'Not At Ease:' Art Inspired By Women Veterans

The military experiences of thousands of women veterans often go untold or are misunderstood. Sometimes it's hard for them to relay their experiences even in the most intimate settings. A new art exhibit in Wisconsin shows some of the most private memories of twenty female veterans. Each one shared their experiences with an artist who tried to capture their stories on canvas.

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Now to an art project in Wisconsin that honors female veterans. A new exhibit a the state Veterans Museum, in Madison, features prints that resulted from private conversations between vets and local artists.

Erin Toner, of member station WUWM, has seen the show, and met some of the people involved.

ELIZABETH BENN: Your artist arrives.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi. How are you?

ERIN TONER, BYLINE: Elizabeth Benn is the first to arrive for gallery night at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. She enlisted in the Army in 1977, straight out of high school. Her mission in the Balkans, in the mid-'90s, inspired an etching she's seeing for the first time tonight.

BENN: I've always, kind of - you know, like, oh, you know, I don't have a story to tell, you know. But it made me feel good - like, my little part in the game did matter.

TONER: The etching is part of an exhibit called "Not At Ease: A Veteran Print Project." Benn says it depicts a scene that's been stuck in her memory for 15 years. She inspected bridges in Croatia after the civil war, when landmines put troops and civilians in great danger.

BENN: There were apartment buildings that came up to the riverbanks, and all these chickens pecking away in the dirt and the grass there. You know, it was just so eerie, like thinking, you know, that at any minute, a chicken could set off a landmine right by these homes.

TONER: Nicole Shaver, a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, created Benn's etching.

NICOLE SHAVER: In the background, we have an image that's pretty gestural, of a chicken in a sort of tormented field. And it says, "Caution, Mines" on it.

TONER: As visitors begin to crowd the small gallery space, Mary Kolar - in a striking, red blazer and red sneakers - gazes at the print based on her service in the Navy.

MARY KOLAR: I literally - I'll do it again - tear up, seeing what she's done. She's done a terrific job.

TONER: The artist included the image of a recruit graduation, capturing what is most meaningful about Kolar's 28-year career training sailors.

KOLAR: That's probably my greatest pride. I have been to, literally, hundreds of recruit graduations - and I never tired of it because it was so enjoyable to see young people who have made a choice to serve their country in the Navy.

TONER: She says there's something very special about connecting with these other women veterans.

KOLAR: It is an acknowledgement that you have a sister that has experienced that service to your country. And sometimes, when you're not wanted - you know, it's still out there; where you're not always appreciated or respected.

CAROLYN MORGAN: You knew I had to come over - because I knew what was happening now.

TONER: Carolyn Morgan, a veteran of the Air Force, is overcome seeing her story transformed into a heartrending image. Artist Yvette Pino says the print depicts Uncle Sam dragging Morgan off to war.

YVETTE PINO: You can see her daughter and her son, her infant son, in the distance, reaching out to grab their mother. And there's a piece of Japanese paper - from behind - that has a traditional Japanese crane on it. And Carolyn's - basically, releasing the cranes off to her children for longevity, hope and honor.

TONER: When Morgan was called up during the first Gulf War, her daughter was 2, and her son was just a baby.

MORGAN: So I remember putting my son to bed; went downstairs, my husband and my daughter were watching the invasion of Kuwait. Got the phone call - it's time to go; showed up at base. Eight and a half months later, I saw him again. My son didn't know who I was. He had no idea. Thank you...

PINO: You're welcome.

MORGAN: ...so much, Yvette.

PINO: You're welcome.

MORGAN: I've got to get a copy for my mom, my sisters...

TONER: Artist Yvette Pino served two deployments in Iraq. She created the exhibit to give women a unique forum to tell their stories - and, with more veterans among us now than ever before, to help civilians better understand the military experience.

For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee.

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