Denham Clements was 23 and more scared than he had ever been in his life.
“Scarier than (anything),” he said, “but I think at that age, and I think I speak for all of us, fear was a common bedfellow. But because we are young, we perceive ourselves as invincible to a point, but we learn, day by day, invincibility is not the reality.”
Clements represents the New Mexico VA Health Care System in this year’s festival.
His piece in this year’s National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, “Vietnam Elegy,” is a reflection of that time and those experiences. The piece took first place in the Military Combat Experience category.
Created like a Rorschack ink test, it features explosions of orange and dirty grey smoke that form the backdrop for the piece that was two-and-a-half years in the making. The rest are a series of painted images – a photograph of a young G.I. A Time Magazine cover from 1968 featuring Janis Joplin, Bobby Kennedy, Coretta Scott King, and soldiers in Vietnam. There are rice paddies, combat boots and claymore mines; grenades, dog tags and a silver, Zippo lighter. There are choppers, there are M16 shells and an etching of a name – John Dawson – from The Wall in D.C.
Each image has a purpose; every paint stroke tells a story.
Clements, like his brother, went to college and became military officers.
“The Marine Corps was not on my list of choices, but my eyes weren’t so good, so I couldn’t fly. That cut out the Air Force and the Navy, and I didn’t want the Army.”
He led men through the jungles south of Da Nang. He spent 13 months in the war then came back home to rebuild his life.
“I think there were emotions I was dealing with, probably anger and bitterness, because we were overseas but aware of what was going on back here. The country was divided and we had the sense that the only people who appreciated and feared for us were family and friends.”
He lost his marriage, but said it ended up being a blessing, as he made decisions and created opportunities in his civilian life.
“The anger and bitterness took time to chill out and dissipate, and I have made peace with that,” he said. “I haven’t had any issues once I got on with things. I put all that stuff behind me, but memories of Vietnam, like any other conflict, never do leave you. You just learn how to go on with it the best you can.”
Painting was one way to do that. He picked up a paintbrush upon his return and his work made it to a gallery by 1975.
“My family was already musically inclined, so that part of the brain was already engaged,” he said.
Those interested in his art – and the stories behind the images – can be found at www.vietnamelegy.com . It includes videos, photos and his views on life, and the ability to buy prints of his work.
“My audience, for the most part, is the Vietnam Veteran, a bunch of old geezers like I am,” he said. “I hope the message does stay out there. Hopefully, their family sees this, their descendants, and they will not forget.”
Clements one of more than 100 Veterans from across the country participating in the 2014 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Milwaukee. The Festival, presented by VA and the American Legion Auxiliary, showcases the artistic achievements of Veterans from across the country who placed first in national art, music, dance, drama and creative writing division competitions.
The Veterans are participating in workshops, rehearsals and artistic interaction sessions, culminating in an art exhibit and stage show performance, open to the public. Among many other therapeutic benefits, the Festival encourages artistic expression to help Veterans dealing with PTSD and other psychological issues. More than 3,500 Veterans participated in regional competitions which culminate in the annual national event.
Gary Kunich is the Public Affairs officer at the Milwaukee VAMC.