The veterans once wore uniforms, but now they’re cutting the cloth to create handmade paper.
“It pulls me out of myself,” said Army veteran Jan Barry.
Frontline Paper is a program of the nonprofit Frontline Arts. It’s become part of the weekend routine for Barry. He and others start the papermaking process by cutting donated military uniforms. For Barry, that’s where the creative process begins.
“Suddenly it triggers some memory, and quite often the discussions we have in doing that is, oh how would you illustrate the story that goes with that memory,” Barry said.
The uniforms are cut into small pieces, about the size of a postage stamp.
“We reclaim them as paper by putting them in a machine called a beater that beats it and macerates it and turns it into a pulp,” said Marine Corps veteran and studio manager Walt Nygard.
The pulp is drained from the beater and poured in vats. The veterans pull sheets from the pulp using a mold and deckle. Then, the sheets are separated, stacked and pressed to remove water. The sheets are placed in a dry box for at least 24 hours. Then, the paper is ready. At that point veterans can use printmaking techniques, draw, paint and more.
“We get to communicate our stories through art. Everyone has a story, so you get to experience my story and I’ll listen to yours,” Nygard said. “It’s important right now, especially in America today, where there is no draft and where the military represents such a small portion of the American population. It’s important that those voices are heard. Even for the most civilian of people, it will bring out something that they remember.”
For many of the veterans, working with generations of uniforms evokes lots of different emotions.
“These wars set us off,” Barry said. “It reminds us of being in a war.”
Though Barry says the process is a way to channel some of those negative thoughts and feelings into something positive.
“It’s therapeutic, it’s great,” said Army veteran Frank Wagner.
“What excites me about it is that it’s something I’m actually making and I’m creating something from scratch,” said Marine Corps veteran Ron Erickson.
“It’s really amazing for me because I had no art experience at all,” said Army veteran Jim Fallon.
The veterans’ work is now featured in galleries throughout New Jersey and in other states as well.
Frontline Paper also takes their show on the road. They travel to Washington D.C. to host workshops for service members. In New Jersey, the organization brings their equipment to universities, art festivals, hospitals and more.
Frontline Arts offers their free workshop every Sunday at their Branchburg location.
“This program saved my life and I’ve seen it do that for others,” Nygard said. “This is a place where you can find community and where you can tell your stories, create something and grow, grow into your life here on this side of the ocean.”