The Common Good
January-February 2002

What Words Cannot Capture

by Kimberly Burge | January-February 2002

Artists speak the language of the heart.

Almost immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, several artists proposed creating projected recreations of the World Trade Center, which they called "Towers of Light." This was not intended to be a memorial, one of the artists told The New Yorker. Rather, "This is a statement to the rest of the world and to ourselves."

Of all historical events, this one did not lack for powerful images. On the contrary, pictures were replayed for days without ceasing. Words, too, hundreds of thousands of them, recounted and analyzed and lamented the day. Yet even with reality captured on film, there was—and is—much that cannot be articulated. Here is where we rely on artists, those who render sculptures, paintings, collages, and tapestries to express what we can’t. Art speaks to the heart about what the mind struggles to grasp, that which is perhaps too painful to be spoken aloud.

A new exhibit at the American Visionary Arts Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore traverses the terrain of emotions that come from experiences of war and times of peace. "The Art of War and Peace: Toward an End to Hatred" features 250 works by 65 self-taught artists, many of whom are survivors—both civilian and military—of wars throughout the world. The exhibit opened in October, on the weekend that the United States began bombing Afghanistan. AVAM dedicated it to the people who died Sept. 11.

The "visionary" in the museum’s name means "outsider" art; that is, art created by those with no formal artistic training, people who are driven to create by the creative impulse itself. Visionary artists build grottos in their backyards made of seashells, colored glass, and broken tiles. They craft together a mobile using gold spray-painted cat food cans, wire rods, and fishing weights. They are farmers, housewives, people who have been institutionalized, mechanics, retired folk, the homeless, and the occasional neurosurgeon.

ALTHOUGH THE EXHIBIT includes art of war and peace, the war sections—"Battlefront," "Armageddon," and "Eracism"—are most compelling. The introduction to "Battlefront" reads, "What is rare [here] is the heroic glorification of war so often found in pre-19th century paintings and propaganda art of the 20th century. This is not to say that there are no patriotic feelings among the artists here. Instead, however, there seems to be a separation between an artist’s patriotism and his or her attitude toward war. Rather than expressing patriotism, the artist is compelled to express feelings about the war experience itself."

For example, in one of the most moving installations of the exhibit, titled "Soldier’s Heart," artist and Vietnam War veteran Stephen Ham’s drawings reveal the embedded pain he carries from events that happened years ago. His 15 large watercolor and ink drawings are cartoonish and childlike, figures with huge heads and disproportionate bodies. In "Welcome Home!" a damaged soldier is illustrated as a large blue torso sitting on a wheelchair. Skeleton eyes and mouth dominate the face. "Soldier’s Heart" shows a clumsily drawn large red heart, cut through diagonally with barbed wire, against a fiery orange background. This heart weeps smaller, heart-shaped teardrops. The implication seems to be that the pain replicates itself over and over.

The captions on most of his drawings are pointed: "Friendly Fire: When your friends kill your friends," and "You become insane during the war; after the war, you are still insane." By insane, exhibit notes say, Ham means emotionally damaged, psychologically decimated, and spiritually shattered.

The phrase "a soldier’s heart" was coined during the American Civil War for men who carried with them impressions of all they had seen and experienced. Subsequent wars and their lingering effects have spawned their own terminology: Vietnam vets have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Veterans from World War II and Korea who had trouble readjusting to civilian life were said to suffer from combat fatigue or, euphemistically, "nerves." World War I vets were shell-shocked. Ham’s drawing, with its lopsided, torn heart, reveals his own soldier’s heart.

Similar themes and emotions surface in other works, often in beautiful and delicate renderings. Women in the Hmong tribes in Laos, for example, practiced an ancient tradition of paj ntaub, meaning "cloth made beautiful like a flower." These embroidered quilts usually contained abstract geometric designs and ornamental motifs. In the 1960s and ’70s, American and North Vietnamese troops invaded the Hmong homeland and involved them in a "secret war." After escaping to refugee camps in Thailand, Hmong women adapted their needlework skills to record the war that destroyed their way of life.

