Kimberly Heartsong was one of the first women to serve as an aircraft maintenance officer in Operation Desert Storm. Deployed with the Air Force's Special Ops team, she routinely serviced aircraft in blistering 120-degree Saudi desert heat. After one 12-hour shift, she remembers taking off her heavy steel-toe boots, only to discover that her fire-engine red toenail polish, a "cherished hidden piece of femininity," had melted into her socks.
Military clothing is unvarying, and a soldier's identity is subsumed within that uniform. Does that change when it's a woman doing the wearing? What kind of burden does their clothing carry? What does it make lighter, and how does it protect? These are some of the questions explored by San Francisco artist Pam Deluco in Paper Dolls: Stories from Women Who Served, a new illustrated book just released this Veterans' Day.
Deluco asked 20 current and past women service-members from all branches of the U.S. military to contribute their personal stories and uniforms to the project. The resulting book, printed on paper handmade with the fibers of those clothes, is a tangible and visual artifact of the female military experience, not least of all because the book includes an actual paper doll that readers can dress with screen-printed illustrated versions of those very same uniforms, combat boots and all, drawn by Annemaree Rea.
You can see the dress blues — complete with “the ugliest Army issue black shoes which we were taught to spit shine” — worn by trumpet player Gail Belmont, who, in 1969, enlisted in the Army at age 18. Accented with red lipstick and nylons, it’s what she wore while playing “Taps” for an endless stream of soldiers in caskets coming home from Vietnam. “I’ve never forgotten what being in a uniform can mean,” Belmont writes in her essay. Four decades later, the military funerals that still stick with her were the ones held in “cemeteries with weeds three feet high and exposed graves."
Deluco says that for her, the art piece was about the process: more than half of the women came into her studio to help cut the uniforms, make the paper pulp, and set the type for the pages. When she was making the paper for the doll, Deluco noticed sand in the bottom of the vat — sand ferried from Iraq and Afghanistan in the seams of a uniform, now embedded in the book itself.
Deluco met many of the women in her book through a workshop she led for Women Veterans Connect. Her partner at Shotwell Paper Mill, Drew Cameron, is a former artilleryman with the U.S. Army. In 2007, he started the Combat Paper Project, which teaches veterans to make paper and handmade books. Revenue from Paper Dolls will fund future printed work with women veterans in the studio.
"Statistically, women tend to have longer dates of service than men," says Deluco. "As a woman reading these stories, I felt really proud." For the contributors, working on the project was a way of being in control of their narrative, and not as victims, as portrayed by the sexual assault scandals in recent media.
Their hope, according to Deluco: “That people will know that they’re really proud of their service."
Top image: Gail Belmont. All photos courtesy of Shotwell Paper Mill.