Dalton Trumbo's 1938 antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun centers on the cautionary tale of a disabled soldier, Joe Bonham, whose traumatic war injuries render him limbless and faceless. Ultimately, he manages to communicate with others through tapping his head in Morse code, but when he expresses his desire to be displayed as a statement against war, his wishes are denied. Named for that character and founded in 2011 by Michael D. Fay, The Joe Bonham Project is a contemporary collective of artists, cartoonists, and illustrators (some well-established, some still early in their careers), who document the recovery process of soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan in a variety of settings, mostly at Walter Reed Hospital and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. The work, which is has been profiled in The New York Times, is being collected by the Smithsonian Institution. Thus far, it has been shown only on a limited basis, with one show in the summer of 2011 at Storefront gallery in Brooklyn; however, that is changing. A larger exhibition is planned for the month of November 2012 in the Pepco Edison Place Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Project found its most recent exhibition during the summer of 2012 at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, thanks to the curatorial work of Rob Bates, a UNCC student and Project artist. The UNCC exhibition, though modest in size, is wide-ranging and rich, featuring images by five Project artists: Bates, Fay, Victor Juhasz, and Jeff Fisher.

That the Project is named for a character who wishes himself to be used as a visual statement against war, yet is silenced, is an intriguing (and perhaps somewhat pointed) choice by Fay, for the Project brings a complexity to the representation of the disabled soldier that surpasses Trumbo's. While these are images that provide clear testimony to the injuries the men pictured in them have experienced in war, they are also meant to be, as Bates told me, "apolitical." 1 And perhaps they are, to the extent that they do not fall into easy categories of either jingoistic sentiment or anti-war invective, extremes that would erase what it is these images seek to capture: the lived experience of disability, rehabilitation, and new embodiment. What emerges from the work is not so much apolitical as it is focused on a very different kind of politics: those of the body and disability, which make the experience of the body in war at once personalized and desensationalized.

One is most immediately struck, when looking at the exhibition, by the sheer range of styles: for example, there is a sharp contrast between Bates's style, more carefully precise and photorealistic, and Juhasz's, which shows the energy and controlled freneticism of the illustrator working on the fly in his wide, broad strokes. Some drawings, like Fay's, contain a great deal of descriptive text and thus foreground their documentarian quality. Others, like Fisher's, have no text, and demand we linger longer over their visual language. In the stylistic differences is suggested one of the exhibition's key strengths: it succeeds in both recording individual experiences of the men who are pictured, while still being able to suggest the larger community of injured soldiers to which they belong.

That disability is a fluid, changing thing, particularly in the wake of acute trauma, is underscored, as is the idea that a creative new existence can be carved out of disablement. Some of the men who appear are newly disabled, and we see them immediately post-surgery; others are in the midst of their rehabilitation; and still others are pictured several months or years after their injury. Many of the images in this last group feature men inviting our gaze as they forthrightly regard us from portraits such as Rob Bates's powerful image of Corporal Aaron Makin, a public affairs photojournalist shown several months after the burns to his face from an IED explosion have healed into scars and he is wearing his new ear and nose prostheses. Another portrait, featuring Lieutenant Corporal Kyle Carpenter, unflinchingly represents his facial scarring and the places where powder has burned into his skin, without making him seem tragic or fearsome. Indeed, there is an expression of pride in his slight, wry smile that is underscored on closer inspection, when a viewer discovers that Carpenter's new prosthetic eye has a picture of a purple heart instead of an iris.

Because so many of the subjects are captured during their recovery process, there is a heavy presence of the medical, yet even that is made into more than a simple catalogue of injuries. To be sure, the images, which document injury and multiple medical devices, can be graphic. For example, Fay's drawings of Lance Corporal Tyler Huffman include one in which Huffman has pulled up his shirt to show where he was shot, saying: "Two holes in the front and one in the back/Both rounds exited the same place." In one of Juhasz's drawings of Specialist Derek McConnell, the soldier twists his body to show us reddish blotches that Juhasz's careful notations on the image clarify are "the result of septic shock." Their clear documentation matters: the images of Huffman's and McConnell's injuries serve an illustrative purpose, conveying seemingly infinite ways the body can be imperiled in war. And yet, these drawings do not simply reduce their subjects to wound-as-diagnosis. For example, Juhasz also gives us a sense of the sheer length of time McConnell has spent in the hospital. In one image, we seem to have interrupted McConnell as he checks his smartphone, while in several other images, we see carefully recorded in the background all the minutiae that accumulate during a lengthy hospital stay: water bottles, books, milk cartons, cereal, stuffed animals, and a bank of get-well cards from well-wishers. We sense from another painting of McConnell the pleasant interruption the visit of a young woman and her service dog provides. A different drawing creates a sense of the myriad small steps necessary toward recovery. We learn from the text that Private First Class Tim Donley has had a severe injury to his right arm, but that he is "becoming an expert at opening envelopes with one hand," which the picture shows him deftly doing. The humanity of the caregiver as well as the patient is featured; in one of Juhasz's carefully composed images of Farrell, we see a doctor at his bedside, anxiously twisting her ring as she shares news with him as another family member looks on with concern. And in one of Bates's images of Corporal Mathew Bowman, we see the arm of his father reaching out to give him a drink as Bowman pauses, mid-therapy. Fay's series on Huffman includes a drawing in which we see "Huffman with his physical therapists—working on getting over curbs," although Huffman, intensely focused, remains the central subject of the work.

