Veteran Art - Putnam Sentinel
Miller City-New Cleveland High School seniors Emily Handshoe and Nicole Warnimont, both of whom interviewed veteran Ray Gerschutz, MC-NC School Board President and Miller City's former fire chief, work on their projects. (Putnam Sentinel/Steven Coburn-Griffis)

MILLER CITY — Art, it is said, is many things, and as often as not — when the art is intended to be more than simple decoration, a splash of color on a wall — a conglomeration of diametrically opposed concepts: suffering and enlightenment, pleasure and pain, beauty and baseness. At their most basic, the visual arts — painting, drawing, graphics, photography, sculpture — are studies of light and of its absence, of darkness.

“War,” Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, “is hell.” But even there, in that darkest of human activity, there is light: duty, honor and selfless sacrifice in service to others.

Studying a conceptual Venn diagram of these two actvities, observing the cross-over of art and war, recently became a project for Alisha Verhoff’s students at Miller City-New Cleveland High School. And not simply as an intellectual exercise, although that was almost certainly a consequence, but in the real world, in real time. Verhoff coordinated interviews between 48 of her students and 10 veterans from the area, the results of which allowed for the creation of what art does best, the juxtaposition of light and dark.

In the classroom on Monday, a double handful of students gathered; some to work on their projects, others only to talk about the experience.

“There was a lot of research and there was a lot of getting to know the person,” Emily Handshoe, a senior, commented as she worked at a colored pencil drawing on the desk in front of her. “There was a lot of one-on-one, asking and observing,” Nicole Warnimont, whose table sits immediately adjacent to Handshoe’s, added, their individual comments blending into one seamless dialogue. And not surprisingly. Both young women are offering different artistic perspectives on the same man, Ray Gerschutz, Miller City’s former fire chief, current school board president and Handshoe’s great uncle.

“Mine is based on a quote, something he said,” Handshoe said.

“Mine’s more of him when he first went off, because he said went off when he was 17,” Warnimont chimed in. “We’re close to 18 now and I couldn’t imagine it.”

That one story is echoed throughout the room: young women — and in this particular instance, all of the artists are young women — struggling to make sense of and convey their impressions of conversations they’ve had with men in many cases old enough to be their grandfathers; men who discussed their experiences with barely restrained chaos.

On the table in front of Makenna Lehman, nailed into a highly polished rectangle of pine, is a piece of string art intricately woven into the contours of Vietnam. Burned into the board itself are individual comments made by the man she interviewed, many of which express his concerns and fears at the time of his service.

It is this intimacy that is the most striking, in that and all of the other pieces created through conversation, young to older, older to young. And this from men who are notoriously tight-lipped. Veterans share their stories of war most commonly amongst themselves, with others who have a common understanding of the horrors and raptures of war.

And this, then, is also true: for while war is pain and destruction and hardship, war, for many, also offers its own form of redemption. This, at any rate, is something the young artists have taken away, that there is a sense of fulfillment in service and devotion to a cause.

While each conversation, like each artistic expression that arose from those conversations, was and is unique, there is a common thread, a lesson learned, expressed by the young women in a variety of ways: the ubiquitous — though none the less true — Freedom isn’t free, and, Take nothing for granted, and, simply, Gratitude.

On Friday, Nov. 11, these pieces carved from the experiences of men who have sacrificed their peace for ours, will be on display at Miller City-New Cleveland High School following a Veterans Day assembly at 9 a.m.