By Joseph Cress
Just a whiff of jet fuel was enough to trigger memories of Vietnam in Army veteran Anthony Wallace.
“It never goes away, it’s imprinted in you,” he told artist Nina Talbot. “You don’t forget what you went through.”
The date was Sept. 30, 2010, in Flatbush, New York — a time and place far removed from the Tay Ninh province near Cambodia where Wallace served with the 1st Calvary Division from 1969 to 1970.
Wallace was being interviewed by Talbot for “Veterans,” her series of expressionist oil paintings done on linen to illustrate the experiences former service men and women had while in the military.
“I was wounded at Firebase Atkinson near the city of Dong Xoai when a mortar (shell) hit my bunker,” Wallace said in his story available online at the artist’s website, www.ninatalbot.com.
While laid up in a hospital, Wallace had a flashback of a scene from his past life in Brooklyn of a flag-draped coffin with family members sitting in the front row. Only it was his funeral.
Starting Thursday, his story and painting will be on display in the Gen. Omar N. Bradley Memorial Art Gallery at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Middlesex Township.
The Army Heritage Center Foundation is sponsoring this exhibit of paintings from the “Veterans” series that will run through April 5, 2015. The exhibit is open the same hours as AHEC — 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free, and an
exhibit booklet will be available for purchase at the museum store.
“We hope to get folks out to come see it,” said Mike Perry, executive director of the foundation. “It’s not the typical art exhibit you find in an army museum.”
Most of the artwork of soldiers on exhibit in Army museums is done through a military perspective by an artist who served as a soldier, Perry said. The common experience of the artist and subject comes out on the canvas.
What is different about Talbot is that she is a civilian interpreting the experiences of soldiers based on what they share during an interview and follow-up questions.
“She brings a fresh interpretation to those experiences because it is new to her,” Perry said. “She is able to see it in a different light. The mission of AHEC is to tell the Army story one soldier at a time. This is a different way of looking at it, but in keeping with the theme of telling the story through the individual soldier’s narrative.”
The exhibit will feature 14 paintings depicting veterans from World War II and Korea on through to recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Perry said. He added while most of the veterans on display served in the Army, there will be a few from other service branches.
Army veteran DeNorval Parks served in Operation Desert Storm with the 369th Harlem Hell Fighters Unit. He was interviewed by Talbot on Dec. 7, 2009, in one of the barber shops he manages in Brooklyn.
“My grandfather was a WWII veteran who was saved by a French soldier named DeNorval,” Parks said. “My grandfather was the last person the French soldier saw before he died, and he promised to give one of his children that name.”
His most vivid memory of Desert Storm was of looking back after hearing the sound of a Scud missile explosion and seeing a plume of black oily smoke. He was driving away in a truck at the time.
“The missile warhead hit a building where a group of soldiers had just gotten back from the U.S.” Parks recalled. “They were killed instantly and went right back home in body bags.”
The paintings show how the identity of the soldier becomes enmeshed with their military experience. Talbot surrounds her subjects with wartime scenes, the images of civilians in far-off lands and the faces of war buddies who never returned.
“Their military service was definitely the most defining experience in their life,” Talbot said. “The hardest part for me is editing the story for what is going to work visually.”
Talbot started to blend biography and history into her art about 15 years ago. Her method is to interview subjects whose personal lives coincide with important historic moments and then paint a portrait depicting how their experiences shaped them as individuals in the broader social context.
The AHEC exhibit will also include the painted story of Fitzroy Newsum, one of the few remaining Tuskegee Airmen. In a July 2010 interview with Talbot, Newsum said he always wanted to fly a plane since he first saw one at age 10 in the skies over his native Barbados.
“My application for flight school was rejected twice by the U.S. Air Corps ... in 1943,” Newsum said. “The U.S. military was not accepting African-Americans at that time.”
He would later apply to the flight school for blacks at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama where he learned to fly all manner of aircraft from B-25 Mitchell bombers to P-47 Thunderbolt fighters.
The Veterans series started about five years as an outgrowth of other series.
“I realized a lot of civilians have no awareness of the veterans in our community unless they have a loved one in the service,” Talbot said. “I wanted to really show that which is invisible to many people. The series is my service to their service.”
Talbot will be the guest at an opening ceremony for the exhibit this Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at AHEC. She will be joined by Anthony Wallace, the Vietnam veteran, and by Sandra Rolon, who served as a military police officer in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.