Vietnam veteran helps give a retrospective look into war through art
Published: Monday, April 16, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08
Flipping through a book of artwork sold in the gift shop of the National Veterans Art Museum, Art Director Joe Fornelli explains he didn’t receive the best education growing up. But at a young age he discovered a talent for art and brought it with him when he was 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 said, laughing. “I just don’t have any money.”
Walking through the museum’s airy, industrial loft-like space, Fornelli transitions from details of the war-inspired artwork created by veterans and the museum’s history before opening its doors at 1801 S. Indiana Ave. in 1996. Passionate and outspoken when discussing 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, Ericksen assumed. The image forever burned into his mind, is 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, who is attending graduate school for art therapy this fall at the Art Institute, Verma began her employment at the museum in 2011 and since then has attained a deeper insight regarding the importance of art created for reasons greater 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 who can ascend to a higher level of communication and expression through art, reaching out to those who 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.”
Ron Schinleber quietly walked through the gallery observing the different pieces.
Schinleber is 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,” Schinleber said. “I just hope art helps them comes to terms with it.”
Vietnam was the first war to be televised, creating a negative perception of U.S. soldiers as Americans at home were exposed to uncensored horrific footage. Author Bob Greene described the poor public reception of returning soldiers, spat on and deemed as savages due to their image in the media, in his book “Returning Home.” 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 a collection of artwork inspired by the experiences of combat veterans. The first exhibit, “Reflexes and Reflections,” gave a unique, humanistic perspective of the war through the artistic psyche of the soldier. It was widely received by the 10,000 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 and 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 veterans of the wars in 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 in the museum’s 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.”