Jacob Lawrence (1917‑2000). War Series: Victory, 1947.
Tempera on composition board, 20 1/4 x 16 3/16in. (51.4 x 41.1 cm).
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Roy R. Neuberger 51.19
© 2014 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y.
This Memorial Day Weekend, conversations about Blue Star Museums and the healing power of art, Jacob Lawrences's War Series, and a poem by veteran Lynn Hill.
Music Credit: Excerpts of guitar music composed and performed by Jorge F. Hernández, used courtesy of Mr. Hernández.
Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works ,the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. This Memorial Day weekend, the NEA is celebrating the launch of the fifth season of Blue Star Museums. Blue Star Museums is a collaboration among the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Defense, Blue Star Families, which is a national network of military families, and more than 2,000 museums across America. The museums offer free admission to the nation's service members and their families from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Here's senior director of Blue Star Families Sheri Robey-Lapan to tell us more about Blue Star Families and Blue Star Museums.
Sheri Lapan: Blue Star Families is a military family support organization. Our primary objective is to really strengthen our military families while connecting the America to her military.
Jo Reed: Do you feel like there's often a disconnect between Americans and their military?
Sheri Lapan: Our survey results, year after year, have shown us that whether perceived or not, there is a tremendous disconnect between the realities of the military family and the general American family. Blue Star Families risk on a regular basis the upheaval of their family and, you know, their family routine. They're often moved. Their children don't necessarily have the same opportunities that children that can stay in the same school district can have. They're at constant unease. And it's not anything that I think our military families want the American population to feel sorry for. I mean, I'm a military family myself. My husband remains active duty and he's had multiple deployments. But that's a choice that we made. And for me, I'm lucky that I live in a neighborhood where people understand that. And appreciate that and look out for us, whether my husband's home or not. And lots of folks, especially our Guards of Reserve, who've carried so much of the burden for these wars, live in neighborhoods where people don't even know what they do. They don't understand that their families are totally disrupted. When their service number goes away that they're leaving behind jobs, that they're leaving behind career moves in their own personal lives, to do their volunteer service. And that's the thing that makes America so strong. And it's more of a wish for an understanding of a lifestyle.
Jo Reed: You have a number of programs that both work with military families to boost their morale sounds like a cliché. But I mean that in the best possible way. As well as, outreach between Blue Star Families and other Americans.
Sheri Lapan: Absolutely. And morale is not a bad word. Morale has to do with the core of wellbeing. I mean, if the American people are supporting the morale of the military family and their service members, then I think we've made great strides. Our programs range from everything from Books on Bases to Blue Star Museums to Caregivers Empowering Caregivers and a Milkidz Club and all of the things that are built to strengthen the military family and provide them with opportunities that they may not otherwise, you know, come encounter with.
Jo Reed: Let's talk about Blue Star Museums. It's about to launch again this very week. Why don't you just give us a thumbnail sketch about the program itself?
Sheri Lapan: Well, you know, I've got to start with the very genesis of Blue Star Museums. The concept was a collaboration between two very special people, our CEO of Blue Star Families, and Joan Shigekawa at the NEA. They sat down and said, "What together can we do? We want to do something, but we don't know what." And so they came up with Blue Star Museums. And we're now in our fourth year. This program is such a remarkable outpouring from the community, all across the country. There are more than 2000 museums participating in this program. They offer free access to our military families from Memorial Day through Labor Day. They create special programs. They do special events. They really reach out and make our military families feel like they're special. The program originally was meant to serve the families whose service members were actively deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the museum community overwhelmingly said, "Let's support the entire active duty military community and their families. And open our doors and show them that their service means something to us." And they've done that. And it really is positively remarkable.
Jo Reed: And how have Blue Star Families responded to this program?
Sheri Lapan: I tell you, Jo everything from "Thank you," to "You've made a difference. You've inspired our family. You've inspired a child to walk down the path you've given as a way to come together as a family. You've given us opportunities to do things that we wouldn't have otherwise done. You've opened doors. You've expanded our ability to learn and process in ways that we wouldn't have otherwise had." We are just overwhelmed with response from our folks out there, saying, "Thank you." And there's no stronger word than that.
Jo Reed: You mentioned families coming together. And there's something about art, I think, that allows discussion about things that might be difficult for families. But at the same time, so very important.
Sheri Lapan: I totally agree. I think the arts, in a very unique way, has a very holistic ability to open the mind and allow for sharing. Whether it's viewing or creating, art is an amazing way to express yourself in a safe environment in ways that you can't in the general stream of life, and there's so many cities that show that art is healing. That art helps you to open your mind and go places that you can't before. It allows families a way to communicate with one another about something that's not difficult. If you've got a service member that's returned from a conflict and has had trouble reintegrating with a family member or their family in general, they get to go do something. And talk about things that are not at the core, but they're re-establishing the relationships in a way that's safe and comfortable and enjoyable.
