Note from Peter Buotte, featured artist: I have sequenced the questions for flow and responded first as a therapist, second as a maker.
What do you think is the role of the political in your art?
I see politics as personal first. Over decades, my identity has grown as artist, art teacher, and art therapist. With that comes experience, awareness and more involvement.
Do you see art as escape or engagement?
My trajectory has moved from full-on escape to full-on engagement. Coming from a violent, alcoholic upbringing in central Maine, my obsessive art-making during childhood and teen-age years was a safe, healthy escape. In part, it was compelled by exposure to my father’s combat trauma-related behaviors from Vietnam and his own self-medication. In psychological terms, it is called reaction formation, doing the opposite of the hand I had been dealt. In some way, my creative impulses prepared me for my current role as an art therapist with active duty service members.
To what extent do your moral concerns act as your artistic muse?
Art can be superficial and create an alternate, fictional world. I prefer dealing with human reality, frailty, and resilience. This includes confronting complex combat trauma and its repercussions. To me, this has an inherent moral stance.
I never knew to what extent the 9/11 attacks in 2001 would also impact my creative lexicon. I went on a controversial and questionable combat tour in Iraq in ’03 to do school repair, civil governance, and humanitarian work. This was right in the middle of my MFA experience at the Maine College of Art. Even then, I was questioning what can art do rather than be.
During the span of three more deployments from 2010 to 2015, I pursued a Master in Art Therapy and have been an art therapist since 2016. On a daily basis, I get to be present with service members who still carry the invisible wounds and moral injury of combat trauma. I use very creative, non-verbal approaches to reveal suppressed emotions and unspoken issues. The art does not lie!
Is art just a way to state your political stance or do you see your work as a form of activism, intended to effect change?
Just as Rosa Parks took a small individual action, my own actions can empower and inspire one or many. In individual and group sessions that I have led in the past three years, I have witnessed the creative process of art therapy and the insight that it provides. I see it as invisible activism, not a public display, which absolutely effects internal change one session at a time.
Is art’s role to stand outside the political world offering a vision of something more clear and pure, intensely observant, or is its role to get down and dirty?
As art therapy sessions go deeper, we get into very raw imagery that has been burned into a patient’s long-term memory. We get to be intensely observant to the emotions coming up, with the goal of arriving at clarity and reconciliation. Art made in session is not “Art with a capital A”: it is usually not technically proficient, nor intended for exhibition or sale, nor made for art history—and that’s OK. It is honest and yearns for clarity and emotional regulation.
For you, is art about transcendence or does it keep you in the fray?
Keeping in the fray actually provides moments of transcendence; then it’s back into the fray.
Do you consider art as refuge or soap box/cultural canary/conscience/satire?
Separate from art therapy sessions, my personal art practice is a combination of reflection, expression, emotional release, and personal therapy altogether.
Do you work from a political/moral/spiritual base? Are these fundamentally different or separate? Do they overlap in your art?
As a base, I prefer secular humanism. This accepts humanity as being good enough without spiritual or political absolutism. Another -ism I prefer is optimism, which is difficult in these politically-divisive times.
To what extent do your political concerns appear in your art?
My current sculpture practice amplifies themes that appear in my art therapy sessions. Invisible Wounds is a series of digital sculptures and photographs of US Combat Veterans who have experienced traumatic brain injury and/or post-traumatic stress. The series intends to make visible the invisible physical and mental wounds which occurred in Iraq or Afghanistan from 2001 to the present. In another act of courage, service members have selected a gesture and posed as a sculpture. It embraces Veterans of all branches, ranks, gender, and heritages. Most importantly, service members posed voluntarily and were never in my therapeutic line.
Do you employ your art as a vehicle for cultural critique?
Beyond the sculptures, political critique of the current dysfunctional presidency has arrived easily and frequently. A current series of graphite drawings is Liar with Dirty Fingerprints, which includes a long-nosed silhouette covered with fingerprints. They were created a year before the current impeachment inquiry and seem even more relevant now. It is artwork of its time.
Can one artist do both?
As an art therapist and practicing artist, I have the opportunity to attempt both!
How do you think of visual culture? Is it part of the general cultural stream, or does it have a moral/political voice?
In its largest sense, visual and creative culture continues to be as diverse as its makers and contributors. Some makers pursue moral concerns, or political concerns, or notions of beauty; that’s an individual choice. With massive amounts available on-line, images can be rapidly seen and have tremendous short-life. Certain imagery can resonate collectively, break-through, and unexpectedly go viral. The challenge for current makers is what will resonate for hundreds of years rather than just 15 minutes?
Target Flag is a visual mash-up of a target and the US Flag. It comes from the very vulnerable experience of being shot at and attempts at being blown-up by IEDs while in Iraq in ’03. It has become my personal version of the American flag. Viewers wide-ranging comments have given it multiple meanings, from America playing the victim, to US foreign policy of “what goes around, comes around,” to being targeted by Hurricane Katrina; to being American Pie and my slice of freedom; to surviving Vietnam. In the largest sense, it speaks to the vulnerability of the American experiment in democracy.
For Take One and Remember, I fabricated 5000 Target Flag magnets and stacked them between my pair of worn combat boots. As a depleting sculpture, viewers are allowed to take a magnet symbolizing one of the thousands of service members whose lives were lost in the early years of occupying Iraq.
Nine Iraqis is an homage to nine Iraqi patriots who gave their lives in the effort to reclaim and improve their country. This includes veiled photos of linguists whom I hired, and elected officials and school administrators with whom I directly worked. While presented as veiled photographs, viewers may unveil the photo and read about the individuals’ efforts to rebuild Iraq and their ultimate, tragic loss. Two years after completing this work, I discovered that one linguist had actually survived and was living in the US. We regained contact and she has since completed a Master’s in International Peace.
Image at top: Peter Buotte, US Combat Veteran with PTS, 3D digital sculpture, 18 x 14 x 18 in., 2017