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'Big Night' for Combat Paper Project

The Combat Paper Project aims to help military veterans reconcile their experiences by transforming uniforms worn in combat into cathartic works of paper art.

The unusual concept -- unfolding in art studios across the country -- was a focus of "Big Night," a Just Buffalo Literary Center event Saturday night in the Western New York Book Arts Center, Washington and Mohawk streets. It featured poet Lisa Jarnot, music by Jack Topht and the Vegetables, and a talk and reading about Combat Paper Project by Chris Arendt and Margaret Mahan.

Geoffrey Gatza, a Marine Corps veteran of the first Gulf War about 20 years ago and a trainee of the Culinary Institute of America, figured prominently in the program.

"The uniform's a touchy subject with many veterans, and the respect for it is, in actuality, one of the few totems one can stand beside and honor," said Gatza, the head of BlazeVOX books, which has published about 1,000 authors over the past 11 years.

Gatza, who also has an accounting degree from Daemen College and is currently writing his ninth book of poetry, "A Rocket Full of Pie," said he is happy to "to help out fellow vets and writers."

Artists in the Combat Paper Project offer "a great deal of comfort and solace to many veterans," he added. "They talk about the transformation of their former uniform into paper objects as a physical action, as a method to perform -- enact -- a way from one life to another peaceful life. I think this is a great way to find oneself after a military tour of duty."

Uniforms are cut up, beaten into a pulp and formed into sheets of paper, with veterans using the transformative process of papermaking to reclaim their uniform as art and begin to embrace their experiences in the military.

For "Big Night," Gatza used his culinary talents to put together a lineup of winter comfort food, including pasta salad with parsley pesto, golden beets with pomegranates, snow crab with turnips and spinach, and cinnamon-roasted vegetables. For dessert -- apple crisp, strawberries with ginger cream and rice pudding.

Gatza reflects on his own military background.

"I've often found, when discussing this with other veterans, the lack of exit training when one leaves the military," he said. "Thus an emotional vacuum is formed, in the mind and soul, that's not readily eased when one returns from a barracks to a picket fence. It took me years to understand that. Writing was my means of coming home."

The Combat Paper Project moves on to Niagara County Community College on Monday through Feb. 11 and the Western New York Book Arts Collaborative, Feb. 7 to 13.