Masks That Unmask

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Art Out of War

Today there are two articles, one recent, from the news and opinion website The Daily Beast, the other from a year ago, from National Geographic. Both are visual articles, so I will struggle to put their power into words. But since the very point of the articles is to show the impossibility of putting some experiences into letters and sounds, it seems right that I too do my part to try, fail—and then point.

From The Daily Beast, Veterans Let Slip the Masks of War: Can This Art Therapy Ease PTSD?” and from National Geographic¸Behind the Mask: Revealing the Trauma of War.”

Both articles describe the work of Melissa Walker, the healing arts coordinator of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC.  Her work is easy enough to put into words: have combat vets who are struggling with War’s traumas make papier-mâché masks that express their inner experiences of both War and War’s consequences in their lives.

Believe me: what comes out of that stops language cold.

To see faces split in half, one side brightly-colored, maybe, or just nondescript, normal, with the other side contorted, explosively garish, hacked open; to see mouths sealed, non-existent, gaping open, padlocked; to see eyes hollowed-out, bulging, misaligned, absent: even the English language, repository of words upon words inherited from cultures throughout the world, must sit down, silenced, to join us all in a neuronal, body experience that chisels itself into our very souls.

How many times I have sat with combat vets who, like their brothers and sisters mentioned in the articles, have initially grunted (when in good moods) at their task of somehow picking up a pencil, a crayon, a marker, a piece of clay, remembrances of pre-schools past all, and then, “What?” they ask.

Then open up a direct conduit between their souls and a piece of paper or a hunk of putty.

I have seen their eyes move beyond the world of words into worlds that take shape before them and me, leaving us both first a spot downward, toward which to gaze, take in, so that both of us can then dare to look upward, eye to eye, with one person taking the risk of being seen, while the other, he who allegedly has been to school and “knows”, taking the risk of seeing.

There are no words. Nor should there be.

I strongly urge you to check out the National Geographic link. Let the images enter you. Let the knowledge that, somehow, each of the vets who made those masks found at least some release from their having made them: let that give you hope that even connections with inanimate media, when picked up and animated, can render experiences still worth looking for, striving for, and living for.

Until tomorrow, be well,


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