Jesse Albrecht

The hard part is making meaning, integrating truths and experiences from combat with life after.

When and where did you serve? What motivated you to join the military? Do you identify as a veteran, or do you prefer not to be labeled a 'veteran artist'?


I served in the National Guard from 1996-2006. I enlisted as a cannon crewmember (13B) in Wisconsin. During this time, I was a driver and Number One Man on a self-propelled 155mm howitzer crew. I transferred and re-classed as a combat medic (91B) when I moved to Iowa City for graduate school. I deployed 03-04 to Iraq (Mosul) as a medic, helped run an aid station, and spent more time performing security/convoy operations supporting medical and religious sections at the Division level of the 101st Airborne. I deployed as a sergeant and was honorably discharged in 2006. Joining the military was something I felt I needed to do. I grew up in a family of veterans—Viet Nam, Tarawa, Pearl Harbor, and New Guinea. These were quiet and affected men; they were different. I could feel it, and I was drawn to their experiences, by what I now realize is a universal and timeless draw—to serve your people in combat. The depth and intensity I have been changed by and affected by my service leave me no choice but to identify as a veteran. From one direction, I am a person making art about my experience. From another, I am someone who volunteered to trade my life for others, and combat veterans have increased mental and physical health issues. Being trained to kill and deployed to do so on behalf of our nation leaves a hole in me the parades and football game flyovers and Veterans' Day free food can not ever fill.


Briefly describe your creative process. What does the creative process look like to you?


Drawing is the through-line in my creative process, from when I was a small child through the years of not having studio access. Drawing serves as the reservoir into which ideas and images flow. I am searching for the truth. I use humor as a tool to get through the tough stuff. The past 10 years have seen small windows of significant concentrated creative output in short residencies and workshops. Collaborative work has also been a substantial part of my creative process, such as my collaborations with Paintallica.


Why do you do the creative work you do? Do you have a goal for your art?


Making art isn't a choice for me—this took a while to realize and accept. Since I was a small child, I have struggled to communicate my emotions through words. So, I have been drawing my feelings and expressing and understanding them that way most of my life. Being true to the work is my goal—sometimes, I have a clear feeling or idea that I want to embody through a piece. Other times, the piece shows me where to go, and it provides a chance for discovery. Pursuing the truth is a goal. Making engaging imagery is a goal, as is making myself uncomfortable with the imagery I use. Continual conceptual and technical growth are goals. Not falling for current social and political, and technological trends are also goals.


What does creativity mean to you?


Creativity means, to me, being in congruence with the present moment of the human experience. It takes many different forms and shapes. It surely doesn't just pertain to or exist because the word art is slapped on or around something… it is more of a feeling than an object or image. Technique can often be confused for creativity.


What is the role of the artist in society?


There are many roles of the artist in society. The role that has been my path is to present my experiences and observations through art. Going into the enigmatic thunderheads of war has held my attention over the past 20 years. Making beautiful things, revealing truths, entertaining, ridiculing, and poking fun at the harmful and destructive aspects of the world, asking questions, making observations of the human experience, capturing its essence in all its beauty and horror… these are things I believe are my responsibilities as an artist. As an artist, I am a combination of a canary in the coal mine; a comedian; a graffiti artist; a creator; and a recorder of beauty.


What is the role of the veteran in society? Does a veteran have a duty or societal role after the military?


Culture and technology have changed so quickly and covered so much territory over the last 150 years. Society hasn't figured out how to integrate warriors into these changes. However, warriors throughout time and across cultures have played a vital and crucial role after combat, offering caution and guidance, not just for other warriors but also for the rest of society. I feel that is missing now. I am curious how this is contributing to integration challenges veterans feel post-combat? For me, the hard part starts after combat. Training for and serving in combat was the easy part because the war had my attention. You do all you can to be prepared, but you die, or you don't. Finding purpose and meaning after the uniform comes off has been challenging. World and life views have been decimated and need to be rebuilt post-combat. The hard part is making meaning, integrating truths and experiences from combat with life after. Reordering, trying to understand how to integrate and relate with those who haven't been to war, with the searing truths the combat veteran knows, can't be unknown, can't be unseen, can't be unlearned. Nothing makes sense.


How has your military experience influenced your creative work?


My military experience has bestowed upon me how precious and powerful the freedom of writing and saying what you feel is right is. And how resistant and skeptical I am of people who (whatever their claimed allegiance or their perceived greater good) are trying to limit and control free speech. I've been incredibly humbled by my experience as well. I have learned the hard way how to ask for help and to work hard to be healthy as survival post-combat can be more perilous and challenging than when deployed.


What is your inspiration? Do you follow other veteran artists? Who would you most like to inspire to do art?


Life is my inspiration: my daughter, nature, love, fear, beauty. I have an inspirational peer/hero group of other veteran artists that I am lucky to consider more than friends and with whom I get to work alongside. I can list them, and I will accidentally leave someone off the list, so I'm sorry about that. Ehren Tool, Don Bendel, Drew Cameron, Nate Lewis, Eli Wright, Daniel Donovan, Yvette Pino, Al Tennant, Don Reitz, Mike Weber, Kevin Basal, Aaron Hughes, Monte Little, Eric Garcia.


I believe art is a universal aspect of being human, so I hope to inspire everyone. In the sense of life or vocation, I hope to inspire those who can't not do it and those who have served.