Mary Akers: Your work is so wonderful, Victor. We were thrilled to have you share your time and talents with us. Thanks also for reading all the work and selecting the /images to accompany them. Such an honor for our authors! I wanted to ask, was there any one piece in particular that stood out for you or that you connected especially well with?
Victor Juhasz: I enjoyed reading every one that I received for review and to match to an illustration, all for different reasons. One piece that arrived too late for me to make a call on selecting a drawing was by Kevin Jones. Ironically the drawing you chose was of a wounded Marine I had done at Bethesda. It worked perfectly. I’ve been involved with the Joe Bonham Project now for almost a year. It was started by a former Marine and combat artist, Michael D. Fay, who I can thank for giving me the kick in the pants to seek an embed over in Afghanistan last year.
The Bonham Project has been documenting, through drawings and paintings, the wounded who have been and are still returning from the front lines of our theaters of operation. It’s been very satisfying work from a spiritual as well as a personal level, giving voice, via the visual recording, to these warriors who have been injured in service to their country. Some of these wounded have suffered horrific wounds that will be with them always and create challenges that most of us would not even wish to consider.
Yet, to a man, and I say to a man because I haven’t drawn a wounded service woman yet, the attitudes have been remarkable. The sense of resiliency inspiring and humbling. Drawing and documenting these soldiers and Marines is one way I can say thank you. I guess Kevin’s piece resonated so strongly because it echoed some of the work I am currently doing and hope to continue till I won’t have to. We’ve got a son who is a Marine. Kevin is a former Marine.
MA: That’s a wonderful answer, Victor. I was delighted to have Kevin’s piece in this issue, and your illustration could have been drawn especially for it. Did you hear from any of the authors after the issue went live? In particular, I’m fascinated by the ways in which authors often find personal meaning in an illustration for their work that we couldn’t have known or even anticipated. That seems like just another level on which artists commune with the work and with one another. Was there an example of that that you could share?
VJ: I received a very nice email from Nicole Robinson. Ironically, the pieces selected for her poetry were not military related but satirical illustrations done for MOTHER JONES and ROLLING STONE. Yet Nicole seemed very connected to the pieces. Through the grapevine, a.k.a. Mary Akers, I was made aware that the reactions to the /images from the authors were quite positive, which made me happy.
MA: I think a lot about the function of art, the accessibility of art, and the conversation between artist and “consumer.” (Consumer, not in the commercial sense, but in the sense of “the person on the other end.”) I feel very strongly that art takes two. By that I mean that the artist makes a thing (painting, sculpture, song, whatever) but at first it is simply the artist talking to him-or-herself..until someone shows up on the other side of that art, enjoying it, experiencing it, or even hating it. But in a sense art takes two brains to be fully realized–the creator’s brain and the experiencer’s brain. What is your perspective on the idea of conversation being inherent in the creation/realization of art?
VJ: The way I look at it, if I can make myself chuckle at an illustration I’m working on, I know I’ll be making connections out there with the audience that reads the publication where the illustration appears. I’ve received the range of responses to my illustrations from a resounding “Yes” to real anger and offense. Luckily I get far fewer of the latter responses. As for the more serious work, like these military themed drawings and paintings, my focus is on the humanity of the subjects. I want them to make eye contact from the paper or the canvas with the viewer and for the viewer to experience a sense of that intimacy and connection, that sense of knowing the subject/s in the image.
MA: I attended a wonderful lecture by Margaret Atwood in which she spoke about the basic human need to be creative. If we doubt that, she said, we should think about the things that young children explore and do naturally, on their own. They sing, draw pictures, make up stories, dance. We need to nurture the arts in our public schools because creativity is at the core of what makes us human. What are some of your earliest memories of being creative as a child? Have they stayed with you in later life?
