By Suzanne Chouteau, MFA
Last summer, Professor of Art Suzanne Chouteau, MFA, was asked to participate in the Experiencing Veterans and Artists Collaboration (EVAC) project, which uses storytelling and art to educate the public about life in the military. EVAC curators interview veterans about their experiences, and artists make an edition of prints based on their interpretation of those stories. Chouteau shares what it was like to work on the print and meet the Vietnam veteran who inspired it.
Even though I was very young during the Vietnam War, I have vivid memories about it. I remember the grown-ups talking about the war around the dinner table, and watching the news from Vietnam on TV. My family took part in protests during that time, including a Civil Rights march across the Rock Island Arsenal Bridge led by Coretta Scott King and Rose Kennedy.
So when I agreed to participate in EVAC, I felt a personal connection to the project. I was paired with Ernie Hopkins, a Vietnam veteran from Port Clinton, Ohio. Ernie had been an infantryman in Vietnam from July 1970 until September 1971.
EVAC sent me a transcript of Ernie’s interview, and one story stood out to me as I read and re-read it. On Ernie’s first day in the bush, he was leading a patrol when another platoon approached. Ernie made eye contact with one of the soldiers, an African-American, who nodded back at him.
Seconds later, a land mine detonated, and the African-American soldier’s chest “blew apart.” Ernie dropped to his knees and stuck his fingers in the soldier’s wounds to stop the bleeding. Pretty soon a helicopter transported the soldier and the other injured men to a hospital. The next day Ernie learned that six of the men had died, including an African-American.
He later said, “I just knew in my heart that I didn’t save him. I carried that guilt for 29 years.”
Incredibly, the African-American soldier—whose name was Jesse Hill—did survive. Ernie didn’t know it until the two men met at a reunion of Charlie Company in 1999. At the reunion, a mutual friend told Ernie who Jesse was, but he and Jesse didn’t recognize each other—until Jesse raised his shirt, and Ernie put his fingers in the scars where the battle wounds had been. The two men kept in close touch until Jesse passed in 2012.
I set out to create a print that would somehow capture the spirit of what Ernie and Jesse had gone through. I didn’t have any direct contact with Ernie, but I found his Facebook page. There was an old, blurry picture of him with another young soldier in the bush, as well as a picture of Ernie and Jesse at the reunion. I decided to create an image of them together in Vietnam, even though they had only met for that horrific moment during the war.
I carved every day for three weeks, and as I did I thought about these two 19-year-olds who were conscripted into this war and had no experience for it or for the jungle—but they braved it. Instead of weapons, the two men are holding a ‘purple’ heart. The fact that Ernie is white and Jesse was African-American added a deeper dimension to my work. The Vietnam era was such a divisive time, but later these men were beloved friends.
The theme of the print became “United We Live,” and that is really my message. I believe that art can redeem and heal people, and I think that’s so important. We are all part of defending this country, whether we are forced into fighting on the battlefield or not. Part of being a good citizen is living in service to one another. That’s part of Xavier’s identity, too—we are about being a person for and with others, whether in art or the classroom or on the street.
I submitted the print in August 2018 and met Ernie, fittingly, at an EVAC exhibit on Veterans Day a few months later. We looked at the print together, and talked about Jesse. Art always has been my way of finding beauty and making sense out of painful experiences. Telling a story about war became a story about love.
Chouteau’s print is part of EVAC’s permanent collection, which is shown at exhibitions throughout the country. Her son, Elijah Bedel, produced a short, moving video about her experience that has been accepted to the 2019 Fair Winds Veterans Film Festival in Georgia. View the video.
Feature Image: Suzanne Chouteau and Ernie Hopkins pose at an EVAC event with the print she made of him and his fellow veteran, Jesse Hill.