In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row that mark our place, and in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing, fly, scarce heard amid the guns below ... — “In Flanders Fields” by WWI veteran John McCrae, 1915.
The elements found within the words of the opening stanza of McCrae's poem – poppies, grave markers, larks and weapons – convey the theme of Michael Wilson's art exhibition – “One Man, One War, One Hundred Years," which is on display until Nov. 30 at The Corning Center for the Fine Arts.
While the poem is heavily influential in Wilson's work, it was the words within the diary of his great-uncle – Herbert Thordsen, a veteran of WWI – that painted the reality of The Great War for him.
Wilson, who served in the Iowa Army National Guard from 1979 to 1985, said his great-uncle was a father figure to his mother. The American flag which had been used to draped Thordsen's casket was proudly displayed in Wilson's childhood bedroom.
"She had a lot of respect for him ... I think that is why I chose to join the national guard," he said.
In 2012, while cleaning out some family heirlooms, Wilson's cousin discovered his great-uncle kept a dairy with dates and descriptions of his service. He called Wilson to tell him about it and offered Wilson a box of Thordsen's belongings, including the diary.
"So I went out there and snagged it and brought it back to my studio," Wilson said.
Wilson said a hand-written journal that detailed his great-uncle's WWI experience was inside a vintage Snicker's box.
"I just started flipping through it, and I just got chills on the back of my neck," he said. "Now all of a sudden, the war was personal to me."
As Wilson read more, he wondered how the war had affected Thordsen. Wilson remembered his great-uncle as a big, crabby and contrary man. Now, he was thinking there was something behind his rough demeanor.
"I thought, I'm going to create this exhibit and I'm going to use it to have a conversation with him, because I always wanted to have that adult conversation with him about the war," Wilson said. "The diary will be his side of the conversation, and the paintings will be my side of the conversation."
Art imitates life
“One Man, One War, One Hundred Years," is a collection of mixed-media paintings portraying the WWI experience of Thordsen – a U.S. machine-gunner in the 321st Machine Gun Battalion, who fought in his parents’ native Germany.
Each painting references very specific passages of Thordsen's diary, which describe the death and destruction he narrowly escaped.
Borrowing from the imagery of Michaelangelo’s “Pieta” sculpture, Wilson’s painting titled, "In Flanders Field," shows Columbia — the allegorical female symbol of the United States at the time — holding the body of her dead-soldier son.
“Mary with Jesus is the quintessential mother sorrow over a son who had sacrificed,” said Wilson. “I parlayed that into Columbia and her sons ... and the sacrifice of those soldiers.”
As Colombia weeps over her dead son, she sits among a field of poppies between rows of grave markers, which represents the lives lost during the war. In some paintings withing the 12-piece collection, Wilson paints in a young boy in a Cub Scout uniform – depicting himself, and representative of "innocence."
“Swords, Pens & Plowshares,” shows female symbols from the United States and Europe standing in solidarity, representing peace and liberty as a young Wilson studies history and Thordsen journals in the foreground.
“One Man, One War, One Hundred Years" took Wilson more than three years to complete and was unveiled in 2018 at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. It was also displayed at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum (Camp Dodge) in 2019.
“The whole thing is about writing and remembering history,” Wilson said. "The theme is learning from history, remembering history and to not repeat mistakes ..."
“One Man, One War, One Hundred Years" can be viewed 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 10 a.m. 5 p.m. at The Corning Center for the Fine Arts, 706 Davis Avenue in Corning.