An army field artillery operator in the Iraq war, Drew Cameron never shot anyone and was himself uninjured in frequent mortar attacks on his base. But he came to loathe the disregard with which he and other U.S. soldiers treated Iraqis. “I had a rifle in my hand,” he says. “That’s how I communicated. I didn’t speak Arabic.” After his tour, while studying papermaking with artist Drew Matott at a Vermont workshop, he decided with Matott to pulp his army fatigues. The cotton duck made paper sturdy enough for printing, painting, and bookmaking.
But they were also making a political statement: Cameron was becoming a peace activist; Matott already was one. At first, “we were looking to piss people off,” Matott admits, but as other ex-GIs brought in uniforms to be made into art, the two decided to lay off the politics. Participants would find their own meanings in the project now called Combat Paper. Cameron and Matott have since traveled the country pulping uniforms with a portable Hollander beater—a paddlewheel cotton pulper based on a model invented in 1680 for papermaking. Hundreds of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam—conservatives and liberals—have shredded their fatigues on college campuses, in art centers, and at a private facility for homeless vets.
Cameron now directs Combat Paper. Matott runs a sister endeavor, Peace Paper, which will work with survivors of violence—including orphans in Istanbul and Kashmir, Tibetan refugees, and women in Delhi—turning rags of personal significance into paper used for art and storytelling.
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