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Steel Spirit chronicles military personnel and their art

Current serving military members, veterans and first responders share a vision of their life

St. Albert Place rotunda is currently the focus of a military art exhibition that reflects on war, the sacrifices enlisted personnel make, and the emotional-psychological price they pay. 

The Steel Spirit, now featuring its inaugural display, showcases the work of 14 military personnel and one first responder. Each artist submitted a range of two to eight works of art. 

Military service personnel, veterans and first responders have a long history within Canada and abroad. Military service has garnered a unique degree of respect, and the works on display reflect contemporary themes, that when shared, resonate broadly with viewers. 

At the exhibit’s official opening on Saturday, Nov. 4, Elena Vlassova, Steel Spirit’s volunteer regional coordinator explained the purpose of the exhibit. 

“This is an exhibit where you will find beginner artists all the way up to professional artists. For us it’s more important to tell the story of each artist. You don’t have to be a top artist. You just need to wear the uniform,” said Vlassova, also a visual artist. 

Consisting of paintings, sketches, sculptures, poems, stories, metal art, glass art and jewelry, the exhibit displays a vast array of talent. From the emotional point of view, the exhibition captured a mix of serene landscapes, humorous animals and clever crafts coupled with pieces that reflect the anguish combat soldiers face every day. 

One of the most chilling pieces is The Trip Wire, a poem written by Daniel Hartford. He is a 28-year veteran of the Canadian Forces and at one time was part of nine-member team from Canada under the American Special Forces in Pakistan. 

As a former combat engineer, part of his job dealt with diffusing land mines. The Trip Wire provides insight into the effects of long-term stress felt by soldiers in prolonged landmine clearance operations. In his poem, the trip wire morphs into an evil creature quietly waiting to claim its next victim. 

“When you wake up every morning and know you have to find something every day, it almost starts to feel like it’s a silent creature out to get you. You know you can’t win every hand. And it’s just made more hateful because it’s sentient and malevolent,” said Hartford. 

Another artist who courageously put his inner thoughts and emotions into his work is Tony Friesen, a 35-year retired veteran who served in both the Royal Canadian Navy and Air Force. Three of his wartime paintings are completely riveting and heartbreaking. 

In one painting, the slouched body of a soldier carries the body of an injured soldier across his back to safety. In the second portrait, a soldier sits on the ground completely engulfed in a nightmarish black space that suggests a personal living hell. And the third is a blood-red painting of soldier standing at attention beside a cross while a Scottish bagpiper plays a last lament. 

Former radio operator Monica J. Batek, has also suffered from PTSD, but for this exhibit she chose to feature positive, forward-thinking paintings. Batek applied to a combat arms position and was accepted into the military college. 

Unfortunately, she experienced sexual trauma and an injury following graduation that led to retirement. Today art is her salvation and one of her most arresting paintings is a self-portrait visualizing her swim competition at the Invictus Games 2018.  

Quite a few ex-military artists have found peace and solace in painting animals and birds. St. Albert firefighter Fred Hollands submitted two stunning bird portraits while Carol Beggs showcases a surrealist, six-foot giraffe sculpture hatching from an egg. Phil Gagnon adds a touch of whimsy to the exhibit with a grizzly bear shaking off water droplets.  

The most prolific was Wayne Gorman who is a third-generation retired veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. Now spending his time experimenting in acrylic, watercolour, oil and pencil, Gorman’s impressionistic art captures local trails and scenes such as St. Albert Botanic Park. 

The Steel Spirit will be on display until Saturday, Nov. 11.  

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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