A dozen soldiers walk into an art gallery

A Vancouver artist explores the Afghan war, with the help of those who know it best
Hadani Ditmars
Photograph by Brian Howell
Photograph by Brian Howell


In a downtown Vancouver art gallery a few weeks ago, half a dozen veterans gathered at a table to make papier mâché. They wore blue plastic gloves, “just like the kind we wore on patrol for searching civilians,” observed one, Stephen Clews, a muscular 28-year-old from Aldergrove, about 50 km east of Vancouver. Clews, like the other men at the Buschlen Mowatt gallery, is a veteran of the Afghan war. He and his friends are crafting 162 papier mâché squares that bear the names of fallen comrades. The panels, which will form the first layer of a mural, are made from the ripped-up pages of old Pams—military training pamphlets containing instructions such as how to engage in hand-to-hand combat or lift a wounded soldier to safety. The project is the brainchild of Foster Eastman, a local businessman, who enjoyed an unlikely debut as an artist last summer with his exhibition inspired by Mao and the Cultural Revolution. His powerful collages, layering “peasant art,” actual pages from the Little Red Book, and superimposed images of Mao, offered potent cultural symbolism and made the show a sleeper hit with local critics.

Now he has moved on to the terrible legacy of the Afghan war. “All the news of the recent veterans’ suicides was so depressing, I felt I had to respond as an artist,” says the 55-year-old. His first public exhibition, last April, at the Gordon Smith gallery, was part of a series on the Maple Leaf, commissioned to different artists. His leaf was a kind of improvised explosive device fashioned from nails and hundreds of ketchup packets—the kind distributed as rations to Canadian troops in Afghanistan. It was part of a series of similarly themed works he took to a blasting site and detonated, with extraordinary results. One tableau features remains of metal and plastic that read like vaporized war ruins.

Eastman had the idea for the mural project over the holidays. A week later, work began with an army of volunteers—veterans, but also friends, family and neighbours. Eastman knows Tim Laidler, head of the Veterans Transition Network (VTN), a groundbreaking program initiated by a UBC professor. So, in addition to raising awareness about the deaths of civilians and troops, the mural is a fundraising effort for VTN, with donors encouraged to “sponsor” a panel for $1,000 each (although donations start at $25).

Other Eastman works will be on display: ghostly silhouettes of Afghan women in burkas cut out of Canadian “guerilla advertising” posters, a series of AK-47s cut from Archie comics—a transformation of familiar objects into sinister instruments that brings the war home in a visceral way. The mural, to be unveiled on April 16, encompasses photographic prints showing Afghan widows in mourning, a funeral procession for a Canadian soldier and a poignant image of a soldier holding a young Afghan boy’s hand, as well as the Pams.

The papier mâché work proves oddly therapeutic for the young men at the gallery, whose experiences still haunt them. “I really thought I was going there to help civilians,” says Dale Hamilton, a 28-year-old stationed for nine months in the village of Alkozai in Kandahar. He does recall some happy moments. “We made friends with some local kids. We made a little roof-side pitch-and-putt and gave them candy every time they caught a ball.” But he also notes Alkozai was the place where, a few months after his tour of duty ended, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 16 Afghan civilians in a shooting rampage.

“I’ve had to let go of a lot of that,” says Hamilton, a participant, like many here, in the VTN program. The “baggage” includes horror at seeing the mainly Afghan civilians maimed by roadside bombs, and survivor’s guilt. “In the re-enactment work,” he explains, “I had to practise apologizing to my friends who had died.” He mentions one who traded patrols with him and ended up being killed. “Someone acted out the part of my friend and said, ‘It’s not your fault. What happened to me, let it go.’ ”

As for what it will take for these veterans to heal, “It’s like finding a cure for cancer,” says Laidler. “We still need more funding and more research.” Eastman and his friends are doing their part to help, one panel at a time.