Project Turns Military Uniforms Into Paper and Vets’ Experiences Into Triumph

Combat Paper NJ has teamed up with Kimmel Center to help make PIFA project a reality.
Keefe, center, with participants at a Combat Paper NJ workshop.

Keefe, center, with participants at a Combat Paper NJ workshop.

David Keefe holds a MFA with a speciality in printmaking and painting, and is a practicing artist in New Jersey.

He’s also a Marine vet, who served in Iraq, 2006-2007.

Needless to say, when the Printmaking Center of New Jersey suggested he cut up his old military uniform and transform it into paper, he had to think about it.

“I decided to go ahead with it because it was a good way for me to tell my story, my complex vet experience,” he said. “Once I did it, it was an immediate transformation on my part. It was something that I wanted to communicate, and a lightbulb went off.”

In a nutshell, Keefe teamed up with co-director Eli Wright to establish a New Jersey branch of Combat Paper, which offers workshops all over the Mid-Atlantic region, providing military vets and community members a chance to not only make paper out of their old uniforms, but create something much more profound.

“These are participatory art workshops,” he explained. “The public engages and the vets engage. It’s a great connector and communicator because the vets start to realize that they are accepted into greater society through exhibition, through talking, and through events.”

Sample work from a Combat Paper NJ workshop.

Sample work from a Combat Paper NJ workshop.

Combat Paper NJ is now a fully-functioning organization and a branch of a larger movement that was founded by Drew Cameron, who started the uniform-to-paper project in Vermont in 2007. Cameron, who now lives in San Francisco, essentially takes care of the West Coast workshops, while Keefe and his co-director engage along the East. They’ve led workshops up at hospitals, USO offices, universities, vet centers, and art organizations.

Now they can add the Kimmel Center to the list. Keefe’s staff will be providing area vets and community members a chance to transform old uniforms into paper during a February workshop in anticipation of a PIFA performance called Holding It Down, which will tell the true stories of vets of color. Audience members will get a piece of the uniform paper in their programs, where vets’ poetry will be letter-pressed onto the former clothes.

The creation of the paper is a multi-step, multi-dimensional process. To start, one might argue that there’s an emotional transformation that deals with the uniform itself, according to Keefe.

“The uniform is something that you have physically in contact with your body, and through time, you’ve held on to this object,” he said. “The weight of the memory woven into the fabric becomes heavier and more traumatic, or more daunting, or more beautiful. It’s ingrained in this uniform, and now it will be released.”

That release starts the minute that the uniform is cut into postage stamp sized pieces, something that Keefe calls “cathartic.”

“While you’re cutting, you want to tell your stories, and the bottom line purpose of this project is for you to tell your story,” he said. “It’s about changing the culture of the silent veteran. Cutting up the uniform releases the stories. Once that story is out in the open with the community support around you, these stories have a place to land. The cutting is a huge part of this process.”

Sample work from a Combat Paper NJ workshop.

Sample work from a Combat Paper NJ workshop.

So far as the physical transformation is concerned, that’s pretty interesting, too: The pieces of uniform are put through a paper beater, a huge macerating wheel with blades, along with water, for two hours. The result is pulp, which the artist then drains and shapes into anything he or she wants. For thePIFA performance, the paper will be transported back to the Printmaking Center of New Jersey, where artists will print poems on the product.

At other workshops, the participants literally create art from the paper, using a variety of mediums. The finished products often times go on exhibition and are presented to the vets. In short, the uniform has then come full-circle.

“There’s a sense of release of these stories,” said Keefe. “You can feel that in an exhibition when the participant hangs it up and looks at the paper. It’s an incredibly visceral, overwhelmingly satisfying experience. It’s the ultimate reason to make art, to communicate and challenge.”

But the physical process of the paper making is what seems to be the most cathartic.

“It’s such an intimidating act,” Keefe said. “The uniform is this object that you’ve had for so long and has so much meaning and weight, and you’re going to transform it into something. It’s an act of release, an act of subversion, an act of transformation, and an act of love. This spectrum of feeling towards the uniform is incredible to witness.”

The Combat Paper NJ community workshop at the Kimmel Center will be held on February 20 at 10 a.m. “Holding It Down” will play the Perelman Theatre on April 22 at 8 p.m., part of PIFA 2016. For information on both events, click here.