Interview with Artist: Jeffrey Stenbom
Tell me a little about your background in the military and your experience with violent conflict.
We got back from Kosovo and the War in Iraq had begun. My unit was supposed to get deployed as part of the first invasion into Iraq in 2003, but we ended up going in the second year of the war. We flew to Kuwait and from Kuwait we drove up through the middle of Iraq, through Baghdad. We ended up at the FOB [Forward Operating Base] in Kamara, Iraq which is the heart of the Sunni Triangle. That was the start of year two of the war, when all the really bad stuff started happening—the insurgency—it was just really horrible. The things I had to do on a daily basis, not just do, but see—it started playing with my mind.
I remember the first time I was shot at. I was like, Did we just get shot at? (laughs) I was a truck commander, so I had my own humvee and a crew, a driver, a gunner and a dismount with me. I went to my gunner and was like, Did we just get shot at? He said, I think we did. And I said, Well, shoot back!
When did the violence begin to take its toll?
On July 8, 2004, I lost five friends on the same day. It was a difficult battle in Samara. My group was on quick reaction force that day, and we were the first ones to get to the scene where this huge battle had erupted. I'd lost friends already, but not that many on the same day. Two weeks after that my first son was born. He came early. I was going to have R&R when he was supposed to be born but babies come when babies come. The first week of R&R, I was in Germany with my ex, getting to see my son. The second week, my parents and sister planned to come visit. The day before they were to come, my sister committed suicide.
She was my only sibling. We were very close. It was my breaking point, everything I’d gone through. Having a kid is a wonderful thing but… Everything in Iraq. My sister. I was done.
The battle with the military came next. I was a model soldier, always did what I was asked to do, never asked for anything. I said, I can't do my job anymore. People’s lives depend on me making decisions, and I can't. I said, I have to take care of myself. That's the responsible thing to do as a soldier—to say when you can't do something. My unit didn’t care. They wanted me to shut up and go back down range and I'm like, I'm messed up, I can't do my job, I'm putting peoples' lives at risk because I can't do my job. It was a long battle with my unit.
Finally, I got out, after having to get congressional inquiries by my congressman, which pissed my unit off. When I got out I was in the same place I came from. I got out and I was in limbo, like, what the hell do I do now? This horrible thing happened to my family. I'm fighting PTSD. I’m super lost.
So I went back to school, to Normandale Community College. I took an English composition class and a class on fused glass. I didn't know what fused glass was. I thought it was glass blowing and found out very quickly that it wasn't. I fell in love with it. It gave me drive, passion, focus—feelings I hadn't had for years. I finished up my two year degree but decided to stay there and get another two year degree, an Associates of Fine Art in studio art. I wasn't making artwork about my experiences in the Army but I was making art, and I could see how it was affecting me, making me feel better. It allowed me to take a break from all the BS, allowed me to get away. It was a distraction at first.
What did working with fused glass feel like?
I was a happy person when I was doing it. The one thing I've talked to other veterans who are dealing with PTSD about—so, many of them turned to drugs or alcohol [after the war]. I feel fortunate that I never got into that type of rut. I found art. I was lucky. I was lucky to find the thing I needed, more than any type of medication. Art, specifically glass, was my medicine. That was huge. I had this void in me and art filled that void and allowed me to feel good again. Working with my hands has always been part of my life. I loved building LEGOs. I remember when I was back home after my sister passed away and before I got out, I was in Germany. Star Wars was out in the theaters and they were making Star Wars LEGOs and I remember going to a store in Germany and buying these little vehicles of Star Wars LEGOs. Creating was a distraction that took me away from my grief. It was nice, it was brief, it was just this necessary act of creating.
I remember when I was in Iraq all I cared about was getting home to my family. I said, I don't care what I do with the rest of my life. I don't care about money as long as I’m making just what I need. I said, all I care about is living my life to the fullest—not just for me or my family but for my friends who passed away. That's what I do on a daily basis.
How’d you get into teaching?
When I was working on that second degree at Normandale, I started to recognize that [working with glass] was important. I was TAing and knew I wanted to teach—I could see what it was doing for me and I wanted to be able to help even one more person.
