The power of art to address community issues | Guest column

Submitted by Glen Bruels

As a society and community, we often face issues that are hard to deal with or discuss. Things like climate change, veterans’ issues, etc., are big, complex issues — emotionally charged and hard to frame. Sometimes the issue can be brought up in less direct but often more powerful ways. Art provides a different way to pose issues, using imagery and other media to evoke thought and emotion from the viewer. No two people will react the same, but they often lead to introspection, discussion and sometimes catharsis.

A good example of this was the recent “My War” exhibition at the San Juan Islands Museum of Art. It turns out that San Juan County has the highest per capita number of veterans in the state — a full 10 percent of our population are veterans, and many of those are Vietnam vets. The exhibition included a traveling exhibition from Wisconsin that depicted the everyday life of the war from a number of soldiers’ photos. The images were evocative — the tragedy, the boredom and the rare moments of humor shared by a group of Americans who served their country in an unpopular war half a world away.

But another part of the exhibit included mementos from local San Juan County Vietnam veterans, some of which came through a collaboration between the SJIMA and the museum at the American Legion in Friday Harbor. As an adjunct to the exhibition, the American Legion held an open house in their facility. As someone who participated in the Vietnam Evacuation, I wanted to see the American Legion’s Museum. It turned out that the open house was really a round table where everyone could share their experiences, feelings, etc. Included were veterans, spouses, those who had protested the war and those who just wanted to learn more. It was an emotional and healing two hours and, in fact, initial plans were made to reach out to other county Vietnam vets. This collaboration brought this often hidden period of our history to light, and facilitated both education and necessary discussion to take place — that wouldn’t have happened without this exhibition.

That’s the power of art. It can help present issues in ways that words (and preconceived notions) cannot. Art museums can play a key role in facilitating community dialogues, and the SJIMA is doing an excellent job providing that for our community. The current exhibition, “The Deep,” provides a compelling view of the fragility of our Salish Sea and the need to preserve the delicate food chain that sustains sea life therein. I hope this exhibition will stimulate similar discussion and action as had occurred with “My War.” What is clear is that SJIMA is a critical resource for our community. It provides a mirror for ourselves and helps to make difficult topics amenable to discussion and action. Please support the SJIMA — only with financial contribution will they be able to continue the good work they do.