The Art of WarBy Blanka Stratford
In today’s world, it is easy enough to portray an era defined by strokes of violence and hued with shades of sensationalized destruction. Add to this a few spatters of hysteria and finger-painted points of blame, and the result is a masterpiece highlighting a version of life that few, if any, would want to comprise. And yet there it is — the art of war, as old as humanity — capable of slashing people apart.
Or, perhaps, bringing them together?
In light of all this darkness, the artwork of two Massachusetts residents from so-called rival towns of Canton and Stoughton has crossed weaponry and shown that a mode of attack need neither be offensive nor defensive. As the old adage goes … love conquers all.
Armed with stainless steel sheers and a precision-based airbrush, Iraqi-born hairdresser Wasan Aziz and American fine artist Steven Leahy use their respective tools and talents daily to prove that even a caustic element such as war cannot break a loving spirit. With such positive attitudes, they provide better lives not only for their family members, but also for strangers with whom they come into contact. What’s their connection?
A combat veteran with a flair for returning shots of kindness.
For Steven Leahy, there was no question that his future would be anything other than creating art. Upon completing high school, he continued his higher education in fine arts and succeeded in displaying his works throughout the United States by various modes of channel. Currently, his drive has been creating realistic paintings on various substrates, one of which was a set of military dog tags.
“Miniature art has fascinated me recently,” said Leahy. “The impact of these tiny paintings is truly surprising.”
Leahy’s motivation to use dog tags as a base came from good friend and industrial artist Ken Taylor, who collects a variety of metallic articles on account of his profession.
“Ken mentioned that he had some blank dog tags [at his shop] and asked if I was interested in a few to paint on,” Leahy said. “During that time, I was in the middle of preparing the work for my show of miniature paintings. It was important to me to have an element of charity with the show. These dog tags simply answered my search.”
Leahy, whose late uncle was a Marine combat artist and a preliminary inspiration for his work, created five works of art detailing missions of each branch of the United States military. The proceeds from the dog tags will be donated to the U.S. Wounded Soldiers Foundation, a non-profit organization providing for the needs of combat veterans deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“My sister [Katie Bartel] recommended the foundation,” said Leahy. “This foundation directly aids soldiers wounded in action as they transition home. I was impressed with all the services that they provide for not only the soldier but the families as well.”
Like many other Americans, Leahy was impacted by the tragic events that transpired nearly a decade ago on September 11. According to him, the terrorist attacks served as an eye opener to understanding the complexity of the enemy now facing the United States.
“I also saw how resilient and connected we are as a nation,” Leahy said. “There is always that image of Americans as fat, lazy and self centered. I was reassured how great this country is by its internal and external response to that vicious attack.”
The attack itself prompted Leahy to take a closer look at the difference in freedom of the U.S. civilians who were under attack versus the freedom of those who would soon thereafter face the U.S. invasion.
“The more I look around this globe, the more I cherish the freedom that we have here in America,” he said. “When I see the atrocities others endure at the hands of a dictator like Saddam Hussein, it makes me value the strength and resolve of this country even more.”
Through his dog tag artwork, Leahy wanted to express his appreciation of the freedom in his country that is defended by the Armed Forces.
“When creating my military-based artwork, I viewed myself more as an interpreter,” he said. “Too much negative press is piled on price tags and not enough on the men and women who are fulfilling their duties with that budget. I wanted to bring that focus back to the soldier.”
It was this constructive outlook along with his ability to see the goodness in others that led Leahy to create his latest painting, “Eumenides’ Fable” (2011), an 11”x12” waterborne on titanium portrait of a female war veteran with whom he had crossed paths and been taken by her story. Upon the painting’s exhibition at the Felos Art Center in Stoughton, one of the features that garnished attention was the subject’s hair, the stylization of which had been fashioned roughly five miles away in Canton’s Savoy Spa, where hairdresser Wasan Aziz likewise touches the lives of those she encounters with her own tale of endurance.
And thus, the three were connected through a bizarre means by a lacerative topic.