After I finished at Normandale, got that second degree, I decided to teach and continue with glass. I went to the University of Wisconsin River Falls, where I got my Bachelors of Fine Arts in sculpture glass. I also got a second degree, a Bachelor's of Science in Art Education. I really wanted to study the science behind teaching. That was important to me. After that, I ended up going to Tulane University for my Masters of Fine Arts in glass and sculpture. I graduated about three years ago. I've been a professional artist ever since, which is pretty awesome to say. I get to do what I want on a daily basis.
Has your teaching background brought you to classrooms and groups of people that aren’t so obviously connected to an established artistic community? What kinds of classrooms have you worked in?
I've taught a lot of different ways, for different age groups, from kindergarten to seniors. They're all unique. But the best experiences I've had teaching are when I've worked with veterans. It's fascinating. I never make them share, but I always do. It builds trust. When I teach, I talk about my past, and part of that past means sharing my emotions—that's something most men don't do, won’t do. But I express my feelings. It’s how I deal with these problems I'll always have.
When I teach veterans, I'm usually the youngest one. A lot of people from Vietnam, some from Desert Storm, but the thing is, there's this link that's there. There's something about war, not even war, with people who served. There's this thing, they understand, they get the culture. They've been the most fun to work with and the most rewarding. I've very rarely had someone who hasn't shared or said they won’t share anything. They share through their work, that's where they speak.
What are they creating?
I usually leave it open. I ask them to bring a half dozen small objects that we can press into glass but they can also add or subtract from the clay that's there to make their form. Then impress in plaster silica and then we take the clay out and put the glass in. I bring lots of things and let them use my objects regardless if it's veterans or not. A lot of veterans do come and borrow my stuff and I'm happy they do. A lot of times, they bring things that are personal to them. There's something special about that. To be able to put themselves out there, it's pretty damn awesome to see.
Teaching, to me, is as important as my artwork because I know what art can do for others. I've always had this thing in my head, that I wanted to teach college. In my field, it's difficult to find teaching positions, specifically in glass, and especially with the way higher ed is now, they're cutting budgets and a lot of that comes out of funding for art. When instructors retire or leave, [schools] don’t fill those classes with instructors, they expect the instructors who are already there to pick up the slack so they don’t have to hire anyone.
I taught at the University of Wisconsin River Falls right after I got out, but it wasn't a permanent thing. It was between my two years of grad school I went to Pilchuck glass school in Washington State and I took a class from Richard Whitley who, in my view, is one of the two best living glass kiln casters in the world. Richard, he saw my work. He saw my sister in my work, and the separation from my kids. I was communicating through art. He saw my work and he was like, I want to spend some time with you. He told me, you know, Jeffrey, academia is really, really difficult. It's not just difficult to teach—the politics are hard too. With your background you're more than qualified for a position, but you might want to look at teaching in a different capacity, working with veterans.
So I was teaching at the Bergstrom Mahler Glass Museum in Wisconsin, just a little show there. At the beginning of the show, in the opening weekend, I did a free workshop for veterans. A woman had come to see the exhibition and was amazed by my work. Her son was a police officer in Green Bay and she told him he needed to go see the exhibition.
He came down. He looked at [the exhibition] and immediately signed up for my class. One of the pieces I was working on is part of a series called “Constraint.” It's a human brain made of glass, with chains wrapped around it and a lock that’s worn and rusted. The guy took me aside and said, This piece is how I feel every day.”
He had been called to a domestic dispute and the man in the house was irate, he came after him with a knife and stabbed him. He ended up having to shoot and kill the man. He was still dealing with the trauma. He had no art experience and he made this fabulous piece in my class: he pressed his badge into the clay, then he pulled the badge out, leaving the impression. Then he took a knife and pressed it into the badge and carved cracks in the clay. It was amazing, I took pictures. It just blew me away. I thought, My work inspired this. Brings tears to my eyes, sorry (crying). What I mean is that [my work] is affecting other people, helping people—at the end of the day that's what it's about. My teaching and sharing has helped other people, veterans in particular, but people in general, to start having a conversation about art as more than just beauty. It's a way of communicating, of giving a voice to veterans who haven’t spoken about this. If I hadn't started doing art we wouldn't be having this conversation because I didn’t know how to talk about what I was going through. Art gave me my physical voice back.
