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Arts & Culture

Exhibit Turns Women Veterans' Stories Into Art

As we head into Memorial Day weekend, we’re going to hear from women veterans whose military service has inspired artwork. A new exhibit at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison features 20 prints that resulted from private conversations between veterans and local artists. As WUWM’s Erin Toner reports, several women say the project helps validate their service to the country.Elizabeth Benn is the first to arrive for gallery night at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. She enlisted in the Army in 1977, straight out of high school. Her mission in the Balkans in the mid-90s inspired an etching she’s seeing for the first time tonight.

“I’ve always kind of like, you know, oh, I don’t have a story to tell, but it, it made me feel good, like my little part in the game did matter.”

The etching is part of an exhibit called “Not At Ease: A Veteran Print Project.” Benn says it depicts a scene that’s been stuck in her memory for 15 years. She inspected bridges in Croatia after the civil war, when landmines put troops and civilians in great danger.

“There were apartment buildings that came up to the riverbanks and all these chickens pecking away in the dirt and the grass there. It was just so eerie, thinking, you know, that at any minute, a chicken could set off a land mine right by these homes,” Benn says.

Nicole Shaver, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, created Benn’s etching.

“In the background, we have an image that’s pretty gestural, of a chicken, and a sort of tormented field, and it says ‘Caution: Mines’ on it,” Shaver says.

As visitors begin to crowd the small gallery space, Mary Kolar in a striking red blazer and red sneakers, gazes at the print based on her service in the Navy.

“I literally, uh, I’ll do it again, tear up seeing what she’s done. She’s done a terrific job,” Kolar says.

The artist included the image of a recruit graduation, capturing what is most meaningful about Kolar’s 28-year career training sailors.

“That’s probably my greatest pride. I have been to literally hundreds of recruit graduations and I never tired of it because it was so enjoyable to see young people who have made a choice to serve their country in the Navy,” Kolar says.

She says there’s something very special about connecting with these other women veterans.

“It is an acknowledgement that you have a sister that has experienced that service to your country and sometimes, when you’re not wanted. It’s still out there, where you’re not always appreciated or respected,” Kolar says.

Carolyn Morgan, a veteran of the Air Force, is overcome seeing her story transformed into a heart-rending image. Artist Yvette Pino says the print depicts Uncle Sam dragging Morgan off to war.

“You can see her daughter and her son, her infant son, in the distance reaching out to grab their mother and there’s a piece of Japanese paper from behind that has a traditional Japanese crane on it and Carolyn is basically releasing the cranes off to her children for longevity, hope and honor,” Pino says.

When Morgan was called up during the first Gulf War, her daughter was two and her son was just a baby.

“So I remember putting my son to bed. Went downstairs, my husband and my daughter were watching the invasion of Kuwait. Got the phone call, it’s time to go. Showed up at base, eight-and-a-half months later I saw him again, my son didn’t know who I was. He had no idea,” Morgan says.

Artist Yvette Pino served two deployments in Iraq. She created the exhibit to give women a unique forum to tell their stories, and with more veterans among us now than ever before, to help civilians better understand the military experience.

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