So it goes: a trip through the art of Kurt Vonnegut

Anti-war writer was also an artist

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

The National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM), at 4041 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago is presenting a timely exhibit titled, "Vonnegut's Odyssey," celebrating the life, writing and artwork of author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. It's the museum's first exhibit by a World War II vet in recent years. 

Though Vonnegut is well-known for his books, like Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, he was also a prolific artist. Working with printer Joe Petro III, Vonnegut produced hundreds of prints of his drawings. Many of his offbeat works decorate the walls of the museum. The exhibit is timely, because Vonnegut was a peace advocate, with a healthy mistrust of political institutions and social norms.

In the 1970s, Vonnegut became an anti-establishment hero to many young people for his stance against the Vietnam War although in a TV interview, he insisted he wrote books for grown-ups and wasn't catering to the protest crowd. Vonnegut's dark, biting humor is on display in his art, the same way it permeates his books. The prints also reflect his science fiction fascination, with drawings of creatures from Tralfamadore.

Vonnegut is contemporary in another sense. He told his stories in a non-linear fashion, which has become commonplace today. The exhibit is called a "Post-War Odyssey," because like Odysseus, he went to a far-off place to fight a war and returned to a strange new world. Central to his war experience was the fire-bombing of Dresden, on Feb. 13, 1945. Vonnegut and his fellow POWs survived the bombing in a shelter beneath the slaughterhouse, where they were housed.

The air raid created a firestorm that killed 135,000 people. Most were civilians, as Dresden had no concentration of troops and little military value. Vonnegut and his comrades had the grim task of retrieving corpses from burned-out buildings and cremating them on giant pyres. Like many of the artists who exhibit at the NVAM, Vonnegut was a Purple Heart recipient (for frostbite) and was plagued with what we now call PTSD. Writing Slaughterhouse-Five was his way to deal with the stress [See column on page 3].

In addition to Vonnegut's prints, the museum has an interactive kiosk, which allows patrons to page through Vonnegut's life. They can also peruse a gallery guide. Vonnegut's life had as many twists and turns, as one of his novels. Born on Nov. 11, 1922, he was proud that his birthday coincided with Armistice Day, a day of peace. The lifelong pacifist grew up in Indianapolis, son of a prominent architect. 

Vonnegut got an early start in journalism at Shortridge High School, one of two high schools in the U.S. that published a daily newspaper. He was co-editor of the "Shortridge Echo," which boasted a staff of 60 students. After high school, he became a reporter for the Indianapolis Star, then went on to Cornell University, where he displayed his "gallows humor" in the pages of the Cornell Daily Sun.

In 1943, Vonnegut dropped out of college and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He became a private in the 106th Division. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was captured and ended up a POW in Dresden. He was liberated on April 13, 1945, returned to the states, and married Jane Cox on Sept. 14, 1945. He attended the University of Chicago, where he studied anthropology.

While in Chicago, he wrote for the famed City News Bureau and later wrote an article about the experience titled, "How I got my job as a reporter and learned to write in a simple direct way, while not getting a degree in anthropology." Vonnegut later left Chicago for Schenectady, New York, where he worked in public relations for General Electric. 

He started writing science fiction in 1950, and many of his books contain elements of it, like his stay on the planet Tralfamadore in Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut also created an alter ego character, Kilgore Trout, who allegedly wrote 117 unsuccessful sci-fi novels. Vonnegut summarized about 50 Trout novels, as a way to satirize the human condition and provide some comic relief. 

As his novels gained success, he became a full-time writer and moved to Cape Cod. He also taught high school and wrote briefly for Sports Illustrated. His most bizarre career move was to own and operate a Saab dealership. The business failed and to commemorate the event, Vonnegut drew a self-portrait, with a tear trickling down his cheek.

He continued to write successful novels and taught writing at the University of Iowa. Slaughterhouse Five his anti-war epic, is considered his masterpiece. It is a very dark book, punctuated with episodes of zany humor. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died on April 11, 2007.

NVAM Gallery Coordinator Destinee Oitzinger explained how the museum acquired the Vonnegut collection, which includes his Smith-Corona 2200 typewriter, on loan from the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, in Indianapolis. She also gave a brief history of the museum. It was founded in 1981, as the Viet Nam Veterans Art Museum and had its home in the South Loop. The collection was later expanded to include art by veterans of the Korean War and the Gulf War. 

Oitzinger sees the exhibited works as "important on a historical, societal and cultural level. It can also be healing. It expresses something that is very difficult to talk about." To this day, 85% of the works are done by Vietnam vets, which makes Vonnegut's drawings something of an anomaly. Oitzinger had read Vonnegut's novels but didn't think of him as a visual artist. 

"I thought his artwork had humor and playfulness," she observed.

She believes Vonnegut's writing and artwork speak to us today. 

"He writes about the ridiculous things that humans do, as part of the human condition. The absurdity of how we treat other people. There's a cynical undertone, but he doesn't stay on the dark side. He takes serious subjects and makes them funny and relatable."

Substance abuse is a serious subject. It can be a struggle throughout the veteran community. Vonnegut addresses it with his print "DWI." Some of his prints relate to the return of the vet, their struggle to re-assimilate into a world that's changed. Oitzinger said this was a problem for many vets. Although she is a big fan of Vonnegut's prints, the novelist didn't think of them as great art.

After the museum discovered the collection through printmaker Joe Pietro III, they held a small fundraiser, hoping to acquire some of the prints. The Nielsen family attended and offered to fund the acquisition of a large number of prints, in memory of Faith Nielsen, who had been an artist. 

"It's very meaningful to the family and a big win for us," Oitzinger said. 

The Vonnegut exhibit will remain on display through May 6. NVAM patrons can also view the exhibit, "The Things We Carried." It's a collection of Vietnam-era artifacts in connection with Tim O'Brien's book and is on permanent display.

Finally, there's a wall where patrons can write their favorite Vonnegut phrases: "Pretend to be good always and even God will be fooled." "Life is no way to treat an animal." And "Everything was beautiful, nothing hurt." 

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