VJ: I am sorry to say this but my earliest motivations for being creative and expressing myself were driven by anxiety and fear. My parents fought a lot, they carried much baggage from their experiences in Europe during and after World War II. Nowadays one would quite easily say they suffered from PTSD. They weren’t emotionally equipped to hear each other because they were so absorbed by the traumas within themselves. So they fought. All the time. Soldiers and scenes of armies fighting huge battles were the earliest drawings I remember. I was working out my anxieties about all the fighting in the house. I think nowadays, especially in the satirical and political illustration that I do, fear and anxiety, along with rage, lie at the heart of some of my best work. Great comedy draws deep from the well of pain, humiliation, and frustration.
Now, having said all this, let me also add that creativity desperately needs to be nurtured in schools. This is a huge challenge. We live in a world where imagination is not valued. We have become passive receptors of computer generated /images, created by others, in mind boggling high definition, that leave nothing to one’s creative imagination. There are plenty of undeniably impressive special effects. There is, however, no mystery. Not trying to be a Luddite here. Just pointing out that there is incredible power, not to mention, magic, in what a child’s mind can visualize from hearing or reading a story or from taking some simple objects and creating a whole world and story with them.
MA: Last year I visited the Georgia O’Keefe museum in New Mexico (a bit of a pilgrimage, I must say) and I watched a movie in which she said as soon as she saw New Mexico she knew it was “a place she could breathe.” Do you have a place that inspires that feeling in you?
VJ: My wife and I moved to the New York Berkshires because the scenery was so inspiring. The farmlands, the rounded, weathered mountains. We love the drive to Williamstown, Massachusetts, about a half hour east when we visit her sister and her family. There are some views near the intersection of Rts. 43 and & 7 that are pure magic. On a good creative day my studio is my New Mexico.
Most importantly, we also have that New Mexico moment within ourselves, always ready, no matter where we are, if we just remain aware.
MA: Yes, I like that point of view. It’s all about accessing it, isn’t it? Both in terms of the creative act and the creative mindset.
Finally, since we are a recovery-themed journal, what role do you think recovery plays in the creative process? Many prisons, trauma counselors, psychotherapists, survivor’s groups, veterans organizations and the like employ art to help patients heal. Have you found yourself drawn to /images or themes that you later realized stemmed from something you needed to work through?
VJ: This kind of relates to your earlier question about childhood memories and creativity. I think we more or less spend our lives working on the issues that we inherited as kids. They just become variations on a theme- or themes. My mother was a survivor of the Soviet concentration camps, and like I mentioned before, suffered on a near daily basis with what we now call PTSD. I have spent many years working on that inherited sense of grief and sadness and fear and coming to some sort of terms with them. Events that happen here and around the world that upset so many people I know, don’t seem to surprise me that much. I grew up listening to recollections of horror and suffering. I have no illusions about this species. That might be one reason I seek a humorous route in my illustration as much as possible, especially if I can bring in the element of slapstick and absurdity. And slapstick is essentially cruelty made very funny. Interestingly, slapstick was a favorite of my mother’s as well, a form of comedy not normally associated with women. She was as big a fan of The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Bugs and Daffy as I was and remain to this day.
MA: I find that fascinating, that inherited sense of grief. It’s so true, but we (as a society) tend not to think about grief and trauma in that way. If I might share a short anecdote with you…? I co-authored a book with a man who survived being sent to Siberia in 1939 and at one of our public appearances, he was confronted by a very angry woman who asked him how he could possibly forgive the Russians for what they had done to him and to his family. She would never, forgive, she said, pointing her finger as him, never.
Flash forward about six months and my co-author and I were approached at a book fair by a woman who had read our book and said she was in graduate school studying how the descendants of parents who have suffered trauma carry that trauma with them and even pass it into the next generation. Her mother, she said, had been banished to Siberia as a teenager and had never recovered emotionally. This young woman who approached us felt that she–even though she had never been to Siberia–had suffered as well. As we talked more, we discovered that this was the daughter of the very same woman who had confronted us six months earlier. It was a powerful message about the value of forgiveness, not only for oneself, even, but for the world, for the children, for the future.
Anyway, thank you so much, again Victor. It’s been wonderful working with you.