Art & Culture

Museum in Chicago curates Kurt Vonnegut-themed exhibit to honor veterans

Joseph Wade
Above and Beyond: 13 x 34 ft. Vietnam Memorial Installation, on view at the Harold Washington Library Center until 2020, composed of 58,307 dog tags hanging from the ceiling, one for every service man or woman who lost their life in the Vietnam War.
Source: Francis Son. Part of the NVAM Permanent Collection

Art by famed writer and World War II veteran Kurt Vonnegut is the center of a new exhibit at Chicago's National Veterans Art Museum, which just opened in time for Veterans Day.

There are nearly 19 million former servicemen and women living in the U.S., according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Census Bureau. The exhibit shines a spotlight on their stories, and the fact that many of them struggle with combat-related health issues, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to a recent study by Brown University, the federal government spent more than $212 billion on veterans' health over the last 15 years.

The litany of struggles veterans face after returning home from war is a major theme of Vonnegut's work, one of the best known being "Slaughterhouse Five." The art exhibit, called "Vonnegut's Odyssey," references the mythical figure Homer — a theme Vonnegut explored in his play "Happy Birthday, Wanda June."

Museum director Brendan Foster explained to CNBC that exhibit is about "the veteran experience, not the war experience, so their experiences when they are at home, when they are veterans, as opposed to when they are soldiers or servicemen and women."

CNBC recently compiled a few of the 36 pieces — many of them silkscreen images — being shown at the museum, where the Vonnegut exhibit will be on display until May 2017.

Black Heart

Black Heart: Silkscreen on paper, on loan from Joe Petro III, 2004
Source: National Veterans Art Museum

One of the prominent pieces in the gallery is titled "Black Heart." Exhibit curator Ash Kyrie, a veteran of the Iraq war who was deployed to Iraq, explained to CNBC the subject is "receiving [his] Purple Heart, but the title obviously is 'Black Heart,' which kind of invokes — there's some conflict between the two ideas."


DWI: Silkscreen on paper, on loan from Joe Petro III2006
Source: National Veterans Art Museum

The piece draws attention to an ongoing issue combat veterans face after returning home. "It's quite common for veterans to self-medicate, or get DWIs. They often take unnecessary risks," Kyrie said. And the art piece was ahead of its time.

Welcome home

Welcome Home: Silkscreen on paper, on loan from Joe Petro III, 2003
Source: National Veterans Art Museum

"Welcome Home" opens the discussion of a common struggle veterans face: returning from war.

Kyrie told CNBC the piece "immediately spoke to me as this analogy to a veteran's returning home." He mentioned how the shapes trying to enter the large square in the piece are all in various stages of not quite fitting.

November 11, 1918

November 11, 1918: Silkscreen on paper, on loan from Joe Petro III, 1996
Source: National Veterans Art Museum

The date on this piece refers to the end of World War I, otherwise known as "Armistice Day." Kyrie explained that veteran art is "not a conversation that is directed by outside entities, it's directed by the people that were actually there, so it's a veteran's perspective of combat or being a veteran."

Trust Me

Trust Me: Silkscreen on paper, on loan from Joe Petro III, 2007
Source: National Veterans Art Museum

Joe Petro III, an artist who assisted Vonnegut on many of these piece, works extensively on silkscreen images like this one. Petro is currently raising funds to create a permanent museum for Vonnegut's work.