In its upcoming show, “Soldier’s Home: Veteran’s Art in Central Florida,” the Maitland Art Center will feature the artwork of three military veterans.
As Michael Moffett peered out of the small window of his commercial flight, he was struck by the surreal nature of his situation.
He was no longer in the friendly confines of the Sunshine State. Instead, he was looking down at a tarmac lined with F-4 Phantoms that sat alongside military buildings that were barricaded with sandbags.
It was 1969, and Moffett and those fellow Marines aboard his flight were landing in the Vietnamese coastal city of Da Nang — four years after American forces became physically involved in the ongoing Vietnam War.
“The first thing I remember (was) when they cracked the door opened and you stepped outside, the heat hit you — I think it was 110 when I got there,” Moffett said. “And there was a smell in the air, and the smell — I don’t know what it was a combination of — it was just very distinct. To me it was like, ‘Welcome to Vietnam.’”
For the next year, Moffett servedas a communications/radio specialist — trekking through the Vietnamese jungles and the Ho Chih Minh Trail.
Fast forward 49 years, and that time in Vietnam — though relatively brief — has continued to play an important role throughout Moffett’s life, including in his art.
Moffett, alongside Central Florida artists and veterans William Gura and Jim Hosner, will be a part of the Maitland Art Center’s upcoming exhibit, “Soldier’s Home: Veteran’s Art in Central Florida.”
The exhibit — which takes its name from a short story by Ernest Hemingway about the return of a World War I veteran who suffers severely from the atrocities he saw during the war — was inspired by the arrival of the centennial anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I. It also celebrates Maitland Art Center founder and WWI veteran J. Andre Smith.
“It’s 2018, and we still feel and hear that the veterans are not always taken care of, and that their stories are not heard well,” said Rangsook Yoon, director of experiences and curator at the center. “They feel the disjunction between their wartime experiences and civilian life afterwards.”
The difficulties faced by those who have fought wars is varies from individual to individual. In the case of Moffett, the war in Vietnam led him to an observation that fits the mold Yoon was looking to explore in the exhibit: Veterans, whether broken or not upon their arrival, come home to people that don’t understand them or their situation.
While Moffett utilizes a slew of media — including sculpture, painting and drawing — its his sculpture work that really hits the hardest.
One of his most notable pieces, titled “Portable War Memorial,” is a critical observation of society’s knack for placing veterans on proverbial pedestals while simultaneously casting them aside and ignoring their needs.
The sculpture features two separate pieces: The first is that of a man whose torso is attached to a tank that sits atop a red base. His left eye is covered by an eyepatch, and a half-burned cigarette sits between his tense lips. The anguish in his facial expression reads of great stress, as the handgun pressed to his ear creates a moment of overwhelming tension.
Placed in front of the memorial is “the viewer” — an old veteran who sits in a wheelchair thanks to age and a missing right leg.
“Moffett’s work focuses more on brutally honest depictions of the realities of many veterans — the suicide epidemics, the depression and the alienation from society,” Yoon said. “We want to emphasize these issues that Mike Moffett creates, which without the contextual information can be lost as something too brutally honest to actually look at.”
Creating work that provokes strong emotions and reactions is exactly what Moffett sets out to do — so folks looking, or reacting by not looking, is exactly what he wants from viewers.
“The whole point of the work is to poke the tiger, so to speak, because you want to have some kind of statement in your work,” Moffett said.
Like Moffett, Jim Hosner served his country during the Vietnam War, but unlike Moffett, Hosner went against his will.
Despite his pacifism, Hosner was drafted into service — a moment that had a significant impact on him. Although he didn’t realize it, Hosner suffered PTSD for years before having a breakdown in 1987. Eventually, he found help in the form of therapy and art.
“His paintings that he has been making on canvas are kind of records of his recurring nightmares and dreams,” Yoon said. “So it takes him a long time to complete a work, but they tend to have very personal dimensions. He tends to create them in surrealistic sequential images.”
Serving in an intelligence role during the conflicts in the Middle East, William Gura is a veteran who has made a name for himself thanks in part to his illustration and knot work.
Gura, much like Hosner, also has suffered from PTSD, which has been helped thank in part to his artwork.
His love of illustration bloomed after retiring following his 20 years of military service, and his ability to create beautiful knots derives from his time in the armed forces.
“He is a very knot expert, so we are going to show some of his knot works, which are very delicate,” Yoon said. “The fact that he served in the Marines also shows that there was a connection between his knot work and his career as a veteran.”