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Art by U. of I. veteran provides narrative of Iraq and Kuwait experience

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


Aaron Hughes
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Art student Aaron Hughes changed majors from industrial design to painting after his college career was interrupted in 2003 for three tours of duty in the Middle East.


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Not all veterans returning from tours of duty in the Middle East are as well-equipped to process, express and share their war experiences as Aaron Hughes.

Hughes was a junior working on a degree in industrial design in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when his National Guard Unit was called to active duty on Jan. 30, 2003. By mid-April, Hughes and the rest of the 1244th Transportation Company, based in Riverside, Ill., were deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He spent most of his 15-monthlong tour – an original six-month stint with three extensions – driving up and down the same stretch of desert, transporting supplies from camps and ports in Kuwait to locations in Iraq.

Three years later, he’s back in school at the U. of I., applying his interpretive skills as a visual artist as a means of personal reporting. Hughes – who had something of a career-path epiphany while overseas, and changed majors from industrial design to painting upon his return to campus – has captured his experiences in Kuwait and Iraq in a variety of visual media.

The results are on view in “Dust Memories,” a solo exhibition of drawings, paintings and collages. The show runs through May 12 at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, a campus interdisciplinary unit located at 805 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Urbana. Some of the work also will be featured in another solo gallery show this fall at the Springer Cultural Center, 301 N. Randolph St., Champaign; he hopes to exhibit the work in the Chicago area in the future.

In the artist’s statement that accompanies the exhibition at IPRH, Hughes notes that the 50-plus works on view represent his attempt “to communicate the ambiguous and anxious moments” of his deployment and “to deconstruct the nostalgic war epic – which informs so much of how war is interpreted by mass media – in order to convey the over-complex, monotonous anxieties of a personal war narrative.”

Hughes said his strongest motivation in sharing this highly personal body of work with others was to create a dialogue about his experiences, and about the war. So far, the voices contributing to that conversation have come from diverse audiences – from university professors and students to staff from a nearby Veterans Administration hospital and fellow veterans, including some from his own company.

He doesn’t divulge much about his own views on U.S. involvement in Iraq, but said he believes “there is no progress in any direction being made there, and there is a lack of knowledge and understanding about the Iraq war in general.”

But any personal views he may hold appear to be secondary to his desire to stimulate thought and discussion among others.

“I am political,” Hughes said. “However, I hope the art work is not so much so – as I want it to be more of a testimonial than to fit into a larger political agenda. I just want to further understanding. I’m interested in creating a human understanding between emotions and experience.”

Among the works included in the IPRH exhibition is a huge triptych and two large paintings. One of those paintings, an acrylic, with sand mixed in, almost begs viewers to touch it, as if to somehow come closer to the world of Hughes’ memories; the other, an oil on panel, resembles a typical, blown-up travel snapshot – except the “travelers” are clad in desert fatigues and are posing before a burned-out Humvee in which three soldiers had been killed.

Hughes said he was unable to actually create much art while overseas, though he did keep a journal and occasionally sketched in it. The bulk of his visual memories, however, have been prompted by the many photos he shot.

With titles ranging from “Firefight North of Camp Scania,” “Oil and Blood” and “Do Not Stop” to “Tired Little girl” and “Soldier and Children,” the images that line the exhibition walls provide a fairly clear window through which to glimpse the artist’s lingering post-war thoughts and memories.

A number of images depict children, usually barefoot, with their hands extended. Such children – who often appeared as if out of nowhere, begging for food – were a common sight along the transport route, Hughes said. Clearly, he was affected by their presence, and by their neediness.

“I think about how nurtured and culturally developed my situation was, and this life we end up in … then I look at these kids there … they’re just innocent kids, stuck in the middle of this. I think about what a rough future they have, and how maybe I can help them for real.”

Helping them “for real” refers to Hughes’ humanitarian goal of contributing 100 percent of the proceeds from sales of his artwork to a handful of charities, including the Global Medical Relief Fund, No More Victims and Amnesty International. So far, he has sold about six pieces.

Hughes isn’t sure what direction his work will take next, but believes he may continue to focus on his experience in the Middle East. “I’m continually reworking things in my head,” he said. “Only with that distance will I be able to figure out what comes next.”