ARCHIVED - War Art: Bringing PTSD into the picture

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Article / April 15, 2016 / Project number: 16-0033

While war art strives to record historic military events and efforts, it is valued for the artist’s own interpretation of those circumstances. This is article is part of a series exploring our own Canadian military art. From many different backgrounds with a range of military experiences, most of the artists featured in the series have been part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program, which is administered by the Directorate of History and Heritage.

Ottawa, Ontario — The war art created by Canadian civilian artists Gertrude Kearns and Elaine Goble paints the human experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in living colour.

The two artists have devoted much of their careers to portraying Canadian soldiers and their work using paint and canvas and pencil and paper. While neither set out to focus solely on PTSD, both found it making its way into their works in facial expressions, in postures and with chosen artifacts. PTSD is a mental illness caused by major trauma involving death or threat of death and is characterized by persistent mental and emotional stress.

Interestingly, neither artist finds the term PTSD an effective one. For hundreds, if not thousands of years, it has been known that some people have difficulty after being exposed to trauma. It was only in 1980, through the psychiatric observation of American Vietnam War Veterans, that the disorder was given its official name.

In 1993, Lieutenant-General (Retired) Roméo Dallaire was appointed Force Commander for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). Shortly after his arrival, on April 6, 1994, the genocide of more than 800,000 Rwandans began. Since his retirement, he has become an outspoken advocate for human rights, genocide prevention, mental health and war-affected children.

Vivian Tors (an Ottawa writer), wrote in a 2002 Canadian Medical Association Journal review of my series UNdone: Dallaire/Rwanda, that my six Dallaire portraits identified the six stages of PTSD, but really for me it is combat stress,” said Ms. Kearns, of Toronto, who has spent nearly 25 years exploring the nature of the Canadian military through art. “My focus in that collection was the General’s immediate mission leadership stress which was ultimately diagnosed as PTSD.

Ms. Kearns’ current exhibit, called The Art of Command, was viewed by an impressive 7,000 visitors during a three-month exhibit last summer at Fort York Visitor Centre in Toronto. Its next showing will be in Founders’ Gallery at The Military Museums in Calgary, June to October 2016. Kearns’ art is hung in the Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Army Headquarters, Veterans Affairs Canada, Canadian Forces College, City of Toronto and various university and private collections. 

The Art of Command consists of portraits and texted posters about senior leadership during Canada’s Afghan mission, including Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance (then a Major-General); then-Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, who is now a Member of Parliament; Colonel Steve Jourdain, currently Chief of Staff, Joint Task Force East; and Colonel (Retired) Patrick Stogran. In 2001, then-LCol Stogran was commanding officer of the first Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. In 2007, Col (Retd) Stogran was appointed as Canada's first Veterans Ombudsman.

The 18 subjects have symbolic CADPAT (Canadian Disruptive Pattern) camouflage embedded in their faces – and suffering in their expressions. Ms. Kearns’ related posters take the portraits one step further, using screaming slogans that are not always direct quotes but effective nonetheless, to surround the soldiers’ faces, such as: ‘No time for Hollywood moments,’ ‘Sure I don’t sleep… but I don’t have PTSD,’ ‘PIT BULL and others.

Military populations are “at potential risk of mental health issues because their job can involve exposure to trauma, separation from family, frequent moves and stressful living conditions,” according to Statistics Canada in the Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey, 2013. According to the study, the majority of Canadians, military or civilian, will never have PTSD. The rates of PTSD in Canada depends on exposure to trauma, which is as low as five to six percent in the general population and as high as 20 percent for soldiers in combat situations.

Military members experience PTSD differently than the civilian population,” said Colonel Rakesh Jetly, senior psychiatrist with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). “For example, there is a lot of civilian PTSD research that deals with rape and child abuse. Soldiers do not see themselves as victims and therefore the approach of treatment for their PTSD needs to be different.

Col Jetly stressed that expert treatment is always necessary for the complicated disorder but that the majority of military members do positively respond.

To accurately capture the unique military experience, Ms. Kearns actively pursues time spent with soldiers in their environment. “My goal is to create art that reflects the soldiers’ perspectives.” Her interest in the Canadian military began with the Gulf War in 1991, but it was not until 2002 that she actually worked with military personnel. “I had not met a person in uniform. My works, at first, were about conflict and conscience. This grew, with direct exposure to the Army, into the theme of leadership and dilemma.

Nine days in field training with the troops in Exercise STALWART GUARDIAN 2004 in Petawawa was Ms. Kearns’ first exposure to a CAF exercise experience. This was made possible through the Canadian Forces Artists Program that thrusts chosen artists into full-on Army experiences for up to 10 days with rations, uniforms and military plane rides often included. Ms. Kearns, the daughter of artist and war Veteran Frederick Steiger, has also covered CAF efforts in Somalia and the Balkans, and spent nearly five weeks embedded on contract as a war artist during the war in Afghanistan at the invitation of the Canadian Army.

Ms. Goble, whose portraits have been acquired by the Canadian War Museum, National Library and Archives Canada, The Royal Canadian Mint, and The Canadian Engineers Military Museum, did not have to go as far afield to find her subjects. “I did not need to leave my own street. I am surrounded by people with contemporary lives informed by a war experience. All of us live day-to-day with these people as neighbours and friends,” she said of the Veterans and holocaust survivors in our communities.

Everyone’s war experience is so unique and yet so universal,” said Ms. Goble, of Ottawa, whose military art includes the Year of the Veteran (2005) 25-cent coin produced by the Royal Canadian Mint. “It is the conflict that you experienced. It is the memories that you live with each day.” She feels strongly, as does Ms. Kearns, that no single term can express the range of feelings experienced by those who have go through combat.

While completing her Canadian Achievers series, Ms. Goble painted a portrait of six Veterans at the Remembrance Day Ceremony conducted at the Orleans Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. Afterwards, each of the Veterans approached her separately to tell her more of their war stories. That was the beginning of 25 years of portraying the aftermath of war experience through portraits of Canada’s Veterans.

The Veterans would come and sit for me and many of them would say, ‘You know, I have never told my children but…’ These vets felt that their children did not need to know but when it was about the narrative in their portraits, it was relevant,” said Ms. Goble.

Adding the residue trauma of war experience to a portrait is challenging, she said. “It is not visually concrete like a war service medal, but it can be expressed in subtle ways in their faces and with their spirit. It comes through.

For Ms. Goble, the most overt display of PTSD that she created, using oxygen tubes and a toilet in the background, was with a portrait of Frank Healey called The Propagandist. Frank and his wife shared a whirlwind and highly-charged romance while deployed in England during the Second World War. The rest of their marriage, through sixty years and six children, was coloured by their wartime exposure. Ms. Goble’s piece depicts the disparate start and the finish of this military couple’s story.

While Ms. Goble and her subject worked on his portrait, Frank, who had just lost his wife, was so weak from decades of chain-smoking that he was not able to use the toilet in his room at the Perley and Rideau Veterans Health Centre without assistance. Both Frank and his wife suffered from the same form of lung disease after decades of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day. “‘It [PTSD] has no name. My wife was depressed and I held meaningless jobs that I did not enjoy and I drank,’ is what he told me,” said Ms. Goble.

Frank was so brutally honest about this post war mental fatigue. It didn’t need to have a name. It was an experience.

By Anne Duggan, Army Public Affairs

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