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Art project featured in book on Fort Ord

Former soldier searches for meaning in the American military experience

It was on my third visit to Fort Ord while working on this book that I happened upon the paintings. I was riding my bike through yet another seemingly endless geometric arrangement of rows and rows of misshapen two-story barracks when suddenly a sunlit gallery of vibrantly colored faces appeared before me. Their haunting eyes followed me as I approached. It was a magnificent display that stopped me short. – Ed Salven, in his book "The Soldier Factory: A Window" Thirty years after he was stationed at Fort Ord in the 1960s, Ed Salven returned to find a ghost town. Once a bustling military community of more than 30,000 soldiers, the Sixth Army Infantry Processing Center sat in silent decay. He was overwhelmed by recollections of his time here as a draftee. Those memories became the basis for "The Soldier Factory: A Window," a meditation on being part of the U.S. military machine at the height of the Vietnam War.

His recollections – confronting questions of war, authority, self-worth, honor, loss and love – are accompanied by portraits of soldiers painted by students in CSUMB’s Visual and Public Art program (and from Monterey Peninsula College), artifacts from the first few years of the university’s existence. Faculty members Johanna Poethig and Stephanie Johnson were involved with the project.

The portraits are familiar to everyone who spent time at CSUMB during the first decade of the university's existence. They honor not only the soldiers portrayed but all soldiers, and pay tribute to the area’s military history.

“We ‘peopled’ the windows with the living history of the base,” said Amalia Mesa-Bains, who was chair of VPA at the time. “The theme was based on social theory about human geography and history. The concept that guided the project was one of excavating the geography of memory that lay beneath our feet.

“Edward Soja and other theorists refer to the physical, social and geographic meaning of space, that no place is empty when we find it, and that there are ghosts when we arrive.”

Students and faculty worked with Johnson and retired Col. Hank Hendrikson in interviewing family members of non-commissioned officers. Through these families, they got photographs and other mementoes to work from in creating the paintings.

“We selected non-commissioned officers because they were more often the soldiers of color,” said Mesa-Bains, “and the stories of their lives were largely untold.” The project sought to respect military service, while highlighting the common soldier.

“At that time, Seaside had a large African American population. Fort Ord was also a military base known as a ‘compassionate duty station,’ meaning that interracial families were safe here so its history was important to our diverse student population as well,” said Mesa-Bains.

Done with acrylic paints on sheets of Tyvek (a paper used in outdoor construction and landscaping), many of the portraits had fallen victim to the elements or vandals by the time the buildings were razed.

"The Soldier Factory: A Window" was released by George Braziller Publishers, Inc., $24.95, 160 pages, 51 color illustrations. Ed Salven was born in Hollywood. Educated at UCLA and London University, he owns a landscape design company in Malibu.