Interview by Ruth Crnkovich, March 2010
Tom Hubbard’s exhibition, Semper Fidelis: How I Met My Father, allows the viewer the opportunity to experience the artist’s personal journey to get to know the father he did not remember. Like many children of war who lose a parent, Tom grew up knowing his father only through photos, family member memories, and small mementos. The Semper Fi exhibit represents not only one man’s personal exploration of of loss and love, but touches the hearts of anyone who has experience either.
Tom said he had time to distance himself from the work and spoke quite candidly with me about the exhibit. He said time had allowed him to be more reflective about his art. Outside of the interview process, we talked about how important his sketch books were to the art making process. He mentioned reading “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland, how he was struck by their observation about how important process is to the artist but not the audience. Tom used the sketchbooks to journal his experiences, collect facts and imagery, sketch ideas and develop concepts. He has since begun including some of the sketchbooks in the exhibit. Tom explained that he visited those sketchbooks in preparation for the interview.
RC: Tom, I would like to know more about the development of the Semper Fi exhibit from inception to fruition. When you began working on this, was it your intention that it would culminate into an installation exhibition? If no, please describe how it began and evolved.
TH: This project really had a life of it’s own and directed me as much as I directed it. Growing up, I never wanted to know about my father or what happened in Vietnam, it was just too painful. That all changed when I became a father. One night, I was reading my oldest son, Calvin, a bedtime story when I realized that he was the same age I had been when my father was killed. I couldn’t tell him about his grandfather, because I didn’t know him myself.
Soon after, I started coming across documentaries, news articles and radio programs about the war in Vietnam and I became more curious. A friend I mine told me that “when you’re meant to do something, it just keeps hitting you in the head until you get it”. I decided not to fight it and just go where it was taking me, my journey had begun. I spent about 18 months researching the war, the country and learning everything I could about my father. By chance I met Ed Henry, a Vietnam veteran, on the mall in Washington DC who led tours to Vietnam. He and group of Marines accepted me as one of their own simply because my father was a Marine. I still didn’t know where all this was going but I knew that to understand things, I had to go to Vietnam. With Ed’s help, I was able to make the trip to Vietnam and understand the circumstances and events that led to my fathers death.
From the beginning, I was only certain of two things. If I was to understand this, I knew that I had to go to Vietnam and that I would work with it visually. I wasn’t sure what it would become... a book, an exhibition or something else. I think we all learn in different ways and I knew that if I could create something about this experience I could better understand it. I also decided to leave the work unresolved for as long as possible, simply to gather and record. I wanted the work to evolve naturally from the process and not to force any preconceived idea or form on the work.
In the summer of 2000, I spent 5 weeks in Vietnam and with the help of Ed and other veterans, I was able to retrace my fathers tour of duty, visiting the places he fought in DMZ, Danang and the village of Kim Lien where he and 3 other Marines were killed. I had been worried about finding the exact location of my fathers death. His commanding officer told me that it would all make sense when I got there, and it did. I stood on the beach where my father died and all the information I had from veterans and USMC documents just dovetailed together. I realized the exact location wasn’t that important. What mattered was that I was there allowing myself to feel that pain and loss for the first time.
Along the way, I documented my journey in a series of sketchbooks. Recording facts, contacts, images, sketches and most importantly, my emotions. I decided from the outset to record my pure, raw feelings without editing the content or grammar, just to “let it rip”. These books became touchstones and were instrumental in this body of work as they allowed me to revisit specific dates and times and tap into those raw emotions.
After returning from Vietnam, it took some time for everything I had seen, felt and experienced to sink in. Eventually I began to work with it and found that the honesty of my sketchbooks provided not just the content and emotion of the story but the visual vocabulary as well. The colors, textures, imagery and roughly layered compositions all came from the subject. The solution grew from the problem.
RC: Can you tell us what the public reaction to the work has been? I know that with Bettye Saar's MTI installation piece, the public response was such that the exhibit became a community participatory event where in several viewers felt compelled to leave offerings. Of course the Vietnam Wall in DC also has had a similar impact on the public where individuals leave offerings at the site of the art installation. Have you found that people are reacting in a similar manner with your work? Have you found any offering made at your alter? Please describe the feedback from your public.
TH: The public response and feedback to this body of work has been incredible and honestly, a bit unexpected. In the studio, I was so focused on the story, the imagery and the emotions, I never really considered what the viewers response might be. I concentrated on making the work as personal and honest as I could. It’s such a personal story and so focused on my family my father and the war in Vietnam that I was initially worried if there would be much interest beyond my family and the veteran community.
