Armstrong Professor Explores Horrors of War in Powerful New Art Exhibit

(Nov. 16, 2012) Karl Michel, assistant professor of art and art education at Armstrong, is haunted by memories of Vietnam.

As a 21-year-old sergeant serving as a military intelligence specialist with the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division, he saw U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers killed in combat. The gruesome reality of death served as a defining moment in his life.

Art photoThat pivotal experience informs “Vietnam Visions: Paintings and Sculpture by Karl Michel,” a solo exhibit that was on display in fall 2012 at the City of Savannah's Gallery S.P.A.C.E., in downtown Savannah.

The exhibit showcases expressionistic Vietnam-inspired acrylic paintings and collaged mixed media sculptures, both of which offer harrowing glimpses into traumatic wartime experiences and memories.

After returning to the U.S., Michel developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, ranging from obsessive-compulsive thoughts to unnerving war flashbacks. In 1973, while working as a social worker in Atlanta, he had a vivid hallucination of people with obscured faces.

That night, he decided to record his vision in a series of drawings created with simple dots. Those early drawings ignited a passion for art that has sustained him over the years.

“Art literally took over my life,” he explained. “My process involves letting go and taking direction from the unconscious.”

Today, Michel carefully works the surfaces of his paintings, building them up with dense layers of paint and sanding them down to reveal the archeological strata comprising each composition. His modular sculptures, some of which stand 10 feet tall, have been carefully crafted from cardboard forms covered with cut-out scraps of newspaper and acrylic polymer.

Michel's work is featured in the permanent collection at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago and has been included in traveling Vietnam art exhibits. “Vietnam Visions” marks his first local solo exhibit since moving to Savannah and joining the Armstrong faculty in 2010.

Art photoAt Armstrong, he teaches drawing, studio art and art education and supervises student teachers. “I'm out there helping Armstrong students learn the art of teaching,” he says. “That's something I really enjoy.”

An Atlanta native, Michel joined the U.S. Army at the age of 20. After serving in Vietnam, he completed a B.A. in English at Georgia State University and an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in art with an emphasis in art education at the University of Georgia. For his dissertation, he interviewed 43 Vietnam veteran artists and found other vets who spontaneously turned to art as a critical form of self-expression after serving in combat.

For this talented professor, art has served an important therapeutic function in his own life. “Art is my way to make visible the emotional reality of war,” he explained. “It is like the glue that holds my life together. It's what gives it meaning.”