Words by Tracy Nicholson / Photos by M. Schleif Photography
As a prominent artist and ceramics teacher, Josh Zeis had once envisioned a life in medicine, as a physician’s assistant. During a ten-month tour of duty in Iraq, all of his ambitions would change. Zeis would be tasked with the role of medic, traveling with a unit that searched for roadside bombs. Having little to no physical interaction and struggling to harness his emotions, Zeis’ state-of-mind began to unravel midway through his deployment. As a saving grace, he received a 15-pound package in the mail that would change the course of his life, feed his creativity and offer an outlet for his emotions. War would become his muse, using the reactiveness of clay to help him define and sort through the unexplainable confusion. Ten years later, we followed Zeis on his latest venture, an exhibition entitled, [re]living at the Plains Art Museum. This show would become an exploratory journey allowing him to relive and face his own emotions while helping other veterans find their voice.
A few months into Zeis’ tour in Iraq, he was beginning to feel removed, struggling to make sense of his emotions behind two inches of bulletproof glass and three inches of steel. “My brother Zach was taking a ceramics class at NDSU. After one of our phone calls, he decided to send me some North Dakota clay that had been donated to his class by Hebron Brick. It came in a parcel package and black garbage bag; it was a block that weighed around 15 pounds,” said Zeis. “I’d never done anything with clay before.”
“I remember when I opened it, I knew what it was and the meaning behind it. Coming from a farm family, having a tie to the land, and Zach mailing a piece of that to me – it was an amazing thing and really comforted me.”
Zeis didn’t know with absolute certainty that he would survive in Iraq, so he delved into the clay, learning about the process through books he ordered from Barnes & Noble. He started with a small sculpture that he and his squad leader, Kendel Vetter, worked on together. “Some people pick it up really fast, but it took me a long time to get things figured out; I was a slow learner,” said Zeis. “This was all brand new, other than the books I ordered and read.” Finding out he was only a month from returning home, Zeis contacted Dave Swenson at NDSU in the ceramics department. “I could go anywhere because I had the GI Bill, but I decided I might as well go to NDSU because that’s where the clay came from,” said Zeis.
Once home, Zeis realized that working with clay had left a permanent imprint on his life. Setting aside his dreams of medical school, he soon graduated from NDSU, receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. His next journey took him to George Washington University in Washington D.C., where he obtained his Masters of Fine Arts. Returning to Fargo in 2014, Zeis briefly worked with his brother Zach Zeis of Zeis Concrete Solutions and now has a career as a landscape designer and coordinator at Hebron Brick, coincidentally the same place that sparked his interest by donating the clay that was sent to Iraq. Outside of landscape design, Zeis is now a prominent local artist, a passionate advocate for veterans and a talented ceramics teacher at Plains Art Museum.
In the Raw
“When I tell people I am exhibiting raw clay, they give me this confused look,” laughed Zeis.
“I prefer to work with it in its rawest form. I don’t care deeply about the glazing or the firing. I do fire them sometimes, but working with raw clay is an opportunity to do something experimental and exploratory. I think there’s a spectrum for artists where on one end, they’re general practitioners and on the other end, there are theoretical experimentalists. It’s trying to find which part you want to be closer to and it kind of defines the work you make. Somebody who’s strictly a general practitioner of art, they are popping out the same work and selling it. It’s their livelihood and there’s not much room for exploration when you’re depending so much on making this one thing. If you want to lean toward the theoretical experimentalists, you get to really seize opportunities outside of your comfort zone.”
“The whole concept for this show came from me not having any documentation from my deployment besides a couple photos. My hard drive with all of my photos and videos was stolen, so I used this opportunity to find a way to recreate those experiences,” explained Zeis. This was one of two photos that Zeis was able to find.
