Art Talk with Suzanne Asher of Veterans in the Arts
Suzanne Asher. Photo by Joseph D.R. OLeary
"Art constantly enriches my life and secures me to my own humanity." --- Suzanne Asher
Suzanne Asher has always believed in a life of service, which initially meant serving her country in the U.S. Air Force in both operations and as a researcher. Today, however, it means that the practicing poet and book artist is combining her military experience and arts training to run the Twin Cities-based Veterans in the Arts. Founded in 2010, the not-for-profit group facilitates arts experiences for military veterans, including discipline-specific classes, exhibitions, and other arts opportunities throughout the Minneapolis and St. Paul area. We spoke with Asher via e-mail where she shared her thoughts on the benefits of the arts to veterans and how her personal experience in the military has shaped her own art practice.
NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?
SUZANNE ASHER: So much time is spent alone, it’s important to balance introspection and community. I’ve chosen an art form that allows me to work in public studios. I also think talking to young people is a critical connection. It’s hard to find like-minded intellectuals, so most of that desire is satisfied through reading. I read extensively as part of each project. I am also making more of a point to travel each year to symposiums and workshops so I can better appreciate the scope of the field and, in the broadest sense, its companion arts.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?
ASHER: My earliest memories of the arts are school theater productions. By age ten, I was writing my own scripts. A year later I was producing the plays with neighborhood children.
NEA: What was your journey to becoming an artist?
ASHER: It has taken me a long time to come to validate my ideas and abilities as worthy of the time and effort required to produce art. I had trouble finding which art form was good for me. I sang in high school, studied painting in college, and landscape architecture in graduate school. But, I have always had a strong sense of service, which led me first into the Air Force, and later into volunteering on various arts boards, until I finally reached the point where I started Veterans in the Arts on behalf of our anonymous veterans. Service has always trumped art, even though I was serving in the arts. But I realized that service hasn’t been enough. Deep down I wanted to put my own ideas out there. So I started with a big project to design our house and garden. Afterwards, in a period of great inner turmoil, I discovered poetry. That led to me handmade artist books. I’m now completing my training at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. I’ve produced my first book on color theory. My second book is going to be about women as warriors. I’ll never completely leave service, but I do hope to strike a better balance between it and my own art.
NEA: How do you think your prior military service informs your arts practice?
ASHER: I’m very serious and more literal with my references. I’m not into flights of fancy and free play. I have too much a sense of life and death and destruction. Everything whole is sacred, so irony is hard for me. I’m really angry when I use it. I prefer melody and rhythm. Melody lets me cry tears and rhythm paces my anxiety. Conceptual art bothers me for its lack of concrete beauty. We are on different planes. I need antidotes to horror and depression. Too many contemporary ideas are trite after the first rendering.
NEA: What’s the mission of Veterans in the Arts, and what are some of its programs?
ASHER: Our mission is to facilitate the ability of veterans to express themselves in a variety of art forms through a progressive program of supportive instruction and collaboration. We offer arts classes, theater collaborations, arts commissions, and exhibition opportunities---all in the company of other veterans.
NEA: What sparked the idea for the organization?
ASHER: Drew Cameron’s Combat Paper Project. He brought his four-day intensive experience to Minnesota Center for Book Arts in October 2009. We discussed his desire for a permanent place for veterans to develop skills and make art. The studio is a very safe place for a traumatized veteran. There’s kindness and warmth and no drugs or alcohol. There is freedom to say or do what you want. I thought that if there were any place to pull this off, it would be the Twin Cities. We have a rich arts environment. We could provide the veterans [with] choice---that was key.
NEA: People don’t usually think about the arts and the military in the same sentence. What particular benefit or benefits do you see for current/former military personnel who engage in arts activities?
ASHER: Yes, we perceive that the traditional response to inner conflict is to be stoic, to suck it up. But experts today advise that a better response is to examine the inner conflict, because of the terrible relationship between the mind and heart, or spirit, and the physical body. Inner conflict can make us sick. Several methods exist to facilitate this. We most often think of therapy, but the arts are another way. Engaging in an art form that really means something is to open new doors. It’s interesting to note that this isn’t so new. The ancient Greeks had a whole culture that spoke through their arts and theater to the experience of war. More recently, consider what our wars are known for. The Civil War produced combat artists like Winslow Homer. World War I had its poets, World War II had its ground-breaking artists, schooled on the GI Bill, like Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg, Peter Voulkos in ceramics and Art Carpenter with wood. As for Vietnam, there was so much art produced, they built a museum in Chicago. These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they will also produce art. Already we have rich novels, poetry, and young artists like Drew Cameron, Ehren Tool, and Dominic Fredianelli.
NEA: Any advice for people---including veterans---who want to get involved with the visual arts?
ASHER: Decide who is going to own your story. If you want someone to tell it for you, find an artist who wants to work with your subject. For example, a cartoonist draws the stories young soldiers tell him and publishes the books at his own cost. On the other hand, if you want to tell your own story, find an artists’ group that provides instruction in the media that interests you, so that you can become familiar with the techniques and develop the skills to begin to express yourself. Eventually, or in bits and pieces, you will get your story out with all its nuances.
NEA: What’s the role of the artist in the community? And, conversely, what’s the community’s responsibility to the artist?
ASHER: Our global media enterprise defines our age. The artist must work to keep some ground of truth present. Not the facts of journalism, but the truth that is experienced by our spirit and our five senses. It’s risky behavior, but it’s essential for our humanity. The obligation of the community is to respect and support the work of artists. This is even more so for our veteran artists. If they can pull out from themselves truths about their experiences, we all benefit from this glimmer of insight against the onslaught of warfare as entertainment.
NEA: What does “Art Works” mean to you?
ASHER: It means art is part of my daily life, my companion as I go through the motions---a picture by my dresser, a country radio station in the car, classical voice when I’m working, the architecture of my home, and the drama of theater at night. Art constantly enriches my life and secures me to my own humanity. It doesn’t have to be fine arts. My small rock collection, my shells, my favorite foods are all aspects of the interaction of material and form and intent, albeit on different scales.
Interested in more stories about the arts and the military? Check out NEA Arts magazine!