Combat veteran communicates emotional effects of war

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Joe Olney was a college freshman studying geology in 2004 when he received the call that his National Guard unit would deploy to Iraq. He dropped everything for the 11-month tour, during which time his unit patrolled for improvised explosive devices (IED), pulled security for explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) teams and suffered casualties.

Many people may never understand the extreme stress that thousands of men and women in the military endure during such deployments. But through a 2012-2013 Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts grant, Olney, who graduated in May, has been able to convey that stress through art that shows the emotions soldiers experience during and after combat.

“I found through the process of making art I can at least create some distance (from my experience) that is not all in my head, open up a conversation and discover what it really is versus just how it feels,” Olney said.

With the $1,310 grant, Olney hung nearly 5,000 individual dog tags with copper wire to create massive installation pieces that express the emotions felt during his combat tours. In some pieces, he hand-stamped each tag with words and phrases amplifying those feelings.

His largest piece, titled “…Over (silent version),” consists of 3,000 individually hung dog tags displayed on a 240-by-54-inch wall. It was exhibited at the VCU School of Arts Senior Show this spring.

The Reynolds Gallery also exhibited one of his works, “Yawn,” which consists of another 1,500 blank dog tags in the shape of a 59-by-79-inch television. Olney said the piece addresses how civilians repeatedly view images of conflicts on television, numbing their senses to war.

“It opened up the conversation with us who haven’t had those kinds of experiences and gave us a new empathy and awareness of what it was to be in Iraq,” said Reni Gower, a VCU professor and faculty adviser for Olney.

Most of Olney’s inspiration came from personal experiences in Iraq. He spoke to other combat veterans about their deployments to add more perspective to his work, but ultimately felt he could not properly represent them. Rather, he felt his story was just one voice among a thousand others.

The VCU School of the Arts Undergraduate Research Grant encourages curiosity, creativity, risk-taking and scholarly investigation through art. On average, accepted proposals receive $2,500. Faculty advisers also receive $1,000 for their own research.

Olney hopes the bachelor’s degree he received from VCU School of the Arts will aid him in his dream of owning an art gallery. Meanwhile, he is continuing his work with the dog tags, which he finds therapeutic.

“Having some sort of mechanism to express your frustration and anger, (which) in my circumstance, has been artwork … (helps) keep me sane; or as sane as I can manage,” Olney said.

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