PI Original Aricka Flowers Friday July 22nd, 2011, 4:29pm

Life Through The Eyes Of A Veteran

A solemn image of a worn pair of military boots that have seen many days of war. Military dog tags of thousands of servicemen and women turned into a glimmering chandelier of light. A man down in the sand. One lesser-known Chicago museum provides a look into life through the eyes of a veteran.

A solemn image of a worn pair of military boots that have seen many days of war. Military dog tags of thousands of servicemen and women turned into a glimmering chandelier of light. A man down in the sand. If you want to get a glimpse into the mind of a U.S. military veteran, all you have to do is turn to the art in the National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM) in Chicago's South Loop neighborhood.

The almost 30 year-old museum has reinvented itself a few times over the years as it has grown to feature more than 2,000 paintings, sculptures and other pieces of artwork from various U.S. wars, including WW2 and the Korean and Persian Gulf conflicts. More than 255 artists have contributed to the NVAM collection. Formerly known as the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, officials dropped the Vietnam distinction in January 2010 to create opportunities for more of the nation's servicemen and women.

"By taking out the Vietnam in our name, it opened us up to be more inclusive to veterans of other U.S. military conflicts and even more importantly, to the active military; the men and women who are currently serving, whether it's in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq or other areas where we are fighting the war on terrorism," said NVAM Executive Director Levi Moore. "It also opened us up to people that will patronize and support the museum. We haven't forgotten our roots with Vietnam, but we're way more inclusive. And we have to be more contemporary if we're going to be viable in the next decade."

Right now, Chicago residents and visitors can get a glimpse of some of NVAM's extensive art collection by way of the "Honoring and Remembering" exhibit being hosted at Northern Trust Bank's downtown location at 50 S. LaSalle St. The exhibit is featuring close to 30 pieces from NVAM artists who were involved in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. In addition to those works, the exhibit is featuring some 15 portraits of veterans with a collaborating NVAM artist.

“We are grateful to Northern Trust Bank for the opportunity to share the art in our collection with a wider audience. This exhibit allows us to increase the exposure to our collection beyond just on our website and at our South Loop facility,” said Moore.

“What is truly unique about this show is that it puts the art in our collection, which is inspired by veterans’ combat experiences, into dialogue with Jeanine Hill-Soldner’s portraits of veterans," Moore explained. "Not only do viewers get to see the veterans’ art, but they also get to see an artist’s perspective of veterans. This is the type of project we want to promote to our supporters who we hope will assist us in remaining in Chicago.”

The museum is hoping the exhibit will help in providing a spotlight on the artwork of the servicemen as NVAM officials work to raise funds for a new home. The museum has to move from its current location at 1801 S. Indiana Avenue to a new facility by next year. The museum used to own the building they are in and had three floors to showcase the talent of U.S. veterans and hold related events, but they are now renting and dealing with a lot less space.

"We've transitioned to where we are renting now from the Chicago Park District," Moore said. "And we're down to one floor." NVAM is also looking to create a virtual gallery so the artwork can be enjoyed by those outside of the Chicagoland area. Within city limits, the museum is looking to expand what is available to visitors by making their next home more of a "multimedia hub" that is easy to get to for tourists while also creating a stabilizing force in the community by featuring poetry slams, theatre vignettes tailored to the military community, and informational seminars on post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues affecting soldiers and their families.

As part of their fundraising efforts, NVAM will be hosting a reception in August that will be attended by Secretary of State Jesse White and Alderman James Balcer (11th), who are honorary advisors to the museum's Development and Relocation Committee. The Chicago Cubs and White Sox will also be supporting the museum's relocation efforts with NVAM Day during their respective games on August 10 and September 13, with a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales going to the museum.

Moore says the museum functions as not only a place for people to see the artwork of American soldiers, but also tends to act as a bridge -- or reality check -- for students who come to visit, especially high schoolers.

"Because we have this direct connection to the U.S. military, high school students, when they come to visit, not only get an exposure to art and the creative process, but they also get a history lesson about the eras when the art may have come from," he explained. "Particularly when the students come in, we always like to have an artist be available to give a short lecture or be available for a question and answer period. And to put a human face on it for a 17 year-old who may be considering going into the military, that can be a very intense experience because you delve into what was going on in the person's mind as they were experiencing life on the battlefield; so you're seeing it almost first-hand through their eyes."

That feeling has become even more commonplace at the museum, Moore said, as military officers currently serving overseas are sending in photos from the battlefield with growing consistency. To support or find out more about the museum’s fundraising efforts and events, including the reception and Cubs and Sox games, visit the NVAM web site or call 312-326-0270.

The "Honoring and Remembering" exhibit at Northern Trust Bank's LaSalle Street location will be up until the end of August.

All images courtesy of the National Veterans Art Museum.


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