I always learn something new when my work is shown and I’m interested in how people interpret the work. I learned that while this work is specific to my family and the war in Viet Nam, the message of loss is universal and something that everyone can relate to. I haven’t had any offerings left at the altar but there have been some powerful comments left in the gallery books. One viewer wrote: “I just lost my father, not in the war but, pain is pain and loss is loss.” It blew me away. I was also told by a veteran in the gallery that I had not just honored my father, but that I had honored them all. I have been touched by the public response to this work.
RC: Speaking of your public, who is your intended audience being that the work is so specific to the US Marines and Vietnam? why? What has surprised you most about the public response to your work? Do you find it difficult to engage the public in stories of war and Vietnam?
TH: I made this work for myself and my family and didn’t really have a specific audience in mind. I knew there would be some interest from the military community based on the amount of help and support I received from veterans but I didn’t really think much beyond that.
The word “Vietnam” illicits such a strong response. Simply telling someone that I was working on a project concerning Vietnam and planned to travel there was an interesting experience. Nearly everyone has some connection to the war be it as a protester, veteran or relative of someone who served. The war is what people think of first when they hear the word. Once you get past that initial reaction, I do think people are interested and curious. I’ve been fortunate enough to speak on the topic at gallery talks, universities, public schools and national art conferences. I think that because, my approach to the subject is personal and makes no political statement or judgement on the war makes it easier to engage others in a discussion on the subject.
RC: The exhibit tells a story in a visual narrative that follows your journey from a grave-site in Indiana to Arlington National Cemetery all the way to Vietnam. Do you think pieces shown separate from one another would communicate each component of your journey as effectively if shown individually? Or do you feel the exhibit should be seen as a whole installation to be fully experienced?
TH: The exhibition was conceived as an installation with the 2D and 3D elements complementing one another and telling the complete narrative. I really thought of the installation as a book. Not just communicating the narrative aspect but also providing a sense of rhythm or cadence to the story, climax and areas of rest for the viewer.
The exhibition is somewhat modular and can be broken up in specific areas but its most powerful in it’s entirety. Most recently an edited version of the exhibition was displayed at the National Museum of the Marine Corps (photos & mixed media work without ceramics or altar). I think the show was successful and it was well received but it didn’t have the same power. My sketch books and preliminary drawings were also included to provide additional content and background information. It was conceived as one piece and works best that way.
RC: Tell us more about the ceramic vessels. How did that idea come to you? How did you decide to do multiple pieces as an installation as opposed to one or two? What do they mean?
TH: I work in a variety of mediums and in the years leading up to this body of work I had done a few series of ceramic vessels incorporating typographic and photographic elements. Influences from my design background I guess. Semper Fidelis was a natural evolution in the process but much more ambitious than anything I’d done previously. It is also the first exhibition where I allowed my backgrounds in design, ceramics and photography to merge.
When I was in Viet Nam, I was very interested in the funeral spires I saw in the military cemeteries and the Vietnamese traditions/customs of honoring their departed relatives and honoring those lost in the war. Initially the ceramic vessels in the show were inspired by these funiary monuments and were much more architectural and ornate. After making 6 or 8 vessels in this manner I abandoned the idea as they were too fussy, decorative and interfered with the narrative. I began simplifying the forms into something much more pure. I needed a form that could carry the message without interference. It wasn’t intentional but they really became abstracted artillery shell casings and another metaphor of the war. Some of the vessels are raku and pit fired which leaves them smoked, crackled and charred as feeling as if they’ve just been unearthed from the battle field.
As far as multiple pieces go, I typically work in a series format. It’s comfortable and allows me to fully explore an idea and consider it from different points of view. This series of 17 ceramic vessels visually chronicles my journey from Indiana to Arlington to Vietnam. They are the centerpiece of the installation and introduce the three voices used to tell story, that of the US military, my father and myself.
RC: I know the exhibition has been shown at on a national tour, do you still see the exhibit traveling or will you put it in a permanent location? Do you think it is something you will sell? If so, as whole or piece by piece?
TH: I’m very pleased with all the exhibition has accomplished and It’s done so much more than I imagined. I believe it still has the potential to travel especially given the current events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Semper Fidelis looks back at a war that occurred over 30 years ago and its effect on one family but it continues to resonate today. The effects of war are lasting and effect not just those involved but the generations that follow. We need to learn from our past and understand that 30 years from now there will be another generation of children on similar quests to learn about mothers and fathers lost in war.
