At Blue Star Contemporary, Veterans Take Center Stage – San Antonio Magazine

The display of books inside Blue Star Contemporary mirrors something closer to a library setup than a typical art gallery exhibition.

However, the unconventional arrangement that’s part of the gallery’s Veterans Book Project exhibit serves an important purpose. On display through Oct. 9, Veterans Book Project features more than 30 books authored collaboratively by artist Monica Haller and veterans as well as a variety of other people effected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each book contains personal artifacts from someone impacted by the conflicts, whether journal entries, drawings, poetry or photos.

The project is on display alongside another veteran-focused exhibit, Travel Distance, which is a mixed media collection that explores experiences of deployment and relocation and honors San Antonio veterans.

Exhibitions manager Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray explains that the two exhibits aim to shed light on the undiscussed realities of war and the American military while also challenging dominant narratives about the experiences of those in the service.

“We see a lot of representations of what it means to be in the military, whether in news media or entertainment media, and those depictions are often pretty singular,” says McGilvray. “We wanted to show more diversity in people’s understanding of what different military experiences are.”

In the Veterans Book Project, Haller includes work by those tied to the conflicts through the American military—veterans and their family members—as well as work from those who have ties and experiences of war through a relationship with Iraqi or Afghan citizens. Together, these narratives create a multifaceted picture of the memories left behind in the wake of the two conflicts, McGilvray says.

One particularly striking element of the project is the photography featured in many of the books. It is a collection of candid and unflinching portraits of the wars, taken by those who lived through them. McGilvray says that because most of the photographs were captured before social media meant every photo carried the possibility of being shared with the public, they provide a more intimate, deeply honest depiction of the artists’ experiences as they happened.

The collection’s driving piece, written by Haller and veteran Riley Sharbonno, does just that, documenting Sharbonno’s harrowing experience as a nurse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which became known as a site of human rights violations during the war. Using a collection of gut-wrenching photographs, coupled with poetic journal entries, Sharbonno’s account pushes readers to grapple with the lasting memory of the United States’ involvement in Iraq, and the tangible impacts left on both American soldiers and Iraqi citizens. Sharbonno’s book, which arose from a four-year collaboration with Haller, was the first in the collection of works that eventually became the exhibit.

Travel Distance, Blue Star Contemporary

Travel Distance takes a slightly more conventional form. Curated by Amber Zora, the exhibit features a collection of sculptures, photography, paintings and clothing by nine artists, all veterans or their family members. The works tell their stories of life as a deployed service member or as the relative of someone on active duty.

Several pieces in the collection, like Jessica Putnam-Phillips’s ceramic plate installation, grapple with the realities of being a woman entrenched in a male-dominated organization. She uses intricately decorated heirloom ceramic tableware overlayed with images of female soldiers in the midst of battle to explore gender roles both at home and in combat. The contrast of these distinctly feminine domestic tools with vivid depictions of women at war, expertly juxtapose two ideas of what it means for women to “serve.” At the same time, Putnam-Phillips’s designs emphasize one of Travel Distance’s overarching themes—the homesickness and surreal feelings that can be inherent to deployment and relocation.

McGilvray says the subject is an important one for Blue Star Contemporary because of San Antonio’s longstanding connection to the military. “

“A large percentage of San Antonio’s population is connected to the military,” she says. “We believe their experiences should be reflected in the work that we’re showing.”

Veterans Book Project and Travel Distance

Open Thursday-Sunday, through Oct. 9

116 Blue Star

Event to Attend

Family Saturday, June 25, 1-4 p.m.

Operation Gratitude will be on-site with materials to write cards to deployed service members.

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