Home News A battlefield in brushstrokes: The unseen art of Vietnam veteran

A battlefield in brushstrokes: The unseen art of Vietnam veteran

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ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, IL, UNITED STATES

12.30.2019

Photo by Linda Lambiotte 

U.S. Army Sustainment Command  

Katherine Kiessling

Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

Sep. 25—”You’re in my church,” William Crapser told his friend Ihor Rymaruk without a glance toward Rymaruk’s camera.

The year was 2007, and Crapser, a Vietnam veteran, had been painting for 19 years. The blank canvas before him was his altar, Beethoven’s late string quartets were his hymns. Swaying in front of the easel, he dipped his brush into his secret mixture of black paint, his preferred palette for his abstract expressionist paintings at the time, and began to apply strokes with a deliberate ferocity, while Rymaruk captured it on film.

“I’m not a dipper and a dauber,” said Crapser, illustrating the delicate movements with his arms. “The canvas is an arena in which I act. It’s an arena for battle.”

According to Crapser’s estimates, he entered this artistic arena nearly 500 times in what he called “Willy’s Yellow House” at the base of the Catskills. After his death May 23, Rymaruk inherited those paintings, 250 of which are stored in the house Rymaruk is building in Broadalbin. While he searches for the other half that weren’t in his friend’s storage unit, Rymaruk is on the hunt for a way to finally exhibit Crapser’s work.

Crapser’s collection is currently stored in what will be the basement of the two-story house. The concrete walls hold in the first signs of cool, fall air. An easel displaying a black-and-white painting sits where a furnace will someday go. Two-by-fours drilled into a makeshift fence support the canvases too large to fit in stacks on the industrial shelves.

The two friends met at a Veterans Affairs Department outpost in Albany. When Rymaruk was working on a book in the early 2000s, he sought out Crapser — whose collection of poetry and short stories “Remains: Stories of Vietnam” earned him Albany Author of the Year nod in 1988 — for editing help. A bond was soon forged.

“He trusted me, and I trusted him,” Rymaruk said.

Both served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. Rymaruk served in force reconnaissance, collecting intelligence along the border of Laos. Crapser was assigned to the battalion reconnaissance, eventually becoming a point man leading missions. His assignment brought him face-to-face with the horrors of war waged along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The violence Crapser experienced and the men lost under his leadership haunted him. After returning from the war, he battled severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He spent time on the flight deck, the nickname for the medical floor housing veterans suffering from psychological disorders, at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany.

Art became a way for Crapser to confront his trauma, first through writing then through painting, which he began after being introduced to modern art in 1988. He was wholly self-taught, learning how to write and paint while he worked heavy labor for railroad, metal and concrete companies.

“This is how he survived,” said Rymaruk while pulling out painting after painting from the stacks carefully lined with parchment paper stored on the shelves.

In one titled “WAR,” an empty black outline of a man stands surrounded by a mass of black and red. On one glance, the figure seems to be atop a mountain of dead bodies. On another, he seems to be standing amidst hellish flames. In another painting, “AGONY,” black strokes radiate from a small, screaming head in shades of purple.

Other works explore spiritualism — while Crapser wasn’t religious, he had a personal spirituality, Rymaruk said — or self-portraits. Some have thick acrylic strokes bulging from the canvases like miniature sculptures, some are collaged with cardboard, envelopes and hand-written notes.

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“It’s a battle between positive and negative space. It is the struggle of life and death,” Crapser said, describing his process in the video. “It keeps me in touch with my soul.”

Surrounding Crapser’s signatures on the back of some of the paintings are collages of titles in capital letters, with steady lines striking out the rejected names and underlining the final title. On one, “PAIN,” a recurring title, won out over “Death and Burial” and “The Artist’s Burial.”

“They all have something to say,” said Rymaruk, noting Crapser was deeply intellectual.

When he got sick with Guillain-Barre, a rare disorder in which the immune system attacks the body’s nerves, Crapser stopped painting, Rymaruk said. He couldn’t hold a brush anymore. In the collection of 250 works Rymaruk transported from Crapser’s storage unit, a 3-D piece from 2008 entitled “The Shaman Fastening his Seatbelt for the 21st Century” is also labeled “last work” in Crapser’s distinct handwriting.

Rymaruk is struggling with what to do with the paintings. He needs guidance on how to store and protect his friend’s work, and he wants to find ways to showcase at least the black-and-white works Crapser treasured. Rymaruk put out a call to a friend at West Point to see if the National Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, va., might be interested in showing some of Crapser’s art. As far as Rymaruk knows, Crapser never exhibited his paintings.

“I want to save the legacy of Willy,” Rymaruk said.

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