Three Atlanta military veterans turn experience into art

“Untitled” is part of “TrapLanta,” a photo series by the Atlanta artist and Navy Reservist Willis. Contributed by Willis
“Untitled” is part of “TrapLanta,” a photo series by the Atlanta artist and Navy Reservist Willis. Contributed by Willis

The world, we’re told, is neatly divided into right brain and left brain types, the creatives and the rule followers.

But life doesn’t always pan out along those fault lines. In fact, many of the 20th century’s most influential, innovative artists — including Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Joseph Beuys, Max Ernst, Robert Rauschenberg and Edward Steichen — were also military veterans. Those artists used their military service as jumping off points to deeply creative lives.

Following in that long tradition of veteran artists, a number of Atlanta creatives also have transitioned from military service to art careers, in some cases addressing the lives of soldiers and veterans in their artwork.

Terrance Deuel, 50, who lives in Waleska, joined the U.S. Army Reserve as a junior in high school in Bloomington, Illinois, and enlisted at age 17. During the majority of his almost 28 years of service, Deuel worked in military law enforcement in locations such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait, where enemy fire, the deaths of comrades and PTSD were workplace hazards.

After retiring in 2015, Deuel could have worked as a military contractor, but, he says, “I wanted to do something different with my life.”

In 2018 he enrolled in the MFA program at SCAD-Atlanta on the G.I. Bill, which pays education costs for members of the military who have completed their service. Deuel would like to return one day to military conflict zones not as a soldier but as a photographer. But for now he is working on a series called “By Their Own Hand” about veteran suicide. It’s an issue Deuel has dealt with personally.

“Mama Bear No. 3” by Atlanta artist Terrance Deuel from his series on veteran suicide, “By Their Own Hand.” Contributed by Terrance Deuel
“Mama Bear No. 3” by Atlanta artist Terrance Deuel from his series on veteran suicide, “By Their Own Hand.” Contributed by Terrance Deuel

In 2008, while serving as operations officer for the Harrisburg Recruiting Battalion in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, Deuel says, “I hit my low point.” He was struggling with his recent divorce from a fellow soldier. “I had no one to talk to,” he says. “I was completely lost.

“I can vividly remember sitting at the foot of my bed in my apartment in Pennsylvania with a .45 in my hand,” he says. “And I had a moment of clarity when I realized I was contemplating a permanent solution to a short-term problem. Until I started this project, I never talked about it.”

For his project, Deuel has interviewed veterans across the country who describe the isolation and desperation of grappling with suicidal thoughts. He then creates black-and-white photographs to illustrate their internal battles. But also — and this is the hopeful caveat that defines the project for Deuel — he shows the epiphany of not going through with the act.

In one of his collaborations with an Afghanistan war vet living in Idaho, Deuel recreated the litter of prescription pill bottles next to her bed. “That’s what my nightstand looked like when I was considering suicide,” she told Deuel after several exchanges on Facebook to get the image right. “I finally got past it and put the 9-millimeter away.”

“Everybody has a different way of dealing,” says Deuel, who hopes the project will help veterans see a way out.

Atlanta artist Teri Darnell’s “VFW Post 6330” from her photo series “Veterans in Crisis.” Contributed by Teri Darnell
Atlanta artist Teri Darnell’s “VFW Post 6330” from her photo series “Veterans in Crisis.” Contributed by Teri Darnell

Like Deuel, Teri Darnell, 60, who lives in LaVista Park, was also 17 when she enlisted, encouraged by her Korean War vet father and hoping her Air Force service would eventually help pay for college.

Her time spent in Berlin during the Cold War made Darnell uniquely aware of how important her service was to maintaining the democratic ideals she saw destroyed by communist control of East Germany.

But her time in the military also made her aware of her vulnerability, of how close she was to the Jews, communists, intellectuals and gay men who were imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin, which she toured as part of her orientation when she first arrived in West Germany in 1984.

Family issues combined with “being a gay woman in the military created an acute awareness for me of the needs and situations of others that are underserved in our communities,” Darnell says. “My photography projects have mainly focused on people and places that have been discarded by our society.”

In her photo series called “Veterans in Crisis,” Darnell focuses on some of the 6,000 Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts across America where former soldiers socialize and seek support.

So far Darnell has traveled to 47 states and documented 110 VFWs, including one in Jonesboro where Clint Eastwood shot scenes for his 2018 film “The Mule.” In Darnell’s photos the often dilapidated, lonely cinderblock and metal VFW buildings become metaphors for veterans themselves.

“We are losing the places that were once the support structure for veterans to overcome their war tragedies,” she says. “Veterans need the support of their local VFWs to integrate back into their communities after serving in war.”

Visiting VFW posts and talking to the veterans who congregate there has allowed Darnell to see the challenges confronting American veterans.

Terrance Deuel at Camp Cuervo/Rustamiyah in Baghdad, Iraq. Contributed by Terrance Deuel
Terrance Deuel at Camp Cuervo/Rustamiyah in Baghdad, Iraq. Contributed by Terrance Deuel

“Each VFW post told me the same story. Many veterans and their families do not have health insurance and veterans are not getting the quality of mental health care needed at VA facilities,” she says.

Nevertheless, “war veterans are resilient,” says Darnell. “Their establishment may be falling down around them but their honor and pride to have served our country does not falter.”

Unlike Deuel and Darnell, the 35-year-old Marietta photographer who goes by one name, “Willis,” creates work that seems utterly removed from his life in the Navy.

Called “TrapLanta,” Willis’ series of color photographs, bathed in the lurid pinks and purples of neon light, capture a nocturnal Atlanta subculture centered around a world of strip clubs, drug culture and casually brandished guns. Willis complicates those images with his captions inspired by history and trivia that provide social commentary. A photograph of a dancer fanning a raft of dollar bills for the camera is accompanied by a caption defining the term “dead peasant insurance,” which is the practice of corporations taking out life insurance policies on their own employees.

Juxtaposed with scenes of hard partying, live-for-the-moment excess, the captions become existential musings on the pitfalls that waylay the best-laid plans. Willis undercuts the slick, seductive surfaces of his images, showing the pathos behind the players.

Those captions, says Willis, “create a narrative that directs the conversation into something bigger.”

The artist Willis (right), during a counter-piracy mission in Bahrain in 2013. Contributed by Willis
The artist Willis (right), during a counter-piracy mission in Bahrain in 2013. Contributed by Willis

The reality of “TrapLanta” was one Willis saw firsthand as a kid growing up in Marietta, living with his grandmother. He watched friends who were forced to do things out of necessity, like sell drugs or join the military, like he did at age 17.

Today Willis bounces between deployments overseas to combat international piracy in the Navy Reserve and pursuing a BFA in photography at SCAD-Atlanta.

At first glance Willis’s work might seem to lack the through line of Deuel’s and Darnell’s projects, which so clearly relate to their military service. But there is a commonality in all of their work. Like so many veterans, past and present, who have become artists, military life allowed them to interact with complex realities far from their own. Empathy and a willingness to look beyond their immediate experiences and observe life from a different vantage defines all of their work.

“Nothing is black and white; life is like an onion,” says Willis. “And my work attempts to show those layers.”

Artist and Air Force veteran Teri Darnell. Contributed by Teri Darnell
Artist and Air Force veteran Teri Darnell. Contributed by Teri Darnell

Three veteran artists

Teri Darnell. Her images can be seen at www.teridarnell.com.

Willis. His images can be viewed on Instagram at @_traplanta_

Terrance Deuel. His images can be seen on Instagram @tddeuelphotography and at www.tddeuelphotography.com

In Other News