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Peace Arts

June 12, 2005

Steve Mason transformed his Vietnam combat nightmares into poetry for peace. Sharleen Leahey transformed her horror over the war in Iraq into songs for peace. Jane Irish transformed her dismay over both wars into an art show to commemorate a peace march by war veterans. Each provides a notable example of transforming the pizzazz often associated with martial arts into peace arts.

Mason, who recently died of cancer at 65 at his home in Ashland, Oregon, was eulogized by the Associated Press as “the unofficial bard of the Vietnam War.” He previously was honored by fellow vets as the poet laureate of Vietnam Veterans of America. The mantle he preferred was “Warrior for Peace” – the title of one of his books of poetry, which also included “Johnny’s Song: Poetry of a Vietnam Veteran” and “The Human Being—A Warrior’s Journey Toward Peace and Mutual Healing.”

There remains one, much needed war.
One, last commitment
worthy of a lifetime—
to fight for peace
in each of our hearts

Mason wrote in one of his poems, delivered in his “listen up!” Army captain’s voice to an assembly of veterans and public officials gathered in May 1985 to dedicate the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He continued, for decade after decade, in good health and poor, to convey that message—speaking at veterans’ conventions, Memorial Day events, and wherever, in cities and towns across America, he could find an audience.

Sharleen Leahey, of Somerville, NJ, is a troubadour of peace action, plucking heart strings with her guitar strings, aiming to defuse landmines with her lyrics. She writes the kind of protest songs you won’t likely hear on the TV news. Yet they are the kind of feisty calls for action that sustained the 1960’s civil rights campaign and generations of peace marchers.

We are students, teachers, firemen, nuns
Waitresses, veterans, daughters and sons
And we’re marching through the streets
With our banners and dreams
For a world built on justice instead of on greed

To reach wider audiences, Leahey created a web site (www.songs4peace.org) and a CD featuring her peace march music, titled “So Frail,” a reference to life amid war.

Jane Irish, of Philadelphia, Pa., is an artist on a mission to do for peace activism what long has been done, by officially commissioned artists, for famous battles. She is organizing artists for a show, which opens Labor Day weekend, designed to recreate a 1970 peace march by Vietnam veterans. Called “Operation Rapid American Withdrawal,” the Labor Day weekend march from Morristown, NJ, to Valley Forge, Pa., was conducted by nearly 100 uniformed, long-haired veterans tramping through small towns where in the 1770’s George Washington’s rag-tag troops trudged through. The Vietnam vets saw themselves as similarly standing up, in a nonviolent way, to an arrogant, imperious government prosecuting a disastrous war far from its shores.

With an eye on historical parallels, Irish and other artists preparing for this show have the war in Iraq in mind as well. The multimedia art exhibition is scheduled for September 2 - 25 at the Ice Box Project Space at Crane Arts (American Street near Girard Avenue) in Philadelphia. For further information, see www.operationraw.com. Irish’s call for artists included this comment about art and commitment:

The heart and soul of this artistic effort will be a commemoration and homage to the 35th anniversary of something called “Operation Rapid American Withdrawal.” It was a wonderful example of true guerilla theatre / performance art that was a reenactment of a search and destroy mission performed by antiwar Vietnam veterans... The Vietnam Veterans Against the War demonstrated in order to bring their buddies home, it was a creative act, and visual artists as their heirs of contemporary art will re-call attention to this kind of heroic dissent with the same committed fervor and the same lovingly created tools.

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