In a new twist on the iconography of war and art,  The ‘Helmet Project,’ currently showing at the Cheryl Pelavin Gallery in New York speaks in at least fifty voices across decades. It is literally that:  50 helmets, 50 journalists, and one artist-interpreter from Martha’s Vineyard,  Cindy Kane.

Kane asked a variety of journalists from all disciplines to represent war through their personal items, which she then painted and re-interpreted, working on old-fashioned military helmets. The journalists  Kane solicited covered conflicts ranging from World War II to Iraq.   I find that each journalist represented covers different conflicts in the sense that no one’s wars are ever alike.

Jacki Lyden's helmet from the war zone.

I am one of the journalists.  In the show tiny figures leap over my  ‘helmet,’ just as soldiers in a dream leap from my notebook pages.

To me Cindy Kane’s ‘ Helmets’ are physical depictions of the ephemera that become anything but ephemeral when the assignment is past.  Like the men in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried,  each journalist bore (and has contributed) talismanic scraps of paper, notes, photos, bits of crud that become like the war  detritus beneath your fingernails.

I gave Cindy Kane old notebook pages.  I could scarcely have given her my translator’s bloody eyeglasses after he was shot and killed by an American soldier in 2005.  But the notebook pages are like hard, raw data, in which the moments live again.

The work includes so many friends — Geraldine Brooks,  Deb Amos, Tony Horwitz,  Chris Hedges —and so many other colleagues:Caryle Murphy, Nora Boustany. It seems the conversation about war continues.

Some of these conflicts are just yesterday— like CBS’s Kimberly Dozier’s car-bombing in 2006.  Others come from  a while back—Norman Bryant’s memories of a parachute jump on D-Day.   Some correspondents are victims of violence themselves: Anthony Shadid,  Ivan Watson, Sudarsan Raghavan.  Others of us have felt helpless as cherished  translator-colleagues  died  or fled.   We depend utterly in foreign countries on those who can be our eyes and ears, people who become journalists themselves.

I think these steel helmets show one aspect of war for what it is: a frustrating attempt to compose a narrative over fragmentary events that mean destruction for someone.  Conflict ends but feelings and memories mean, as the psycho-historian Robert Jay Lifton has said, that no large question is ever answered permanently.

On the ground in conflict zones, life is an assemblage like these helmets.  We try — as reporters, photographers, videographers — to bear witness, scope out sources, make friends,  go endless sleepless nights.

It’s good these helmets are in a circle, because I think they ‘speak’ to the support correspondents need from each other,  and which the best ones freely give.  These are my friends enshrined here along with my own husband’s photos on his helmet (Bill Oleary, Washington Post photographer)—how could this be anything but a living project and creation of art?   And what experience is memory still carrying on without me, represented by that pentimento on the helmet?

Whatever their  experience of violence and fear, every person in this project chose to go to a place of enormous confusion, danger and ambiguity.   So Charlie Sennot can give pages that extend from Kosovo to  Ground Zero to Afghanistan, five years later.  So Anthony Shadid has saved old currency—but did not give us the bullet he took in the West Bank.   Sudarsan Raghavan gave us press I.D’s and airline tickets, but I would have liked a bit of fabric from his clothes the day after he was bombed by a suicide bomber inside the supposedly safe Green Zone cafeteria.

Boundaries are changed by war, but feelings are hardened by them.  I look at these helmets and think hard about battles  still ranging in Africa, still being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan,   and Pakistan, and frankly, about the battles still raging in some correspondents:  do I stay or go?  Am I fit to live without this adrenalin?  Is my memory a reliable record or a false betrayer? When is my war over?

Right now, people are tired.  War seems endless.  We have been at war for eight years in Afghanistan, six years in Iraq.   But I think the ‘Helmet Project’ will grow in importance even as those they ‘stand’ for continue to change, write and reveal the truth of turbulent conflict—we rescue from the moment  our most vivid experiences.  We have attempted, as Chris Hedges has written, to give our war meaning.  But they are imbued here with a permanence and artistry by Cindy Kane that it is impossible to feel in the moment.

This show encapsulates our very lives as war correspondents.

Jacki Lyden is a regular substitute host on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Weekend All Things Considered. Part of the award-winning NPR team that covered the Persian Gulf War, Lyden lives in Washington, D.C. Her 1997 memoir Daughter of the Queen of Sheba is scheduled to become the basis for a feature film starring Amy Adams. At right, she stands in front of Kane’s painting of the pages of her book.

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  • Cheryl Pelavin April 18, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Dear Jackie,

    This is so wonderful, I just got the link from Cindy today. Thank you so much for writing this, and the images and you tube video are wonderful too!

    All the best,

  • Sybil Conn April 15, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Cindy, you really touched a nerve with this ingenious exhibition. For the journalists you have given them an opportunity to describe their involvement without editing. To the audience you have given an opportunity to connect to the people closely involved.

    You never fail to make your art a thoughtful expression.

  • Elizabeth Willse April 15, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Wow. Just- wow. I will have to check out this exhibit.