Amherst

Uncategorized July 7, 2013

When I made the decision to take this WW II exhibit on the road, one of my high school classmates and son of one of my subjects, Ernest Paulin US Navy, emailed me “Why not start in Amherst?”  It was an obvious choice though not to me.  But it was the right one.  Six of my portraits are of Amherst men (I have since added a woman veteran’s portrait and story).

Amherst is also where I went to college at UMass, class of ’72.  It was  during the height of the Vietnam war.  The draft had been re-instituted  and my number (138) was well within those being called to serve. It was a student deferment that kept me from that fate.  The spring of my freshman year, Kent State’s student body faced down National Guardsmen who shot and killed four anti-war protestors.  Across the country,  more protests erupted and classes all across the country, including UMass, ended early.  It was a time when the world was so naively divided.  One was either for or against the war.  Returning troops were categorized as “baby killers” and shunned.  I was part of that naivete who pointed a finger of blame.

Returning to Amherst with a tribute to the Second World War has opened my eyes to the reality of this place.  For two years while I was at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, people wrote wonderful tributes to the troops past and present, both in my guest book and on the wall next to my easel.   The reminder of where I was, here in Amherst, came quickly.  A week into the exhibit, I noticed someone had written a long missive in my guest book.  Instead of the expected praise, I was slammed for glorifying war.  It went on chastising me for having an equal number of women and men’s portraits as it didn’t accurately reflect the real war and the final dig was that my “painting style wasn’t very good.”  Later comments from others included calling me a “war profiteer”.

My initial reaction was anger.  I felt caught off-guard.  it was a reality check that bringing anything related to war to this town was going to be slammed by a small percentage of the locals.  Amherst remains, as some have said to me, in a glass bubble.  Or as the local saying goes: “Amherst: where only the “H” is silent” meaning everyone has an opinion.

I found myself looking at many who flowed through the library, wondering which ones were making the negative  comments.   And I stereotyped.  An older man with a long grey queue whom I pegged as a possible anti-war candidate came up to me one day.  “I think your exhibit is brilliant,” he said. “You’ve really captured the humanity of war.”   We talked more.  He is anti-war.  But he also knows sometimes we are forced to make choices that require action.

I have accepted that more negative comments will come.  I now mostly chuckle.  None of these individuals have the real courage to talk to me, talk to a veteran, let alone talk to a veteran of WW II.  I accept that even a conversation with them would not change their opinion. That is the downside to living in an intellectual college community where the real world sometimes remains outside the bubble.   I know.  I once had this smugness. I once breathed the air within this bubble.

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by

For over three decades my profession was as an author and illustrator of children's books. Firefighters A to Z (McElderry Books/S&S) was chosen as a "Best Book" by the NY Times (2000). Over 100 titles are attached to my name. In 2011 my life changed the moment I saw a photo of a WW II fighter pilot. Nineteen year old Griffin Holland, P-47 pilot stood erect on the wheel of his plane, staring off into the distance, cocky as all get out. The need to paint that photo and Griff's tearful reaction to it as an 88 year old man set this journey in motion.

Comments 4

  1. Floyd A Thompson (Tom) says on July 7, 2013

    I lived in Amherst all those years too. I agree it was a partial bubble and even more so now. My catharsis was Atlanta GA then Peace Corps. Once I came back I could never return to stay in Amherst. But Melissa is right on that it was a great place for me at the time. You though need to be bolstered by the rightness of your cause and know your Artistic expression is now a mission for good and greater understanding. I hope for awareness that war is no good and only ordinary people innocent people are forced to carry out the greed and anger of the powerful. Keep on and many atta boys your way.

    • wwtwotravelingportraitexhibit says on July 8, 2013

      Thanks Tom. As you said, coming from another Amherst resident,you get it. This mentality is both an energy for change but also an incredibly crippling effect. That the world is so black and white says something about the writers youth and/or naivete. “Atta boys” back at ya.

  2. Ellen Ternes says on July 8, 2013

    That it would be so simple as the anonymous message writer says. Right now I’m spending a month with my daughter on Yokosuka naval base, while her naval officer husband is out to sea for several months. These families do an amazing job of carrying on while the folks on ship spend long days and nights out there…just in case, or, better yet, to make sure just in case doesn’t happen. I wish everyone could see how they live and what they do so even people like the nameless writer can have these kinds of opinions. One of the wonderful qualities of your work, Chris, is that it touches on the spirit and humanity, not glorification, of our parents and grandparents at a terrible time in the world, the same spirit and humanity I see here at Yokosuka.

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