Arts and Entertainment

Counting the cost of conflict ... and Counting

Don Wesley’s the Counting Series documents the number of U.S. military lives lost in Iraq. - Courtesy photo
Don Wesley’s the Counting Series documents the number of U.S. military lives lost in Iraq.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Beneath the controversy of its Iraq war subject matter, interwoven in the linen behind the layers of acrylic paint, in the midst of hundreds of birds in flight representing hundreds of Americans who have died, there is a biting message of consciousness etched into Don Wesley’s continuing endeavor called the Counting Series.

Pay attention.

The Bremerton artist — a former Army tank driver — is counting the United States’ soldiers and personnel who have died, according to Department of Defense and CenCom reports, in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Year one “And Counting”: 578, year two “Still Counting”: 943, year three “More Counting”: 798, year four “Tough Counting”: 830.

For those who haven’t heard the recent mainstream announcements, the count has surpassed 3,500.

Wesley has created those four paintings in his series thus far, which are currently hanging in the Max Hale building on Fifth and Pacific in Bremerton. They are also online at www.donwesley.com.

He visits the study and research for No. 5 almost daily.

“This insight is not a comfortable insight,” Wesley said, noting a number of his own tears that have gone into the paintings like a translucent acrylic. “It’s kind of our duty as citizens to be aware of what we’re doing as a nation ... I don’t carry it as a chip (on my shoulder), I carry it as a mission.”

Each of Wesley’s 5- by 6-foot works is covered with an immense murmuration of starlings fluttering in loosely guided chaos of colored sky. Each black bodied bird, highlighted by the light of hope, is a representation of “a soul we’ve offered up,” the paintings state.

Starlings — a type of bird of European-origin which Wesley depicts in many of his works — are an immigrant bird that came to North America with a wealthy pharmacologist. That and the diversity of their population makes them a near-perfect representation of Americans, Wesley said, which is why they appear in so many of his paintings.

They and the Counting Series been met with mixed reception and reactions from the public, Wesley said.

He’s been both praised and condemned for the series, raising issues concerning sensitivity, morbidness, hope and politic among others.

In his mind, the work is a neutral expression.

“Some people say they support what I’m doing, some say they hate what I’m doing and others understand what I’m doing,” Wesley said, noting his appreciation for the latter. “How many Americans am I expecting to step out of their comfort zones and step into this series?”

As many as possible, he said.

Wesley has ventured out of his comfort zone in the series’ creation as it has induced military memories of his past. It all began, he said, when he started to see name/faces of comrades he recognized from his time of duty showing up as casualties. At the very end of his service in 1991, he narrowly missed being shipped out to Desert Storm.

“I didn’t have to go over there,” he said, though he was initially called. “But I remember just the uncertainty and the terror I felt. I try to put myself in the shoes of these young people now, it’s a scary time right now.”

That, in essence, is what Wesley is asking of those who view the Counting Series.

Unlike any artwork he has done before, these pieces are purely for public exhibition — not for gallery, not for sale. Eventually and ideally, he said, they will hang permanently in a place accessible to citizen, military and government people alike.

But for now, as long as America is involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Counting Series will continue to be forged.

“Art is not always pretty pictures and price tags, there’s another world that’s intended to touch people and move them,” Wesley said. “I don’t attach (answers) to the series, but I do attach questions. When you’re putting peoples’ lives in harm’s way, there better be a pretty solid reason. I’m like most Americans, I want some definition.”

For those Americans who might want more definition about Wesley and his work, visit the Wesley Gallery — 1210 Pacific Ave., near Evergreen Park in Bremerton — which will be exhibiting a solo show of his robust bird works beyond that of the Counting Series through June.

The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

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