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Originally published October 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 23, 2007 at 4:54 PM

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Fighting to save veterans' art site

The dog tags hang from the ceiling, shimmering like the prisms of a chandelier as the central piece of the National Vietnam Veterans Art...

The Washington Post

CHICAGO — The dog tags hang from the ceiling, shimmering like the prisms of a chandelier as the central piece of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, which serves as the country's lone repository for the sketches, pottery and paintings of troops who went to war.

Although the city of Chicago is working to help save this museum, its tour of duty may soon end.

The museum, whose name is about to change to reflect contributions from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is housed in a borrowed warehouse in the South Loop, a neighborhood that's being revitalized. Chicago initially donated the museum building but is now reclaiming the structure for its park district offices. A deal for the museum has yet to be reached, and the circumstances are bleak: The museum can no longer pay most of its staff or its utility bills.

"The situation is very dire," said Jim Holtzman, a board member and museum treasurer. "At this point, we're trying to help stem the bleeding."

The mostly untold story of the museum is one of sacrifice — by the artists and by the volunteers and donors who have labored to keep the space open as a reminder of the humane and inhumane aspects of war.

The images inside the museum can be haunting. They are raw, unedited pictures of carnage that follow veterans home, stuck in their heads until they find art as a way to let them out. Some are sublime, and others are heart-wrenching and grotesque.

"It's the only place we have a voice," said St. Louis artist Jay Burton Hellwege, who was drafted by the Army in 1969 and sent to Vietnam with an artillery unit.

Hellwege, 60, a former high-school art teacher, uses old typewriters as his primary material. "I am compelled to create art — something drives me to do this, and it is very much part of my being," he said. His art, on display at the museum, reflects his cynicism and his attempt to deal with the post-traumatic stress that he says led to a nervous breakdown after 27 years of teaching. He retired from the classroom and sought treatment.

"Art is God's apology for the horrors of life, " he said.

The museum, which opened at its current location in 1996, has 1,500 artworks, many of them displayed on three stories of neatly decorated warehouse space. It represents 125 artists from the United States, Australia, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. It was formed out of an artists' collective in 1981, but until 1996 never had a permanent home.

The museum, though, hasn't been able to attract enough visitors (estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 over the past four years), at a time when a new generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan is eager for a place where the public can view personal images and words depicting what the troops saw and experienced. Admission is $10, but veterans and school groups get in for free, making it impossible to meet the budget on ticket sales alone, museum officials said.

"I had the experience of learning about the value of life in Vietnam," said museum curator Mike Helbing, whose first work of art, titled "Raw and Naked," was a painting of a chicken on a chopping board. He later expanded the work to tack the chicken (bought at a poultry shop) to a piece of wood. "Some of [his experience of death in war] was very expensive," he said. "Some of it was very cheap. I think you spend the rest of your life trying to figure it out. Maybe you never do."

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As curator, Helbing is responsible for putting together the exhibits, including the newest one from veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. It features photographs of combat buddies, soldiers on missions, soldiers missing limbs. Not all the images are of violence. Some feature smiling women, or U.S. troops playing with Iraqi schoolchildren or a soldier carrying a baby.

"In a way, this museum has become an inadvertent monument," said James Baker, 58, president of FOB Healing Arts Inc., an Indianapolis-based nonprofit organization that collaborates with the museum. Its main mission is to support healing of combat veterans through art. Baker served with the Navy's Seabees in Vietnam.

"We have Jefferson's archives," he said. "We have Washington's archives. We have the Smithsonian. We need this, too."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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