Jo Reed: You know, I can imagine there are many trials with a family being separated by war. But one of them would be the way in which the service member, I'm sure, thinks about the family, as stopping and standing still. And not changing. And at the same time, I think the family has this picture of the service member also frozen in time. And then, the service member returns, and there's this realization that there have been changes and shifts.
Sheri Lapan: I can't tell you how difficult reintegration is on a family. I've experienced it a number of times myself, and I've heard from many who've done it that it is the most difficult thing that you could do. Because you're right. Because you have a picture of that person, or the family, in that moment that you walked away. And you don't understand the things that the other has done to accommodate, to-- survive's not the right word. But to really manage through that six months, that year, that 18 months, once, twice, three times, over and over again. And to not understand the toll that it's taken on the other.
Jo Reed: And again, that's where art can come in. Because there's a way in which, as you said, art can provide this safe place to begin to have those conversations.
Sheri Lapan: It does. It really levels the playing field. So that the family can come together in a place where they can heal together and reestablish those connections.
Jo Reed: I'm going to put you on the spot. And I know you have gone to Blue Star Museums, both as a Director of Blue Star Families, but also as a Blue Star family member yourself. Is there any exhibit that really has stood out for you?
Sheri Lapan: You know, there was an unusual set of circumstances. I took the family to the Hirshhorn Museum. Would've never taken a nine-year old to the Hirshhorn, absolutely ever. Assumed that it would be too much for anyone who wasn't an adult. The level of exploration that I saw in my child, between she and her father and myself, as she ran her hands down these interactive exhibits and watched a-- an elephant that was turning round in a 3D multiscreen. And we talked about things and we talked in ways that we wouldn't have, sitting around the dinner table. And it was such an eye opener. And I've been able to take her to museums from San Diego to San Antonio to San Francisco to Washington and experience things that she wouldn't have experienced otherwise, if I'd not had that first step into the Hirshhorn, four years ago, when the program first started.
Jo Reed: That was Sheri Robey-Lapan. She's director of Blue Star Families. I was happy to see that New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art is participating in Blue Star Museums once again. The Whitney has a rotating exhibit called American Legends. It focuses on 13 artists, showcasing the work of only two or three of them at the same time. Jacob Lawrence is one of the featured artists and the Whitney chose to exhibit his War Series, 14 paintings that depicts World War II soldiers from their initial draft notice to the end of the war. Barbara Haskell curated the exhibit and she's joining me now to talk about Jacob Lawrence in American Legends and his masterwork, War Series.
Barbara Haskell: Well American Legends was an attempt to look at the collection from the perspective of individual artists. So I selected artists that the Whitney owned in depth and brought all the work that the Whitney owned in various media into different rooms. So each artist had his or her own room, sometimes shared a room with other people, but had their own separate spaces. And what it ended up being for most artists was almost a mini-retrospective because the Whitney owned so much depth within-- among the fifteen artists that I selected. And with Jacob Lawrence what I chose to do was to bring in the War Series, which is this very emotional series that Lawrence did between 1945 and ‘46 after the war was over. And rotations have happened during the course of American Legends; some artists have come in, other artists have come out, and this has been such a powerful centerpiece of American Legends that I've left it in for the entire run of the show. It's the single piece that really has been there for the duration.
Jo Reed: There I really had never seen the War Series, all fourteen panels in one setting. And it was stunning. I don't think I left that room for a couple of hours.
Barbara Haskell: I think everyone felt that way. It's such a powerful story about war.
Jo Reed: As we said, there were fourteen paintings in that series and apparently they were all completed in one year.
