“Thousands of American soldiers are returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We may wonder what they saw, what they did and how their war experience has affected them as they return to civilian life. These are the questions posed by a series of powerful artist billboards appearing in five cities during this election season.
“Artist Suzanne Opton has photographed soldiers between tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her portraits afford the viewer a very intimate and serious look at the young men and women who have put their lives at risk serving in the military. The results are haunting and when they appear on forty-eight foot billboards floating above the freeway in the light of day or eerily illuminated at night, they are compelling and mysterious.” from the Soldier Billboard Project Press Release
Suzanne Opton is an art photographer whose public art project is in the news this week. Her Soldier Billboard Project is at the center of a controversy over billboard space. (Read the NY Times story here. Download the Soldier Billboard Project Press Release here)
Since World War II, the United States has supported a close relationship between artists and war. “Throughout the war the National Gallery of Art was inspired by the conviction that the great art within its walls represented the highest values for which the nation was fighting. Approximately one quarter of the museum’s employees joined the armed forces; in their absence, the remaining staff set about protecting the Gallery’s artworks and supporting the war effort on the home front.
“The National Gallery of Art opened to the public in March 1941 on the eve of World War II. Thinking of the battles already being fought in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his dedication speech: ‘To accept this work today is to assert the purpose of the people of America–that the freedom of the human spirit and human mind which has produced the world’s great art . . . shall not be utterly destroyed.'” Listen to President Roosevelt’s dedication speech here. [Source: National Gallery of Art]
Public works of art – The Freedom of the Human Spirit
With the Soldiers Billboard Project, photographer Opton is carrying on an American tradition founded in the 1930’s with the Public Works of Art Project. Her portraits dignify the service of the American soldier while tearing down our carefully constructed guard against what it is we as a republic ask these service men and women to do. President Roosevelt’s words echo loudly and bear repeating : To accept this work today is to assert the purpose of the people of America–that the freedom of the human spirit and human mind which has produced the world’s great art . . . shall not be utterly destroyed.
On View: Soldier: Williams, 396 days in Iraq. Photograph, Copyright © 2008, Suzanne Opton, www.suzanneopton.com. Used with permission.
About the artist: Suzanne Opton is an art photographer in New York, New York. Her work has been exhibited across the United States and internationally, with a recent solo exhibition of Soldier at the Musee de l’Elyee in Lausanne, Switzerland. Her website is www.suzanneopton.com.