A few family photos, a sketchbook, pens, and a watercolor set – these are what UNC graduate student and U.S. Army veteran Reuben Mabry brought overseas while serving in Afghanistan.
“Sketching is something I’ve done ever since I was a little kid, so it was also something I wanted to incorporate in my life there in Afghanistan,” he says. “I used that as a method to connect with art and, at the same time, separate myself from the space.”
During Mabry’s 2014 deployment, he maintained a long list of daily responsibilities. As an Apache helicopter pilot, company commander in charge of 97 soldiers, unit mayor, and deconstruction and airport security officer, taking time to de-stress was a necessary part of maintaining balance.
On top of administration duties, Mabry also flew aerial-support missions at a time when the U.S. military was shifting responsibilities to Afghan troops. Sensing the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the region, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS saw this as a perfect opportunity. When U.S. or Afghan troops were under siege, Mabry was assigned to strike the enemy from above.
But six months of 14-hour missions four times a week eventually took its toll.
“Being involved with violent acts of taking people’s lives, afterwards it sort of affected me,” he says. “I started thinking about, Why is it that I’m having these emotions or not having certain emotions? At times you become almost nonhuman and you see the victims as nonhuman as well.”
With his service obligation coming to a close, Mabry decided it was time for a change. Already living in Raleigh and looking to continue his education with a master’s degree in studio art, Carolina was a perfect fit.
Rooted in research
With his face inches away from an 8-foot long painting, Reuben Mabry delicately pencils in topography lines. Taking a break, he steps back to look at his work thus far, scanning the chaotic and violent scene in front of him.
A pile of art books and military instruction manuals sit on his work desk a few feet away. Combing through his former training materials, Mabry incorporates symbols from that text into his work.
“My research now is to really analyze the effect these materials, symbols, and text have on certain individuals — obviously from my subjective view,” he says. “
Instruction manuals are just the starting point of Mabry’s study. “Research is integral within the art-making process,” he says. “When it comes down to creating work that has some conceptual depth, you have to do a lot of research.”
Mabry integrates multiple technical and conceptual theories in his final thesis project, including inspiration from other abstract artists, traditional Asian calligraphy, and philosophical ideologies about the use of symbols in culture and how indoctrinating materials can be used as a form of control.
While Mabry’s art is rooted in research, it remains deeply personal.
“I used those materials to do a very direct thing in the past. And now, I’m using the same materials that are very heavy for me, and then I’m creating paintings and drawings,” he says. “Putting yourself out there can make you feel vulnerable, but at the same time, with that vulnerability there’s something great.”
He hopes his work gives viewers perspective into what military personnel endure before, during, and after combat.
“If the audience can connect with that and understand that this is a different way to describe a veteran’s perspective,” he says, “that is something I hope they would try to think about.”