It isn’t often that an art exhibition is celebrated at its closing, but, then again, nothing about the display which had been on view at the 71st Avenue Triangle on Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood for the past five months was ordinary.
The outdoor exhibit, a collaboration between the city Department of Transportation’s Urban Art Program and the Veterans Administration’s New York Harbor Healthcare System, drew a small crowd, including several of the artists, to the site last Thursday for a final farewell to the collection of collages that had been made by a group of intergenerational veterans, participants in the hospital’s art therapy program.
By the time you read this, all that will be left will be the memories, but the display will likely remain in the hearts and minds of all who saw it and forever hold special meaning for the veterans whose artistic creations offered such personal insight into their private world of fear and courage, despair and hope, rejection and acceptance.
One of the participating artists, Puerto Rico native Hector Acevedo, 69, who served in the Army infantry in Iraq in 2003 — the culmination of a 30-year military career — collaborated on a piece entitled, “Any Day Above Ground Is a Good Day,” with fellow soldier Juan Carlos Cifuentes.
Seeing the work on display, Acevedo was obviously touched, saying it was important for the world “to see how we sacrificed for our country.” To Acevedo, the cardboard and paper collage represents “our condition ... memories of my friends ... people dying ...”
Acevedo said the work was completed over a three-day period last year.
It took Sheridan Dean and his artistic partner, Ferdinand Sabat, a couple of weeks to prepare their entry, “VA, Group, Unity,” Dean’s first collage, which, he said, represents “our time in the service.”
Dean served in the Air Force from 1965 to 1968, including three months in Vietnam, a stint for which he volunteered.
“When you’re 18 or 19, you don’t even think,” he said.
Now retired, Dean volunteers in the arts and crafts department of the VA hospital in Brooklyn.
“It’s very inspirational,” he said of seeing his work for the first time on public display anywhere. He didn’t even know it was part of the exhibit until last week. “It’s very moving,” he said.
Another Vietnam vet who participated in the project is Michael Santoro, 64, a Marine who, at one time, lived across the street from the exhibit.
“We were going to get troops out of Vietnam, troops that were going to rotate,” he recalled. “We were trained to do special things.”
The exhibit holds special meaning for him as he believes “Vietnam was a war that was forgotten about. There were no jobs offered to anybody, no welcome home parades.”
Santoro has lost most of his hearing, both his knees are arthritic, and he admits that “mentally, I’m not what I was.” He finds tremendous solace at the veterans’ center in Brooklyn, where he now lives. “I just go with the flow. I’m proud of what I did,” he said, adding, “Some people see it differently.”
The title of the exhibit, “There Is No US Without You,” is a play on words, suggesting the notion that there is no America without its veterans.
Part of the exhibit explains, “The world of the American veteran is unique because of the close connections that veterans share with each other. Perhaps it’s the serious nature of their mission — the defense of liberty and democracy. Or perhaps it is the enormous sacrifices made at great personal cost.”
Through art therapy sessions, co-led by Beryl Brenner, creative arts therapist for NYHHCS, who attended the closing, the veterans were asked to examine how their relationships with family, each other and the public upon arrival back home changed over time.
“It’s an opportunity to honor the veteran artists,” Brenner said. “It’s really something special,” giving them “an opportunity for visibility and self-expression. It was a labor of love.”