The text that accompanies many of the images often clarifies what the injury is, how it happened, and/or what the soldier remembers about that moment of injury: "PFC TIM DONLEY-USMC/IED HELMAND PROVINCE/REMEMBERS EVERYTHING ABOUT THE BLAST/REMEMBERS LANDING AND TRYING TO STAND UP ONLY TO REALIZE HE HAD NO LEGS TO DO IT. REMAINED CALM AND CHECKED HIMSELF—COULD STILL SEE—WAS GRATEFUL FOR THAT." Fay's drawing of Huffman records similarly vivid memories: "Tyler remembers every little detail. Two shots that felt like getting punched in the chest. Slow motion—Body kicking back real slow and feet flopping open. Started undoing his own gear." In some cases, there is a pointed void in memory, which reminds us of the large presence in wounded soldiers of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. We see examples of this in Juhasz's drawings of Sergeant Joseph Dietzel ("Trying to recall events from IED incident that wounded him and killed his driver") or Bates's drawings of Bowman ("CANNOT REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED THE DAY HE WAS HIT, SO HE TALKS ABOUT THE DAY HIS SQUAD FIRST TOOK CONTACT. HIS WIFE, PAIGE, LISTENS").

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson talks about a kind of "visual activism" that is possible in the artistic representation of disability, when a staree, "by putting themselves in the public eye, say[s] 'look at me' instead of 'don't stare'." The images of the Project do that important work a number of different ways. The interplay between text and image, for example, not only recounts and records the history of the injury that is shown, but also reminds us of an absent presence: that of the artist, who by extension becomes audience and part of that community around the soldier working to understand his disability and new personhood. That there are several images of the same soldiers (such as Staff Sergeant Jason Ross), or even drawings on which an artist makes two, three, or four attempts to imagine the face of the subject, or a close-up image of the injury, draw attention to the constructedness of the act of perceiving disability. Fittingly, there is no dominant paradigm to the representation of disability in this exhibition; in some images, medical equipment becomes aestheticized, almost sculptural, such as Juhasz's drawing of Corporal Stephen Farrell, in which a leg brace stands out as the most clearly detailed point. In other drawings, the disability is hidden from full view, although one gets the sense from the many different, respectful ways that disability is portrayed in the exhibit that this is not about lessening shock or shielding the viewer. Indeed, there are some images where the disability is purposefully highlighted. For example, Bates's series of drawings of Sergeant Adam Jacks, an amputee, show him working at his rehabilitation as he trains (lifting huge, oversized truck tires) to become a drill instructor. Bates explained that he wanted the leg prosthesis, which is colored in more darkly and vividly than the rest of Jacks's body, to stand out, so that we could understand that this is who this soldier is now. More than simply an overcoming narrative, the series of images therefore invite us to contemplate Jacks in his new embodiment, challenging traditional definitions of masculinity and productivity. They likewise document the story of someone who will become an important part of disability history as the first disabled drill instructor in the Marine Corps.

The images of the Project displace a traditional understanding of bodily normalcy, for individuals and the body politic, through their interesting and ongoing interplay between vulnerability and power. We see this unfold in what is perhaps the most striking series of images in the exhibition, Bates' chronicle of Bowman's rehabilitation. They create a full sense of his personhood, focusing on disability in context; in one image, we have only Bowman's face, while in another, he is speaking with his wife. In yet another, used as the exhibition poster, we see him during physical therapy; on his back, he lifts weights that encircle his stumps, at once prone and powerful (fig. 1). The final image of the series, however, is the most striking and complex: Bowman, now home, stands in a fenced-in and grassy backyard; he smiles at us, holding one of his children with the arm from which fingers are missing, standing on his "shorties" (beginner prostheses) (fig.2). The image inserts Bowman into an idyllic landscape of reunion, at his home and with his children, but this is not simple sentimentality. Instead, the image quietly insists upon our acknowledging the presence of men like this in our everyday landscapes. Their embodiments will become part of our community—indeed, have already done so—and in so doing, rewrite how we define the normal. As one military officer commented in a recent New York Times piece on the larger project: "The illustrators aren't showing them as monstrosities. They're showing them as people—different from the rest of society, but it's still a body and there's still a person there."

Figure 1

Bowman during physical therapy lifting weights that encircle his stumps.

Figure 2

Bowman stands in a fenced-in and grassy backyard; he smiles at us, holding one of his children with the arm from which fingers are missing, standing on his shorties (beginner prostheses).

The Joe Bonham Project inherits a long tradition of medical illustration going back to the Civil War, but with its own twist; these images do not just educate us on the moment or definition of injury, but on the long-term reality of a newly embodied experience for soldiers that, without this visual intervention, could well remain an ocean away and unknown to most of us. The artist and subject become collaborators in the sharing of experience in a way that builds toward a mutual understanding of disability radically different from either paternalism or indifference. In this way, the Project importantly echoes the work of the new disability art to establish more nuanced and creative views of disability, ones that eschew the old clichés. But the Project also reminds us of a vital subject of disability art, one that is sure to see further rich expression in the coming years: the experiences of an important new part of the disability community and culture, those injured veterans returning from the ten-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Works Cited

  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2009.
  • Bates, Rob. Road to Recovery III. 2011. Pencil on paper. The Joe Bonham Project.
  • —. Road to Recovery V. 2011. Pencil on paper. The Joe Bonham Project.
  • Kino, Carol. "Portraits of War." The New York Times, 27 May 2012: AR1.


  1. It should be noted most of the subjects are men from the Marines or Army, although Bates shared with me that the project creators are eager to represent diverse disability experiences of more men and women across different branches of the military.
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Copyright (c) 2012 Ann M. Fox

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