Barbara Haskell: Yes, before the War Series, Jacob Lawrence made his mark earlier doing kind of historical sagas. He looked at the African-American experience, African-American history, and had begun making these series of pictures that were united by a common theme or a common story. He had done the Haitian revolution. He had done a story on Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and then in 1949 he did a whole series of pictures called the-- what was then called the Migration of the Negro. There were sixty panels and, as with the other panels, the Harriet Tubman and the Douglass, in those series he used a legend probably consisting of two, three, sometimes even four sentences to describe what was happening in the picture. So it was this very unusual combination of words and pictures. And, as I say, in ‘41 he showed it at the Downtown Gallery. He was twenty-four years old. It was picked up by Fortune Magazine who-- the magazine reproduced twenty-six of these sixty panels and Lawrence became kind of an overnight sensation at a time when artists weren't caught up in the art world at such an early age. So he was a phenomenon. And then during the war he entered the Coast Guard. He was on one of the very few integrated ships and he depicted daily life onboard ship. But it wasn't until after the war was over he got a Guggenheim fellowship to do a series on the war. And that's what constitutes the Whitney War Series. And it's very different from anything else he really has done or had done up until that point. It still retains this thematic cohesion and it visually tells the story of the service man being deployed and then being shipped out. The daughter, the mother, the sister praying for him. And then, in the course of the fourteen series, Lawrence really describes what it means to be in war and what it means to be on the home front and be waiting for news from a loved one who's been shipped off. Instead of using a legend for each of the pictures, he just has one single title. So there're titles such as “Prayer” or “How long?” There's one panel that you probably remember describes soldiers in a hole and the title “How long?” to wait. It just conjures up the whole feeling of the kind of eternity that one feels being in a manhole waiting for the battle to happen. There're other panels in the series that describe what's happening on the home front. There's one called “The Letter”, which is this very powerful just somber, heart-wrenching picture of somebody getting a letter from somebody who's abroad. There's another one, “The Secretary of War Regrets”, which is the letter that comes home telling the family that the service person has died. They're just very simple titles in this case. And I think the other thing that makes the series different from almost anything Lawrence did is that before this time and after, he tends to depict the African-American experience. He describes neighborhoods. He describes the social-moral struggle for freedom, they're African-American stories and, of course, they convey to a larger audience. But with the War Series it becomes a totally universal story about what it feels like to go to war and what the human cost is on an emotional level of both the men at war and, as I say, the people at home. And the final image-- you probably remember-- is called “Victory” and it's this soldier on one knee leaning against his rifle with his head downcast. And it says everything about the human cost of war. There is no victory.
Jo Reed: And that is an amazing picture because it's unlike anything I've seen that depicts the victory in World War II.
Barbara Haskell: That's right “Victory”, is just the most heart-breaking picture about war and, in a sense, it's the one panel that could stand alone. This soldier tired, leaning on his rifle on one knee with his head bowed, it just conjures up everything that one thinks about what the end of war is, is just a relief that it's over, but there is no elation. There's no sense of joy.
Jo Reed: Yes, because he brings the soldiers back home again and there is this sense of them being a bit lost.
Barbara Haskell: That's right.
Jo Reed: And I thought that was very prescient, because obviously today we recognize that going through an experience like war leaves young men and young women often quite at odds with themselves and the society they return to after that experience. We never really think about that with World War II, but Lawrence was so perceptive in depicting that.
Barbara Haskell: Exactly. Not only the service people coming home, but the families that were waiting for them that the human cost on those families-- the concern, the worry, the pain-- he really creates a universal story about the cost of war.
Jo Reed: And he does so in both very simple-- and I'm gonna really let you go on about this because I'm just speaking as somebody who's been there and who really likes his work-- but his lines are quite simple. His colors are very bold and the paintings don't have a great deal of depth though an enormous amount of emotion.
Barbara Haskell: That's right. No, he's one-- he's an amazing artist in that he's able to combine the modernist techniques, you know, of exaggerated perspective and sort of acerbic color, flatness, with a storytelling. And no one else has really been able to do that. He takes these moral stories and conveys them through a realistic technique that is totally accessible to all audiences. But you're right: They're very simple, they're very stylized, they're very modernist in their technique.
Jo Reed: There's also this extraordinary way in which the lines of the different paintings relate to one another. And the shape in “Victory” is so similar to the one in “The Letter”.
Barbara Haskell: Yes, absolutely. No, the series has a kind of poetry that moves one along as one is reading the visual panels, they do all relate. They definitely are a group, but they form a kind of poem all together.
Jo Reed: Now he obviously was a great believer in creating a series in order to tell a story. It's not that each painting in this series, or in the Great Migration series, can't stand on its own but as it-- when it's part of this larger conversation its power is really enhanced.
Barbara Haskell: Absolutely. He was a storyteller telling moral stories about the human condition. But one panel doesn't indeed tell the whole story as it doesn't in any historical narrative.
Jo Reed: When I was in the room looking at those paintings, I was very aware that these 14 paintings tell a powerful story when historical texts, for example-- sometimes can't. The paintings get to the heart of the matter
Barbara Haskell: That's right. That he distills an image down that embodies an entire mood or entire, in his case, an entire part of a story. He's able to distill it down into almost like a pictograph.
Jo Reed: And the choice, I think, of putting it in the room that you did, which isn't a very large room, it looks like it was just built to contain these paintings.
Barbara Haskell: Yes. They need to be close together. You want to be-- it turns out you really want to be carried along and move from one to the other as if you're reading a story.
Jo Reed: And what kind of response have you gotten from people who have come in and looked at the paintings, Barbara?
Barbara Haskell: It's just been extraordinary. Of all the rooms in that American Legends presentation the Lawrence is one inevitably that people talk about. School groups come; they're mesmerized by the power of his ability to distill emotions that people, in a sense, almost know or have, you know, in the back of their minds-- he's able to-- by visualizing them, he makes them so powerful. And the response has just been, as I say, uniformly positive.
