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Veterans Find Artistic Common Ground

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For the past decade, the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago has been home to the paintings, photos and sculptures of veteran artists around the country. But financial problems have left the museum with few resources for a sustainable future in its current location. At the same time, the museum is quickly becoming a destination for a new generation of artwor—that of recent veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Visitors to the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago will often find there's no one manning the front desk. But a bell brings Jerry Kykisz running.
ambi: bell rings

KYKISZ: Be right down, ma'am.

WOMAN: Is it…is it open?

KYKISZ: Yes, ma'am, we're open. Hold on a second, I'll getcha.

Kykisz is the South Loop museum's general manager and one of only two full-time employees. The museum's incurred a lot of debt due to expensive rehab projects and high utility bills. Despite the financial woes, Kykisz, a Vietnam veteran himself, says the museum is increasingly important today given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

KYKISZ: I don't think that this country as a whole has really had to deal with or face the issues that veterans have to deal with for a long time. Now, you know, it's coming home. You know, more and more veterans are coming back and they are realizing that there's more to a soldier returning home than a welcome home parade.

That's something Kykisz and his fellow Vietnam veteran artists know well. And it's why they want the museum to be a welcoming place for veterans of the current conflicts. Kykisz says the board of directors is even planning to change the museum's name to be inclusive of the new veterans.

KYKISZ: Our mission is still the same. We're still exhibiting art work by soldiers on the subject of war. I think we're just broadening our horizons to include the current crop of veterans. They need a place, too. I mean, we needed a place bad, and they do, too.

ambi: footsteps

KYKISZ: In this wing here, we have the Aaron Hughes exhibit. Aaron was in the National Guard and ended up in Iraq.Pretty good stuff, we thought. I mean, artistically speaking.

Artist Aaron Hughes was the first Iraq War veteran to exhibit at the museum. After a 15-month tour, Hughes was looking to show his war-inspired paintings and photographs. That's when Hughes says a friend suggested the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum.

HUGHES: They're veterans, I'm a veteran. You know, that was the first discussion we had was about being veterans. I was in the army, you were in the marines. Oh, okay, jarhead. I mean, you know, it's a joking thing. I mean there's a common ground there that we can begin to construct a relationship off of.

Hughes says the museum's Vietnam veterans understood the importance of not being labeled by others: in their cases, being called failures; in his case, a hero.

HUGHES: I think a lot of the Iraq veterans are always going to look to the Vietnam veterans for support to work through their experiences. And I think there's a lot of fatherly relationships between the Vietnam veterans and the Iraq veterans and the mentoring is unbelievable.

Since Hughes' exhibit, three other recent veterans have shown work and two more have been accepted. The museum is also expanding its approach. Some recent exhibit themes included women and war and children of war. Tomorrow the museum opens a new show: Memories of an Era, Reflections of Our Time. Artist Jeanine Hill-Soldner incorporates into her paintings her father's photos from his Vietnam tours.

HILL-SOLDNER: I'm glad I can contribute to the dialogue and open up the conversation of families and children and war and maybe if people see that really even if families survive a war, it's been with me all my life.

Hill-Soldner is not a veteran herself. But she knew her work and her father's photos belonged at the museum after she met a veteran and his wife while visiting there.

HILL-SOLDNER: The man was in tears and he got up and left. And the woman looked at me and she said, since we've been married he's been waking up at night and screaming, and he never cries and he never tells me about it, but he wakes up every night and he screams. She said after visiting here, I've never seen him cry, he's finally crying, maybe he'll talk about it now and maybe we can heal. So at that point, I realized I might find a home for my works.

KYKISZ: It's real, real life. Maybe not the pretty pictures you see in, you know, at the contemporary art museums.

Again, museum manager Jerry Kykisz. He says he sees a general disinterest in the current wars and their veterans.

KYKISZ: When a country decides that it's going to go to war, it needs to have the whole country involved in it because it affects everybody. Right now it's only been affecting military families, but that can't last for long.

Kykisz says that attitude extends to the museum. It can't be sustained without popular support.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Stephanie Lecci.

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