowed to bring home artillery shells as in previous wars. He believes the trench art coming out of the conflicts of the last decade will take a different form. “There is still creative work going on, but it’s not going to be like what you see in the Fort Wayne Museum of Art exhibit,” he says. “The creativity of the soldier probably gets channeled into videos and other things.”

Trench Art: Productive Pastimes from the Debris of War
Fort Wayne Museum of Art
January 14 – February 26

For more information, visit fwmoa.org

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