Like Leahy, Aziz remembers clearly the day the world reeled from the shock of watching three of the four hijacked U.S. airplanes meet their targets. She was a fully-trained hairdresser, living with her family in downtown Baghdad, when she witnessed the televised recordings of the twin towers crumbling to the ground.
“People were stunned into silence,” she said. “We couldn’t believe what was happening … I mean an attack on America? It seemed unreal.”
But it had happened. As tension and confusion mounted over Hussein’s possible tie to Osama bin Laden as well as his actions regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction, Aziz realized that it would only be a matter of time before Iraq and the United States would be bound together, first through war and then through attempts at reconstruction.
“Saddam went on television and stated that Osama was not in Iraq,” said Aziz. “But we all became worried as time passed by. We all knew what was eventually going to happen.”
Fortunately for Aziz, love came at the brink of war. An old friend had returned to Iraq for a visit from his permanent residence in the state of Massachusetts. Before the bombs began to blast, sparks were first ignited between the couple. In 2002, Brad Aziz proposed to his soon-to-be wife. They were married in Jordan and shortly thereafter flew to the United States to begin their own life and family together.
However, this did not stop Aziz from being affected by the military operations that ensued. The rest of her family was still in Iraq and, with the removal of Hussein, had to flee to northern Baghdad in order to maintain safe haven due to their Christian background. According to Aziz, although the U.S. succeeded in eliminating a dictator responsible for mass genocide, it had to face the daunting task of dealing with a form of radicalism that would be very difficult to overcome due to its religious context.
“Extremism is a dangerous thing,” she said. “Religion is supposed to be about love. I know many Muslims, Christians, Jews and so on who, even though they are religious by name, give each other the respect and kindness everyone deserves. But then there are people who only see the evil in others. Where does it come from? Where does it stop?”
The latest string of bombings in Baghdad only amplified her concerns and reaffirmed her belief that U.S. involvement is necessary.
“At this point, Iraq needs the United States to help maintain order,” said Aziz. “Right now, it’s no longer a war between countries, but a civil war. Iraq and the United States will have to work together.”
Like Leahy, Aziz has spent much time deliberating on the idea of freedom itself, as well as the rich cultural history of her country of origin and what it will take for it to reclaim its rights.
“There are different freedoms in both countries,” she said. “I have a more independent life in the United States. But the free and excellent education I received in Iraq helped me succeed here. I think both countries could benefit from learning from each other. My hope is that people will one day look around and see what’s really going on and start using their minds to make this world a better place.”
For Aziz, a better place starts at home. With her husband, she cares for her two sons, Andre (7) and Ivan (5), while working full time. Without the physical support of her extended family members, she is well aware of the responsibilities of being a provider while simultaneously progressing as an artist and building relationships with those she serves. Steve Leahy is no stranger to that sense of duty. He looks after his three children, Colin (17), Emily (16) and Matthew (12), while continuing to inspire others around him.
“I find it comforting to continuously see art transcend differences between people of different cultures,” he said. “Creativity is a common language, and when given the chance to be heard or seen, incredible things happen. It makes me very happy that Wasan and her family found a way to create a life that allows her to do what she was truly meant to do.”
His painting “Eumenides’ Fable” is currently on display at Canton’s Savoy Spa.
Note from the Author
I’d like to extend my warmest wishes and gratitude to Steve Leahy and Wasan Aziz for their humbling stories and keen sense of decency. Although I am the veteran mentioned in the above article, it goes without saying that there would be no article without these two generous individuals. As for the readers, a simple message remains. Our histories build us and our differences show colors that go far beyond that which shows externally. There is a world to gain from being good to those around us. Those who teach hatred spread it thicker than oil on canvas. Those who preach evil draw it back into their lives. Perhaps it’s time to learn the art of kindness.
Editor’s note: Blanka Stratford is a 1998 graduate of Canton High School. She served for over two years as a combat photojournalist in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. Stratford, 30, was honorably discharged in November 2004 and is currently working on a book about her experiences after the war.
Short URL: http://www.thecantoncitizen.com/?p=4993