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Combat Paper

Interview in Two Voices, Drew Cameron and Drew Matott

Breaking Rank by Drew Matott, 2007

Pulp printing on Combat Paper 29 x 51

Combat Paper Workshop, UC Berkeley September 2011

On a Veterans Day writing and meditation retreat six years ago, I first encountered the Combat Paper Project, a collaboration among veterans, papermakers, artists and peace activists. Reading aloud from a hand-crafted book of poems by Iraq veterans, writer Maxine Hong Kingston told us, “These poems are printed on paper made out of uniforms worn in combat by the poets.” The fine hair on my arms stood on end. I later interviewed the founders of Combat Paper, Drew Cameron and Drew Matott. In honor of Veterans Day, I am posting the introduction to the Interview in Two Voices []. along with an essay I wrote published in the Spring Inquiring Mind: " Making Paper with Charnel Rag."

Combat Paper Workshop participants Daniel Doane and me, September 2011

In a radical new version of “swords into ploughshares,” papermakers Drew Cameron, an Iraq veteran, and Drew Matott, an activist artist, have taught 100s of war veterans to slice up their combat uniforms and to transform them into paper. Papermaking is an art of transformation. Papermakers recycle local plants, old clothes, and rags—break them down and reconstitute the fiber as paper. Cameron and Matott call their process “liberating rag” and the fiber that results “combat paper.” Invented in 105 AD in the court of the Chinese emperor, the art of papermaking gradually spread west along the Silk Road, traveling with merchants, explorers and warriors, through the Chinese Empire to the Arab world, spreading through Europe and the Americas. Since founding the Combat Paper Project in 2007, Cameron and Matott have traveled countless miles across the United States from Seattle to Key West, from Boston to Los Angeles, with a portable studio and offered papermaking workshops at universities, museums, and army bases throughout the U.S. and abroad. The Combat Paper Project reverses the mentality of combat to that of collaboration. Veterans find their stories in the fiber itself and, through the papermaking process, exchange those stories with each other. They activate their paper with poetry and images, thus adding layers of content. Opening the workshops to all, Cameron and Matott invite not only veterans, but their family members, as well as families of soldiers who have been killed in war and other civilians to collaborate, further enriching the dialogue. The idea was born of the synergy between these two men—a veteran and a civilian—who became friends and colleagues. In 2004, 22-year-old Cameron took a hand papermaking workshop from 27-year-old Matott at Community College of Vermont in Burlington. The contrasting histories and skills of the two were essential to the collaboration. Cameron brought his passion for plants and trees, his skill at making things from scratch, and his history as a soldier fresh from active duty in Iraq. Matott brought a visionary propensity to think outside the box; his study of etching, lithography, and book arts; and a charismatic playfulness he’d honed doing street theater. By its very nature, hand papermaking involves collaboration, even with the fiber itself. The fiber chosen by a papermaker has its own history. A papermaker engages in transformative conversations with the fiber, particularly when she has profound connections with the articles being pulped, such as her combat uniforms. In September 201l, I participated in a three-day Combat Paper workshop sponsored by the ceramics department at UC Berkeley. Veterans from the wars in Iraq, Desert Storm, and Vietnam, along with UC Berkeley art students and a few civilians like myself, gathered in a relaxed studio space. From the start we were swept up in collaborating energy, “cutting rag” together. The two Drews circulated—Cameron in his Iraq war hat, a sky-blue T-shirt with images of pine trees, his gaze disarmingly direct; Matott with his rolled up jeans and crooked smile. We workshop mates helped each other out by slicing up each others “rag” or teaching each other to “pull sheets” while swapping our stories.

Drew Cameron

Drew Mattot

At my worktable, an Iraq vet and a Vietnam War medic cut up their uniforms side-by-side and exchanged tales of combat and the veteran movements against war. The Iraq vet took some dark green pulp made from the Vietnam vet’s uniform and sculpted it into a star which he worked into a tender wet sheet of beige paper made from his own Desert Cammies. In Combat Paper workshops, generations of veterans from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Haiti, Vietnam, Korea, and World War II have collaborated with each other.

Aaron Pines, Iraq Vet, Iraq Veterans Against the War ( and Ted Sexauer, Vietnam Vet, Vietnam Veterans Against the War ( making paper out of their uniforms at Combat Paper Workshop at UC Berkeley in September 2011

Unexpected alchemy can come of collaboration. At UC Berkeley, each participant brought his or her own fiber, saturated with personal story—uniforms from Iraq and Vietnam, someone’s T-shirts, someone else’s pajamas. I brought copies of World War II letters: love letters to my mom written by my dad, a naval officer in North Africa and the Pacific, and letters from my step dad to his parents when he was a foot soldier in Germany. When the Drews mixed the pulp from my two dads’ letters with pulp from the Vietnam and Iraq uniforms, the resulting paper revealed flecks of Vietnam green and Iraq beige.

Imprinting combat paper with image of my dad when he was in the navy in WWII

Little did I know when I arrived as a journalist to the workshop that I would emerge three days later not only having turned family letters into art but having taken apart and realigned something inside my own heart—about my dads, about love, and about war.

At Combat Paper workshops, vets who come to destroy their uniforms, who are ashamed or enraged by their service, exchange views with those who are honoring their uniforms, making paper to commemorate their service or grieve fellow soldiers who were slain. Turning combat inside out, there are combat paper collaborations between ex-combatants and families of combatants in Northern Ireland and in Israel between Israelis and Palestinians. Combat Paper has received grants and institutional support from universities, museums, libraries, and activist groups from Harvard University to the Beat Museum in San Francisco to the United Kingdom Art Council in London. It has been exhibited in shows throughout the United States, Australia, Japan, and England and been archived in special collections from Princeton University to the Library of Congress to the Bavarian State Library in Munich, Germany. In June 2011, I interviewed Drew Cameron in Berkeley, CA, when he passed through the Bay Area doing workshops, and again in April 2012 once he settled in San Francisco. I interviewed Drew Matott in September 2011 during the Combat Paper workshop at UC Berkeley. The interview in two voices presented here explores the synergy in the friendship and the creative collaboration between these two activist papermakers and the collaborative power of transforming combat uniforms into paper. Barbara Gates May 2011


To learn more about the Combat Paper Project:

To learn about the Peace Paper Project:

See this video of a CNN special on Combat Papermaking:

For my personal essay inspired by the Combat Paper Project, click here.

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