Front-line workers honored with ‘combat paper’ art made from scrubs, military uniforms

A small arts studio nestled in the hills of Branchburg, N.J. is giving U.S. veterans a platform to share their stories and experiences through the art of making paper.

Nearly a decade ago, Frontline Arts began working with veterans through its flagship program, Frontline Paper, to have them deconstruct military uniforms and turn them into paper.

“I’d made artwork all my life, but I’d never really considered myself an artist,” Walt Nygard, studio manager of Frontline Arts and a veteran, told Fox News. “I always had jobs. But I am an artist. I can say that, in all honesty.”

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Nygard’s journey began in 2011 when he was handed a piece of “combat paper” and he knew he was holding something special.

The Marine veteran who served in Vietnam and trained as an artist said he “immediately felt the emotional intensity.”

“It just comes with the sheets of paper. Those are somebody’s uniforms. There’s nobody who has more respect for those uniforms than us. They tell a story in themselves,” he said. “Every one of them is different.”

Nygard credits the program with saving and changing his life – a sentiment is shared by countless veterans including artist Mark Oldland, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard.

“The best thing about it was it helped me better find my voice,” said Oldland. “People ask a lot what you can do for people that are service members and the most important thing in my mind is to listen.”

A Hero’s Painting-A Tribute to John Lewis. Artwork by veteran and artist Mark Oldland on blue healthcare workers' scrubs.

A Hero’s Painting-A Tribute to John Lewis. Artwork by veteran and artist Mark Oldland on blue healthcare workers’ scrubs.

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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it was only natural to apply the same cathartic concept to healthcare workers who are on a different front line and the Scrubs Paper Project was launched. Instead of military uniforms, it turns donated scrubs into paper.

The response has been positive. In addition to selling 160 sheets of paper in its early stages, the nonprofit also sent out 100 of the postcard-sized pieces of paper encouraging recipients to return the cards with artwork.

“This isn’t just for health care workers,” executive director Rachel Heberling told Fox News. “This is also for patients, for families, for loved ones, for those who have lost loved ones, even though this is called Scrubs Paper.”

Heberling understands this project is unconventional, but she hopes it will restore a sense of community and offer encouragement.

“Part of why we do this is there is a culture of silence and compartmentalization as a coping mechanism to get through trauma. And this happens with health care workers,” she added. “These stories need to be told. Even just physically holding one of these handmade pieces of paper is a grounding experience to help us connect our communities in this vast period of isolation.”

Portrait by Ridge High School senior Emma Lothrop on scrubs paper of Charles Edward Roberts III, a New Jersey police officer who died due to complications from COVID-19. 

Portrait by Ridge High School senior Emma Lothrop on scrubs paper of Charles Edward Roberts III, a New Jersey police officer who died due to complications from COVID-19. 

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After hearing about the Scrubs Paper Project, a New Jersey husband donated his wife’s scrubs for a Christmas surprise. She is a nurse anesthetist who has been intubating COVID-19 patients at a Staten Island, New York hospital.

Heberling hopes to get the paper to them in time for the holidays with a completed portrait.

The Scrubs Paper Project plans to partner with a number of institutions including medical centers that are eager to work with the program. When it is safe to do so, the project will move forward with in-person papermaking workshops.

For now, the project is working with a local high school’s art honor society.

Ridge High School students are using the scrubs paper to create portraits of those in health care as well as other frontline workers. Many of the students’ subjects are unknown to them, but they feel the importance of what they are creating.

Portrait of family friend and healthcare worker on scrubs paper by Ridge High School senior Aubrey Schoenfeld.

Portrait of family friend and healthcare worker on scrubs paper by Ridge High School senior Aubrey Schoenfeld.

“It was really interesting to see how the process could actually work and how recycled materials can become something more meaningful,” said high school senior Katie Zhang. “I think it adds a layer of dimension to the art because it has this back story built-in within the art, besides the actual portrait.”

Some of the portraits are personal. Aubrey Schoenfeld completed one of a family friend who had just finished a 23-hour nursing shift. Shannon Woods is working on a piece of her brother, a volunteer firefighter who suffers from anxiety.

“This virus can affect anyone big or small, even if you’re working with it directly or you’re just working at a public school in our town,” said Woods. “It affects everyone mentally, physically, emotionally.”

Artwork by Ridge High School senior Katie Zhang on scrubs paper.

Artwork by Ridge High School senior Katie Zhang on scrubs paper.

As the project expands, Heberling said she grateful more than ever for a recent grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Frontline Arts will receive a portion of $5 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act fund, which will help arts organizations stay afloat statewide.

“I don’t even know if we would be here right now without that funding that we just received,” said Heberling. “We’ve been on a pretty drastic furlough since September. It means the world for me to give staff their hours back in time for the holidays.”

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Artwork continues to come in for the scrubs project. The studio hopes to host a virtual exhibition and reception sometime in 2021.

Dr. Gina Puzzuoli, a West Virginia psychiatrist, doesn’t consider herself an artist, but made a contribution. She works at a VA hospital and sees the art as a window into the resiliency of the human spirit.

“We have had one heck of a year,” she said. “And there are still people out there trying to take the little shreds of our humanity and make something out of it that has a lasting value, hopefully much more lasting than just illness.”