I’m currently exploring options for a permanent location. I’d prefer to keep the work together if possible but as I said, it is somewhat modular and can be separated in specific places. I would consider selling the work, but right now I’m much more interested in finding an appropriate location.
RC: Looking forward, where do you see your work going as a result of this exhibit and it's impact on the art and veteran community? Will you continue in this vein of work or have you moved on? What are you working on now?
TH: I learned a lot from this body of work and I think it continues to influence my work today. I learned to make the work that is important to me and to make it personal. I am still connected to the veterans that helped me with this work and still keenly interested in Vietnam and the war. I have pursed other subjects since Semper Fidelis, but feel I still have some work to do on the subject. In a way it’s become a muse. Through my journey I came in contact with other artists who lost fathers in the war and deal with the subject in their work. We exhibited together at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago a few years ago. I always thought it would be interesting to find a Vietnamese artist doing similar work and to look at our shared experiences.
For the last five years my family and I have been living in The Netherlands. I have focused exclusively on photography and mixed media work and produced a large body of work focused on an abandoned greenhouse in the village where we lived. A document of history, progress and my personal method of adapting and understanding my new home. We recently returned to the US and I’m in the process of setting up a new studio.
RC: Tom, I know that this exhibit has been exhibited at several venues across the US including the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Indiana, the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, Governors State University in IL, and the National Museum of the Marine Corp in Washington, DC. How has the audience reactions differed? Is this exhibit still traveling? If a museum or art gallery would like to show this exhibit, what is the best way for them to contact you?
TH: I found that when the work was exhibit at the military museums, the vets told me that it was true and honest. However, when the work was shown in community venues, the universal themes really come through and the audience relates to the emotional aspects of it. It was my personal experience but I wanted to make it personal for the viewers. I wanted it to be powerful.
The exhibit is still available to travel. I would like for it to be seen at a few more venues before it finds it final resting place. I can be reached directly via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Additional information can also be found on my website: www.tomhub.com
SEMPER FIDELIS: How I Met My Father.
September 21, 1966 — USMC — Republic of Vietnam — KIA
Until recently, this is how I knew my father. A few scattered facts, flowers on his headstone at the cemetery, and stories told by my mother that I couldn’t or wouldn’t hear. For over thirty years it was easier not to talk about it, not to confront it, and definitely not to feel it. In 1996, my father’s body was disinterred in Indianapolis and he was given a full military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Unable to grant his final wish in 1966, my mother was able to do so thirty years later. This event marked an end and a beginning. For my mother and the rest of my family it was “closure”, for me it was the beginning of a quest to come to know my father.
This body of work is the result of a personal journey I have taken to come to know my father, a US Marine who was killed in Vietnam when I was two years old. On September 21, 1966 my life became forever connected with Vietnam. The person I am today is in large part because of the loss of my father in Vietnam. Only after becoming a father myself did I realize the significance of my father’s sacrifice and the importance of coming to know him for myself and my family. I have done extensive research on the war in Vietnam from both the US and Vietnamese perspectives and made contact with my father’s childhood friends and veterans he served with. Using USMC field reports as a guide, I was able to re-construct my father’s tour of duty and over a five week period in the summer of 2000, I visited the battlefields, the DMZ and the places my father served including the village of Kim Lien where he and three other Marines were killed.
I have documented my journey in a series of sketch books which have become the foundation for this exhibition which combines my work in the disciplines of graphic design, ceramics and photography.
The lessons learned over thirty years ago in Vietnam should be applied today as military operations continue to expand in the war on terrorism. The deployment of US servicemen affects not just the men and women called to serve their country but the generations that follow. The war in Vietnam effected many people and several generations in ways we are just beginning to understand and accept. The war has been looked at from many perspectives including veterans and protesters, parents and politicians. Only recently has it been viewed from the perspective and experiences of the children who lost their father’s to the war.
This installation is not a political statement about the war in Vietnam. It is a statement of personal loss and how the effects of war resonate through not just one but several generations. This is my story, the son of a marine who served in Vietnam and the father of two young sons, and how these events affected my life, and shaped who I am as a person, a husband, a father and an artist. This body of work does not merely represent my relationship with my father –
it is my relationship with him.
©All images copyright of Tom Hubbard