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Artist works to honor veterans

Of all the veterans' monuments Ralph Sirianni has designed for city, town and village parks throughout Western New York, he walks past his favorite one nearly every day on his way into work.

Sirianni, an art therapist who helps veterans process their experiences through visual art, has worked at the VA Western New York Healthcare System since 1977. His own experiences as an infantry squad leader in the United States Marine Corps, including a tour as an infantry squad leader in Vietnam, led Sirianni to dedicate his life to the health and public legacy of veterans like himself and those who were less fortunate.

One piece of that dedication is on permanent display outside the VA hospital. Originally part of the popular "Herd About Buffalo" public art program, Sirianni's stalwart fiberglass buffalo, outfitted like a World War I doughboy, greets veterans and their families as they arrive at the hospital.

It's a small token of reassurance that the physical and mental sacrifices these former soldiers have made -- often the same sacrifices that bring them to the constantly bustling facility on Bailey Avenue -- have not been forgotten.

"Buffalo Soldier" is not nearly the most polished or elegant of Sirianni's nine monuments scattered across Western New York. Like most "Herd" pieces, it screams kitsch from afar, but that impression quickly dissolves upon closer inspection.

For Sirianni, the piece is saddled with multiple meanings: It commemorates the contributions of the Buffalo Soldiers, members of African-American cavalry regiments who fought valiantly for the United States for nearly a century. It honors the dead of World War I, whose massive sacrifices have faded from memory. It embodies a certain amount of Buffalo pride. And it gives a little nod to one of his favorite singers, Bob Marley.

Out in Brighton Park in Tonawanda, another of Sirianni's monuments rises from the ground like a blooming flower hewn from sparkling granite. Its petals form an abstraction of the letter "V," meant to call to mind all those battle-worn "v" words: "valor," "virtue," "veteran," "victory." Another monument, the centerpiece of the Western New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the waterfront, depicts a soldier gazing out across a rice paddy at the rising or setting sun.

"I like to steer away from war scenes. A lot of the monuments you see, they depict a wounded individual that's being carried to safety or maybe in a pieta position, or showing bullets flying overhead," Sirianni said. "My own personal thoughts are people go to pay their respects and remember their loved ones, and maybe they don't need to be reminded of the violent way they died. I just try to show something a little more peaceful."

Peace is Sirianni's preoccupation. It's the same goal he's after in his paintings, which hang until Monday in an impressive exhibition in Ashker's Juice Bar and Cafe on Elmwood Avenue. His work in this show is, for the large part, celebratory and serene, depicting figures like Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama and luminous abstractions based on major events in his life.

It's the same goal he seeks in his therapy work with veterans, many of whom he has helped to process traumatic experiences in conflicts ranging from World War II to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a more abstract way, it's also the end goal of his part-time work as a courtroom and police sketch artist on many high-profile cases, work that has helped bring solace and closure to victims of crime and information to the public.

Sirianni, whose reach as an artist extends meaningfully into more facets of our society than most painters or sculptors could ever hope to achieve, saw enough of war to know he wanted to leave a legacy of peace. And monument by monument, painting by painting, veteran by veteran, that's precisely what he's doing.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com