Jo Reed: When he was finished with the War Series in 1946, '47 and it was exhibited, what was the response then? I'm curious about that?
Barbara Haskell: Jacob Lawrence was one of those amazing artists, the response to his work was good throughout his career. He had this amazing meteoric rise in 1941 and then consistently the work was well received.
Jo Reed: And do we know how he thought about this series?
Barbara Haskell: No, he never wrote much about it. He did write about, you know, wanting to find the beauty, the universal beauty in man's continuous struggle for freedom. And I think that's one of the aspects of the War Series, that there's a humanity in Jacob Lawrence's work that comes across with such force that he's doesn't condone. He describes reality and describes a narrative, describes a situation or a scene, but it's without a condemnation. So that there's an ability to understand and assimilate it. So each individual person feels the power of the story, but without feeling separated from him.
Jo Reed: And I am really happy to own my own ignorance, but when I was in that room I was really curious about why I didn't know more about this series.
Barbara Haskell: That's a good question. The Whitney has owned it for quite a while. It really requires, as you could tell in that room, a self-contained space. So that it probably has been a piece that might not have been exhibited as much as, say, a work by a single artist. We have other work by Jacob Lawrence in the collection and if it that work tends to be exhibited more. So one work can be integrated into group shows. It can be a little bit more easy to manage. The War Series really requires its own space to be the most effective. Although I'm happy to say in the new building that the Whitney is opening, which opens in the spring of 2015, we are arranging for a special room for the Jacob Lawrence War Series. So it will be up permanently.
Jo Reed: You know when I was there and I saw that series I knew immediately I wanted to do a podcast about it for Memorial Day. And especially with the Blue Star Museum program kicking off and of course the Whitney is a member, so service members and their families can go to the Whitney and see this free of charge. It's just ideal.
Barbara Haskell: Right. No, I think it's a wonderful event for Memorial Day. It sort of epitomizes what it feels like to be in war, what it feels like to be home and waiting for a loved one to return, waiting for letters to arrive. I think it does suggest the whole range of emotions: the boredom, the claustrophobia, the pain that is encountered in every war. And so for service people I think it will be a profound experience and very gratifying in that there is this understanding of what people went through and I think that comes across in the 14 panels.
Jo Reed: That's Barbara Haskell. She curated Jacob Lawrence's War Series. It's part of the American Legends at the Whitney Museum. And finally on this Memorial Day weekend we end with veteran Lynn Hill. She was in the Air Force where she operated predator drones. When her tour of duty ended, she became a key poet/performer in Holding It Down, an extraordinary performance piece by Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd about the dreams of veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here's Lynn reciting her poem, "Dreams in Color" and shares her thoughts about Holding It Down's attempts to portray the challenges of service members when their uniform comes off.
Lynn Hill: "Dreams. Black, white. Bent metal scrapping the roof of my mouth. Burned rubber and oil. Gas like garlic. Sharp flavor of vomit jagged down the back of my throat. Track wheels. Loud engines. Striker tanks rolling into a city. Screaming babies with no sleep after a gun fight. No. I dream in color. Of green grass and tall trees. A backyard with a pool. A neighbor's dog pooping on my front lawn. Red roses and yellow daisies. Blue skies. Pink gummy smiles. A rainbow of laughter. Bright eyes in a big brick house with a porch. Wind chimes. I dream in color. Holidays, birthdays, home for the six o'clock news. Dinner at a table. Arguments over a pint of Ben and Jerry's. Evening showers and pillow talk before clicking off the light. When I dream, I dream of normalcy. I dream the color of peace."
Lynn Hill: Holding it Down is, its primary focus is veterans dreams. a lot of people don't think about the dreams that people have when they get back. So, it's a series of interviews of what is it like--what type of dreams do you have and if you even dream at all. It's a collaboration of poetry, music, visual representation of, like, the war, their dreams, a visual representation of their poetry. We tried to just reach out to the veteran community, to the--and I just want to say the American community--to open up the conversation about veterans. Everyone always says "Oh, the heroes are always the soldier who's an active duty who's in uniform," but when you take off that uniform and you're walking among everyone you're like an invisible-- you're like the unsung hero now that's back here trying to put their life back together.
So I think Holding it Down is to show that people are still trying to hold it down, they're trying to hold it together, and hopefully we can start the dialog and say, "How can we help these guys? How can we encourage them? How can we empower them? How can we change their dreams from being of bombs and shady gray and sand to being blue skies, smiles, and hearing laughter. And it's the normalcy of their lives that they can come back to.
Jo Reed: That was poet and veteran Lynn Hill. We also heard from Sheri Robey-Lapan, of Blue Star Families, and Barbara Haskell, curator at the Whitney Museum. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at Arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. And to all service members, veterans and their families, thank you for your service.