A soldier's uniform defines his or her time in service and sets that soldier apart from others, based on branch of service, rank, unit and other accomplishments. The uniform is encoded with memories of when the soldier wore it, traveled in it, and slept in it.
Now, an Iraq war veteran living in San Francisco has started a project to turn those artifacts of war, which carry such deep meaning, into art. Drew Cameron's Combat Paper Project turns military uniforms into handmade paper.
Cameron came from a family with a military tradition. His father was in the service, so he was born in the military and raised in the military, he said. He enlisted in the Army right out of high school in 2000 and served four years as a field artillery soldier, he added. He said he was sent to Iraq in 2003 during the second wave of the invasion, working in munitions disposal involving small arms left over from the fall of the Iraq government. He spent eight months in Iraq and, when his contract was up, he came back home, said he joined the National Guard and moved to Burlington, Vermont, to go to college.
No longer forced to wake up at 5 a.m. and work full days as a solider, Cameron found himself with a lot of time on his hands, even as a student with a full-time job. One day soon after arriving in Burlington, he found a flyer for a $10 paper-making workshop, and that’s where his love of hand paper-making began. He said he became an apprentice and developed an obsession with the craft of hand paper-making, working late nights and on the weekends trying different recipes, studying other artists work, building his own tools and learning about the history. One of the principles of paper-making that he learned was that you should practice all the time and, most importantly, that you teach the craft to others.
In 2007, Cameron cut his own uniform and turned it into paper, he said. That process inspired him and he wanted to share the experience with other veterans. He felt like the process of turning that material into a portrait of handmade paper was the perfect way to embrace and transcend all of the experiences of being a soldier.
He took the project outside of his studio and on the road with a portable paper-making mill, visiting studios, colleges, backyards and paper mills all over the country, where veterans and families of veterans would gather to turn their uniforms into handmade paper, he said.
Cameron doesn’t know exactly how many people he has turned on to paper making, but guesses it’s in the thousands. In fact, seeing paper made from military uniforms at art shows that he had nothing to do with is one of Cameron’s great joys since starting the project. There are now affiliated mills across the country -- with locations in New Jersey, New York and Nevada -- that carry the name Combat Paper and host workshops in their communities, as well as Cameron’s studio in San Francisco, he said.