Born: Omaha, Nebraska, 1944 Served in Vietnam, U.S. Army Pleiku Subarea Command (PSCA) Cook, 1967-68
From the Artist:
From two letters, 1981 and 1996:
I couldn't even read novels or other books about Vietnam until well into the 1980s. I feel no connection, empathy, or (until recently) sympathy for my fellow veterans. I don't like hanging out with them or thinking of myself as one. My story is not at all exciting; the only weapon the army issued me was a mess-kit knife; I didn't kill any babies or lose any body parts. Nevertheless, I still was (and to some degree am) overwhelmed by guilt at my participation, however detached and by my lack of courage to stand by my convictions.
My interest in masks stems from an ongoing admiration for the woodcarving of the North Pacific Coast Indians. I have occasionally used Northwestern Indian motifs for their exotic or anecdotal value. My masks mark a change in my interest from the appearance of Indian art to the purposes for which it was used. They show little physical resemblence to Indian masks, but they represent, to a degree, the assimilation of Indian liturgical mask-making traditions. They deal more with feelings than with specific experiences. Dulce Bellum Inexpertis translates as "war is sweet to those who have not experienced it." This was a popular theme during the reign of Elizabeth I; the title is taken directly from a sixteenth-century poem by George Gascoigne, a veteran of the wars of Holland. It compares the realities of war with the myths of war. (I also think of Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decoru, Est"—Owen died in World War I.) It is concerned with anger and rage: anger at being used, lied to, and manipulated for the benefit of Litton Industries, Honeywell, and Bankamerica. The Ritual Suicide Mask deals more with guilt: guilt over surviving, guilt over having participated, in any manner, in the war. Making the masks was a way for me to put some of this behind me—kind of primal screams whose purpose is to expose, examine, and then expunge or exorcize these old ghosts. A focus these works share with traditional masks is transformation: transformation of the maker/wearer, transformation of the mundane to the mystical and vice versa—magic.
...Yes, I am giving up some of the guilt. For years I considered myself personally responsible for every aspect of that war—from racism within the service to My Lai to defoliation (in spite of the fact that the army neglected even to issue me a gun, and I never felt compelled to point out this oversight). Ritual Suicide Mask was made as a means of figuratively beating myself up for all these things I took no initiative to stop, and because I felt guilty about not ending up like the mask (that is, surviving).
Since Vietnam, I've been preoccupied with the Holocaust: how do we normal, walking-down-the-street kind of people end up doing these incredibly horrible things to each other? And what about those to whom they're done?