The vast majority of people have no idea what it's like to be a veteran. Our freedoms, the sacrifices those people have made are taken for granted. It's such a small portion of our population that’s serving or has served, and at the end of the day they’re kind of forgotten about—especially after they’ve done their job, have served and are out. They should be seen.
A lot of people have told me they’re glad I’m talking about mental illness, which is still riddled with stigma. In some ways it’s aggravating because mental illness is a much bigger animal than just PTSD, and almost everyone, in some way, goes through trauma. If you cut your arm you would go to the doctor to get stitches. It’s no different here, you’ve been torn up mentally and you should go see someone for help. I feel that I've been able to kind of break down some of those barriers between veterans and help.
How do you see art functioning in American culture? Some see it as interpreting your past or witnessing. It sounds like your art has become a retrieval process—retrieving your ways of thinking and coping before trauma, retrieving your voice, retrieving relationships and the ability to confront difficulty. At least it seems that way to me.
When I lived in Europe I saw how the arts were viewed differently there. Art is seen as part of the culture, part of the history, part of everyone. Here in the states it’s not viewed that way and that's a shame. What I'm about to say is a gross generalization but it's kind of true for a lot of people: in America we imagine it’s just hippies and liberals making the art for rich people to buy, which, to me, is completely untrue. That’s only one stereotype about art in the U.S.
Art is more than beautiful things. A lot of artists are concerned with making beautiful things with little substance, which is frustrating because it perpetuates this idea about what art is and doesn't show art as an action that changes people. Glass blowing is cool, people make some beautiful things with it, but it can also be superficial. Art is a metaphor for life; it's this thickness, this depth of the person, there's something more on the inside of the mind. This is my life. I’m filling the void in my life with glass.
What are you working on now?
I'm currently trying to get my studio up and running in Wabasha, Minnesota. A year ago I was driving out to Portland [Oregon] to do a residency, a five-week residency at Bulls Eye Glass and that's where I made the wall of 7300 dog tags—it’s the number of veterans who commit suicide each year. I've been doing residencies quite a bit since I've been out of grad school and it’s been a good way for me to produce a ton of glass, then do the finishing stuff when I get back—the grinding and polishing and adding mixed media to it. I’m at the point now where I need to have my own studio. I don't mind using my house sometimes as a studio, but when the majority of my rooms have art stuff in them, things in progress everywhere, it starts consuming my personal space.
I decided when I came back from that residency in Maine that I had to make some serious decisions about what I was going to do, professionally. Last year I spent two months in the Pacific Northwest, in the Portland and Seattle areas. I spent the time driving out there thinking, Do I need to move to the Northwest? Do I need to stay here? What do I want to do? I decided, I love Minnesota. I can always travel to the Northwest, but I love it here.
My art is unique because of its connection to veterans and veterans' issues and military service, but the actual glass side of what I do—there's really no one doing anything like that around here. I'm always happy to come out to the Northwest, where it’s this glass mecca, I swear. But I decided I needed to build my studio here. I've been working with contractors and I'm hoping by tomorrow they'll be completely done with the plumbing.
Yeah. Cool thing about Wabasha is, it has the National Eagle Center there, so it's bald eagles all over the place. It's right on the Mississippi River. It's an old, old town. The Chippewa River and the Mississippi meet there. Doesn't matter the temperature, the water is always moving, and that's the reason why all these bald eagles congregate there; it’s a good place to fish and eat. My big hope is to start some type of residency program for veterans, or do some type of programming for veterans and hopefully incorporate the National Eagle Center. It’s symbolic.
I'm excited about being able to use art to help other veterans. Art's my thing. It might be music for somebody. It could be lots of different things. I'd love to have a residency where veterans can come and create, get away from whatever they’re going through or go deeper with it if they want. If they just want to experiment as a distraction, they can. The biggest thing with a program like this is finding the funding to do it. Art has done a lot for me. I've had a lot of really great artists who—whether they see it as mentoring or not—they've been mentors to me. I want to give back and pay it forward. So much of what we see every day is me, me, me and not enough seeing others.
There's so much more to life than survival. After feeling how fragile life is, after being in the situations I was in and....I can't even tell you how wonderful it is to do what I do, and know I've made a difference.