War (literally) made into art at the Military History Society of Rochester

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POW Internment Camp, Cobb’s Hill, Rochester, NY Trench Art Box, by German prisoner, December 1944

Far from being the anonymous junk of war, trench art is revealed as a rich source of information and insight into how individuals coped with their very different experiences of the war. Trench art could evoke feelings of love, hate, fear, grief and boredom, as well as display extraordinary inventiveness, and be motivated by profit.

— Nicholas J. Saunders, Killing Time: Archeology and the First World War (more below)

The Miltary History Society of Rochester is always a fascinating stop on First Fridays or any day.

You read before about the museum in The U.S.S. Langley debuts at the Miltary History Society of Rochester and  Over the Top! Courtesy of the Military History Society of Rochester

Chuck Baylis, museum director

WWI cannon in Pittsford (Canal Path].

Friday January 1st was no exception.

At the event, I also met an other  Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History, Tom Farnham.  (I am actually a Fellow emeritus.) A master’s student in American Studies at Nazareth, Tom is an intern and newsletter editor at the Society. (see below)

Recently, Center Director Professor Timothy Kneeland named Tom a Fellow. A fantastic addition to the “Club,” Tom will be contributing his sociological research on the Museum collection, including a close examination of poster art.

But first, Tom provides an illuminating description of the exhibit.

Trench art is any decorative item made by servicemen and women, P.O.W.s or civilians where the manufacture is directly linked to armed conflict. Visitors of the Military History Society Rochester can view 72 pieces of trench art, created during the eras of World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s that have been acquired via purchase (online, flea markets, gun shows) and donations.

Ed Fix, Society volunteer, vintage WWI infantry uniform

Most interesting are artillery shells etched with images of President Woodrow Wilson and the Statue of Liberty. Others have been heated and elongated until they roughly resemble wine goblets. My favorite is a leather belt displaying 14 unique buttons. Each had been collected from French battlefield during WWI. The most elaborate specimens in the collection are three miniature Soviet armored vehicles, fashioned in brass and donated to the MHSR by a Russian émigré, or the semi-erotic images etched onto cigarette lighters by G.I.s in Vietnam.

IMG_1437Another noteworthy artifact within the MSHR display is a 5 x 5 x 1-1/2 inch hinged, wooden box completed in December 1944, by a German POW interned at the Cobbs Hill POW Camp. The image of a bird carved into the top of the box is intriguing. [featured picture] One wonders whether the Trench artist in this case may have intended to present the box to a loved one, or perhaps the case is merely the best way to kill time while awaiting the end of the war and repatriation. Perhaps the bird represents the artist’s desire to be free once again. It is unlikely we will know.  But if one considers the significance of his incarceration at that moment, it is clear that he may have been blessed to certain degree since his capture saved him from deployment to the bloody battlefields of Kursk, Kiev, Falaise, “The Bulge,” or the streets of Berlin.

On the reverse side of the Vietnam cigarette lighter is a raw, graphic image of a couple. The image reminds us of the powerful emotions invoked by war as discussed by Nicholas Saunders. Living in the alien, fearful world of Vietnam, perhaps the graphic image was the only way these soldiers knew to represent heartfelt longings for their women at home.

myself and Tom Farnham

For more on the Cobb’s Hill camp see Ryan McKelvie’s (St. John Fisher College) research. By all accounts, prisoners of war were treated humanely in the Rochester

Prisoner of War Camps in Rochester — were they humane?

below are some excerpts from Killing Time: Archeology and the First World War:

Trench art of the First World War and its aftermath includes obvious instances of items made from recycled war materiel such as artillery-shell cases, detonators, bullets, grenades, shrapnel, ship and aircraft parts, as well as a host of miscellaneous scrap. These items were fashioned into a variety of objects, such as matchbox covers, bullet–ens, inkwells and writing sets, cigarette lighters, ashtrays, identity tags, letter-openers and crucifixes, and are often best preserved in extraordinary private collections.

The most famous and frequently encountered kind of trench art is that made from the definitive and iconic weapon of the First World War –the artillery shell. Once the shell had been fired, the empty shell case could be picked up and transformed, more or less artistically, into a piece of trench art, either as a personal memento or, more likely, as an item to be sold or exchanged. Trench art also includes commercially made metal items that have been personalised with a name, service number, and sometimes the battlezone location where it was made.Personalised items include cigarette cases, weapons, writing materials and painted helmets. Apart from metal, there are objects made from beads, embroidered and painted cloth, and innumerable items of carved wood, bone, stone, and such unlikely materials as army-issue biscuits (used as photograph frames). In the chalk and limestone country of the Somme and Champagne, large-scale images were produced in vast underground tunnel systems and galleries mainly by Allied soldiers. These range from simple pencil sketches of men and women to elaborate painted carvings of army insignia, patriotic (French) images of the Cockerel and Marianne, various animals, and even complete subterranean religious altars used by the Catholic French infantry before going over the top.

Each of these different kinds of artefact is a trace of humanity, saying something about the person who made it, and those who bought it, inherited it or came into contact with it. Trench-art objects could embody experiences of war that are not obvious at first glance today. For some soldiers, trench-art items could be amulets –symbols of divine protection, or of luck and relief at having survived life-and-death struggles. Some objects were sent home to sweethearts and families almost as trophies of the war, while other were made as a medium of exchange, to earn money or gain favours. Refugees who made trench art for sale to the soldiers during the war were understandably motivated by the terrible circumstances in which they found themselves. Far from being the anonymous junk of war, trench art is revealed as a rich source of information and insight into how individuals coped with their very different experiences of the war. Trench art could evoke feelings of love, hate, fear, grief and boredom, as well as display extraordinary inventiveness, and be motivated by profit.

For stories (links and pics) to other local Museums/Galleries/Libraries and Walks

Living the Native American way of being at Haudenosaunee Days at the RMSC/

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Emotions recollected in tranquility on University Ave

Art and a fumbled football merge at Rochester Contemporary/


Art for the People premiers early at the MAG. Five year labor of love comes to fruition for curator Jessica Marten/

Thoughts on why the Carousel panel belongs in the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

An art museum as a place of meaning in a time of senselessness

Seeing Red. Did we violate “sacred space” backstage at GEVA?/

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In search of Julie Andrews at the George Hoyt Whipple Museum/

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Bringing back the mid 19th Century at the University of Rochester. Nanotechnology meets local history