From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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Celebrating 30 Years of Art Created by Veterans

By Robin Hoecker

An artist at his core, Joe Fornelli created many pieces throughout his tour in Vietnam in 1965-66. He used whatever he could find, painting on scraps of paper with C-ration coffee, drawing with map ink, or using a bayonet to carve a piece of teak wood that he recovered from an exploded building.

Jungle Boots

At first, he did not show the pieces to anyone.

"No one talked about Vietnam after the war," said Fornelli. But after years of what he saw as a collective amnesia about the conflict, he decided he was ready to show his creations to the world.

"It wasn't the war, it was the forgetting that bothered me," said Fornelli. "I wanted to shed truth and light on what it meant to be a Vietnam vet. Art is my language. It communicates more than any of us could say with words." In 1981, he and a handful of other veterans formed the Vietnam Veterans Art Group and displayed their artwork in a small Chicago gallery.

2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the original exhibit, which eventually evolved into the more permanent National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, located in Chicago's South Loop neighborhood. Over the years, the museum has expanded in both size and concept. What began as a small group of veterans displaying their artwork, the collection now contains more than 1,400 pieces, created by 255 artists.

In 2010, the museum dropped the word "Vietnam" from the name, marking the inclusion of works from veterans of all US wars. The collection now contains pieces made by Iraq and Afghanistan vets. On Memorial Day 2011, the museum will unveil "Angel in the Desert," by Erik Anderson. It will be the first time the museum has displayed art created by a veteran of the Persian Gulf War.

"It's not like going to Disneyland, but this is an important part of American history," said Fornelli, who volunteers at the museum several days a week. He said he still receives calls, letters and artwork from veterans and their families. In March, someone left a 2-foot tall metal sculpture at the elevator, with a scribbled note about the piece and its creators, a pair of Vietnam vets. "Thirty years later, they're still making this stuff."

The collection is important for the artists as well as the viewers for different reasons. "It is a way for people to express themselves, as well as a way for others to understand what the veterans went through," said museum visitor Nicole Nelson, 26. "My dad served in Vietnam but he never talked about it. I came to the museum to get a better understanding of the war. The art makes the war about people, not about politics."

Despite the popularity of the museum and the treasures it contains, the future of the NVAM remains uncertain. The museum's building lease expires in 2012, leaving the museum to look for a new location.

"We want to secure a new home to ensure that our local patrons can continue to enjoy our collection," said Levi Moore, Executive Director of the museum. "And we want to improve our web presence to reach out to our national and international supporters."

Information about the artwork, artists and ways to donate are available on the museum website:

Robin Hoecker is a former reporter/photographer at Stars and Stripes newspaper. She is a Ph.D. student in Media, Technology and Society at Northwestern University. She currently volunteers at the National Veterans Art Museum through the university's Center for Civic Engagement.

Goodbye Vietnam, Watercolor from 1983 by David Sessions.

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