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Transforming Recycled Military Uniforms Into Art

Transformative. Meditative. Healing. These words are often used to describe the Artown exhibit Combat Papers: Service Through Art.  It’s on display now at Northwest Reno Library.  Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray visited the library to see how artists have turned recycled military uniforms into their canvas.

A small group has gathered at the library for a workshop solely to fold delicate paper cranes. What’s so special here is the paper they’re using is actually made from the fibers of donated military uniforms, also referred to as ‘combat paper.’

For Tina Drakulich, using combat paper for artistic expression has a deeply personal significance because of her son David.

Tina Drakulich folding a paper crane. Photo by Anh Gray.

“We chose to use art to remember David because before David was a soldier, he was an artist. He became a soldier because of 9/11," Drakulich says. "He felt an urgent need to protect his freedom of expression.”

In 2008, David was killed in action in Afghanistan when he was 22-years-old.  A few years later, the family founded the David J. Drakulich Art Foundation, and the organization is now sponsoring this exhibit. Tina Drakulich says in order to make paper, she had to cut-up David’s uniform into postage-stamp size pieces to process through a paper mill. It was an emotional experience that she says felt symbolic of sharing the burden of her pain with a larger community.

“In my experience I was working with this personally significant fiber—'this was David paper' I would say—and over just these three years, it is less significant which is beautiful because my pain is a little more distributed, and now a little more easy to bear knowing that it’s shared with these other fibers,” Drakulich says.

At the workshop, Drakulich is carefully tucking square pieces of paper into their proper corners to create cranes that can fit into the palm of her hand, yet she’s overcome by the emotional weight of this process.

“I made my first cranes; and I wrote prayers on them; and I gave them as gifts; and that’s how we started this project,” Drakulich says.

According to a Japanese legend, one wish will be granted to anyone who folds 1,000 origami cranes. In this case, Drakulich’s mission is to eventually string together 1,000 cranes made during these community workshops to create an art installation.

Folding one crane at a time is U.S. Army veteran Luana Ritch. She enlisted in the mid-70s and served in Korea in the early 80s.  Lying by Ritch’s leg is her service dog Jody, a black border collie-chow mix. She says she was originally hesitant to turn her own uniform into paper.

“Well, initially as a soldier, your uniform is everything," Ritch says.  "When you serve in the military, all of those who serve before you and all of those yet to serve, are reflected in that uniform and in the history of that uniform.”

About three years ago, Ritch got involved with the combat paper project when she started writing as a way to explore some of the memories she had of her time in the military. Eventually, she decided it was time to let go of an army field jacket she’s had for about four decades.

“And when you release that fiber into the water, there’s something, where for me, I experienced it as a very freeing moment,” Ritch says.

“When people are engaged in the creative process, they’re using their right brain and this helps them access emotions they, perhaps, can’t verbalize,” Peacock-Dutt says.

That’s therapist Katie Peacock-Dutt who works at the Veterans Administration Medical Center.  She says working on art can also open up a dialogue.

“After they make art, and then talk to somebody about it, it actually helps the two hemispheres of the brain work better," Peacock-Dutt says. "That could even help them to process it more.”

One way Luana Ritch has used her combat to process her emotions has been to write a book about one of her most supportive companions—her service dog Jody. That book is on display at this year’s exhibit. 

Luana Ritch with her dog Jody. Photo by Anh Gray.

As for the group gathered at the library, their purpose is to continue folding, one-by-one, until a thousand cranes can eventually come together as a message of peace for an installation at next summer’s Artown. 

Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.