Fifteen "story quilts," created by anonymous women, provide a stunning narrative of that conflict. Some are captioned in English; all show detailed scenes of bombings, air raids, figures in hand-to-hand combat, and human carnage. One quilt reads: "Life in Asia in 1976. They escape from War or the Great Force. Their lives are in darkness today. He pleads with the soldier not to kill him. Father, mother, and children are afraid that the enemy soldiers will kill them." Below the caption are dismembered bodies. Parachutes and helicopters hover above. A plane breaks in two in midair; multi-colored thread denotes an explosion.

Christ, presumably a witness to all wars, makes the most appearances in the exhibit’s "Armageddon" section, which offers a more generalized look at war with art containing political, philosophical, and religious commentary. Alex Grey’s "Nuclear Crucifixion" is a large painting showing Christ crucified on a mushroom cloud. His body is marked all over by slashes, his mouth gapes open, and his eyes are nearly rolling back in his head. He looks as annihilated as the landscape below him. No cross appears, just Jesus on the cloud and three rays of golden light, which offer the merest hint of a promise of resurrection.

STEP ACROSS THE hall into "Paradise Found" and there is more than a hint of new life. The colors are bright, the rooms are light, the walls are full of angels, animals, and children. The work of folk artist Howard Finster, who died in October at age 84, figures prominently here. Born in Alabama, Finster had a religious vision at age 3, dropped out of school in sixth grade, and at 16 became a Baptist minister. In the 1960s, he began creating "sermons in paint" on plywood, glass, mirrors, and nearly any other available surface. His works are elaborate creations, incorporating images and words over every inch of whatever canvas he’s using.

On display is a mirrored, garaged-sized installation titled "Finster House," which contains his collection of paintings of animals and...shoes. ("If a shoe fits, wear it," each one reads, by way of explanation.) Much of the writing on these paintings carries religious overtones of the fire and brimstone variety, as does his writing on Coca-Cola bottles and telephones. He believed, exhibition notes say, that his work was the "last red light" of warning before the apocalypse.

Over the doorway to Finster House, a large cutout painting of an angel with a slightly crazed smile on her face greets the viewer. She’s holding a placard that reads, "The angel of the Lord encampeth around about them that fear him, and delivereth them. I am calling this world to peace on earth now." The feathers of her wings are covered in similar words.

Some of the art in "Peace" is unabashedly joyous. The Caribbean painter Gladwyn K. Bush ("Miss Lassie," as she’s known) portrays Jesus and several disciples together in a boat, in "Peace Be Still." Each man is grinning gleefully, particularly Jesus, who is also pushing on one disciple’s forehead—it has to be Peter—to keep him from falling overboard. They look like a bunch of friends having a Saturday afternoon sail, without a care in the world.

The art in "Paradise Found" is overall less powerful than works in the other sections, a factor exhibit curator Michael Bonesteel acknowledged in his remarks at the exhibit’s opening. It was simply much harder to find works that illustrate peace. Many of these artists expressed peace too literally, using icons such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Lions lie down with lambs in the ever-popular Peaceable Kingdom. There are more pastel colors here than anywhere else in the exhibit. Much of it feels slightly trite and predictable.

Why is peace so hard to convey artistically? Is it because peace is simply the absence of strife? Do these visionary artists (or any artists, for that matter) not feel compelled to create when they’re at peace? Does war, whether it is internal or external, make for the best art? Perhaps war is so all-consuming that it proves equally powerful whether represented literally or metaphorically, in a way that peace cannot.

Regardless, these artists share a trait that is truly visionary: the compulsion to express what they witnessed, in a manner that bypasses evenhanded analysis and cuts right to the core of the emotional avalanche that war triggers. Whether their role in conflict was as soldier or civilian, their role as artist is to illuminate the overwhelming tangle of emotions that words fail to capture.

Kimberly Burge is senior writer and editor for Bread for the World in Washington, D.C. "The Art of War and Peace" will run at AVAM (410-244-1900; www.avam.org) through October 2002.

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