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
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.
Believe & Choose, Bic 4 Color Pen on Paper made from Military Uniforms by Nathan Lewis 8"x 5" 2020
Created for an art exchange within the Emerging Veteran Artist Movement, the main image of the alarm clock I use in reference to the multiple times I have had to wake up from the situation I had put myself in and get help. In the fall and early winter of 2019, I spent in the Montana VA hospital at Fort Harrison, in the inpatient PTSD program, and had come to the important realization that I have a choice, and I choose to believe. When I felt like I had no choice, I sunk to the lowest level, and when I believed in negative and bad things, that became my entire reality. The saying is a reminder to be focused on growth and positives. My time in the hospital was life-changing in a positive way, and the spiritual growth is represented in the four colors on the clock face.
Boundaries & Protection, Bic 4 Color Pen on Paper made from Military Uniforms by Nathan Lewis 8" x 5" 2020
I created this for an art exchange within the Emerging Veteran Artist Movement. This is a self-portrait that has me surrounded by varying cultural icons used to protect against evil. The lock around my head, along with the key, represents the realization that I had created the mental prison I was in and that I had the ability to free myself. While the drawing is underwhelming compared to the aforementioned realization (while at the inpatient PTSD program at the VA hospital) and much easier said than done, it represents the challenges of staying healthy. First and foremost, creating boundaries and protection for and from myself. I believe we all are capable of limitless potential and resiliency but also inflicting unfathomable pain to ourselves and others.
Suicide Hotline (Bowl) Low-fire Ceramic, Underglaze with Glaze 3.5" x 4.5" 2018
This bowl references Asian culture and my admiration for their ceramic history and traditions, as well as the complicated and duplicitous nature of humans; as my great-uncle Mike was at Pearl Harbor, his brother Jimmy was shot through both legs at Tarawa. My grandfather fought the Japanese in New Guinea. Shortly after I returned from Iraq, I fired a Tozan Noborigama wood kiln in Flagstaff, Arizona. The building was led by Yukio Yamamoto, who was a kamikaze pilot for Japan in WWII—he never flew.The firing of this kiln was directed by Don Bendel and paramount in me returning to graduate school and finishing my MFA in ceramics post-Iraq.
Three years later, at the same kiln site, a Viet Nam Veteran woodfire ceramic artist told me that if I “didn't get help, I would be homeless." He told a mutual friend, "I don't think your buddy is going to make it." This motivated me to ride over the mountain and enter the purgatory that is mental health treatment through the VA. The imagery used here is what I have tried as substitutes. It directly addresses the existential and PTSD-related issues related to my service. The folks over at the Suicide Hotline do good work. I called them early one evening, and the person did a great job helping me get through the situation. I'm thankful the police didn't shoot me with their M4s when they came blazing up the street and into my apartment. I'm grateful they perp-walked me up the whole block and put me in the back of the squad car so the neighborhood got the picture and I could rest easy people would not fuck with me. And on that ride to the hospital, the police officer—who arrested me for drunk driving five years earlier—let his guard down and admitted he drives drunk and has troubles with alcohol.
Whoops (War Is A Racket), SAPI Plate Low Fire Ceramic, Underglaze with Glaze 2018
I wasn't issued the Small Arms Protective Insert (SAPI) plates for my body armor that would actually stop bullets. As a medic, in the planning sessions, they probably calculated the taxpayer savings on not buying, shipping, and issuing this item, even though it is relatively cheap—less than $100. I ended up outside the wire around 100 times, and most of those times without SAPI plates. It's interesting to have the value of your life distilled to this point. But you "go to war with the army you have, not the one you want," stated then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I realized everyone is capable of the most horrific atrocities and the most beautiful selfless acts, but that doesn't go over well with order and control and the "we're the good guys, they're the bad guys" rhetoric, current times included. Smedley Butler wrote the essay, "War is a Racket," and I recommend everyone learn who he was, what he did, and why we don't hear much about him.
Little Bighorn Bic 4 Color Pen on paper 30" x 22" 2013
I started this piece shortly after I moved to Montana. The battlefield is a couple hours away, and the National Park is run by the folks who won the battle. There is a medal for the 'Indian Wars' sold in the gift shop. I quit counting how many recipients got the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars after 60; at least some Indian Scouts were recognized for their contributions. While at the VA hospital, the Helena Indian Alliance would have folks come over and run sweat lodges on the hospital grounds.
At my rough count, 25% of the folks in the hospital with me were Native American. I was witness to what sure seemed to be contemporary, historical, and institutional racism. I was even more baffled at every turn; people in seeming positions of authority did nothing to rectify the situation. The person in the skull is me, and the snake represents evil and our soul; I can clearly see many situations where I am shooting someone while being shot. There is no high ground in the firefight for morality, trying my best for right action, yes, but it's a muddy, bloody mess.