Zeis’ first installment will stop almost every passerby in their tracks. Extending out from the wall, nine fabricated, metal arms grasp unfired clay in its truest form. “I was thinking about my material experience with deployment and it was a really cold experience as far as there being no physical contact. My physical interaction was with steel, plastic and fabric. There were high-fives every once in a while. It’s weird to think about how that adds to the stress and anxiety in not having interaction with people. People need to hug more,” said Zeis.”I wanted to try and show how certain qualities of the clay interact with this cold, kind of imposing, scary, metallic design. This design is actually from a vehicle we would use to look for bombs,” said Zeis. “It has this mechanical arm that you operate from inside the vehicle and it scoops through the sand and looks for wires. Sometimes it pulls them up and there’s a bomb dangling about six feet from my face. This shape right here is sort of an extension of ourselves to that landscape and how we interacted with it. I was a medic and I think that Organic Mechanic is a different way of describing what my job was. It’s not so much as in a clinic, more like I’m out there and getting my hands dirty.”For Zeis, it’s the clay’s process and working with ceramics that he enjoys, not the glazing and the firing. “This isn’t actually ceramics, ceramics is when it’s fired just past 1,800 degrees and the structure changes from clay to ceramics,” explained Zeis. “That’s why these are cited as clay and not ceramic. I basically took them off the wheel, I set them on the shelf, and then I do my little surgery where I create a hole and use an endotracheal tube to do a controlled deflate. This pulls the air out until it flattens. Then I lay them on the steel and they get comfortable. I get to watch them change over a couple of days as they dry.”
Google Earth Warscapes
Across from his Organic Mechanic installment, Zeis discusses the row of Google Earth images, pinpointing the landscape and complicated emotions which they carry. “I was traversing the landscape in Iraq and using this actual software program – it was really interesting, the feeling that I got from it. I inherently knew the geography because of the routes that we’d been on over and over again – that ritual that we had every day. I could recognize places and remember events that happened that I wouldn’t normally remember. It was a really weird and meaningful experience,” said Zeis.
There’s a philosopher named Guy Debord; he founded the Theory of the Derive, which when translated, means Theory of Drifting. He basically gives odd instructions about how to experience a place in person – how to experience a landscape and how to get lost. So, I was sort of drifting with that mindset through these landscapes and pinpointing areas that really affected me. I took these images and made a little snapshot on the screen, then with the help of a very talented printmaker named Amanda Height, who also manages Hannaher’s, Inc. Print Studio at the Plains Art Musem, transferred the images onto copper plates using laser etching and an acid etch technique.”
It had to be Copper…
Their next step was to transfer the Google Earth images on the copper plates to paper with a process that’s called Intaglio. “It had to be copper because that’s another material that I had an experience with. It was this really scary IED that was always looming over us called an EFP (Explosively Formed Penetrator) and it was like a copper plate,” said Zeis. “When it’s shot at you, it turns into a molten ball and can pierce through anything. I saw what that can do to a vehicle. It would go through an entire engine block of a giant military vehicle and out the other end. It’s a nightmare. So, for me, it had to be copper.”
Pointing to the far left image, Zeis recalls the significance. “This is the first and probably the most important one – this is when I was driving a vehicle and a rocket went right in front of my window. We stopped the vehicle and there was a guy, who was the trigger man up over here. He got up and started running and our machine gunner shot him. We had to go in to confirm and I drove in this way and there was a trap set for us and a huge bomb went off under my vehicle. I was stuck right in here, I was cut off and our coms were out.”
“That moment right there is when I decided to rethink what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I’ve never felt so scared in my life,” said Zeis. “I was a really good soldier and did all of the training, but I never thought I’d panic. I didn’t know I was going to react that way. I totally panicked and I wasn’t even in control of myself, I was just scared – I didn’t know it was going to be like that. So, my ego or this idea I had of myself, was disassembled by this moment. This is the only photo I have of that.”
“We have this arranged so you can stand here and look down the hallway, but you kind of have to watch where you walk, with the Organic Mechanic arms coming out towards your back from the other wall. What’s great about these Google Earth prints is that they call you forward and keep you safe from what’s behind you. So, it’s interesting how that worked out, creating a little bit of risk for the viewer that also emulates my experience.”
Fives and Twenty-Fives
In his third installment, Zeis reused the copper plates from the printing of his Google Earth Warscapes, to communicate and cope with the daily IED threats that he once feared while in Iraq. “It’s how I would picture the ground changing as an IED was blown out from underneath it. It’s something that I will never, ever get out of my head and I don’t want to,” said Zeis.
“I want to do this kind of work, to help me better understand it. That’s what this is – it’s a visual language that I don’t know how to describe. This is what I’m thinking about and this is what my thoughts look like. I’m just trying to find answers.”
“After the Google Earth Warscapes, the copper plates were destroyed. I had to heat them up so they became soft and then I ran the plates through a press that Dave Savageau from P2 Industries made,” said Zeis. “There was a risk with these, knowing that I can’t make more – it’s done. This is probably the most fun I’ve ever had working with clay. It’s just so intuitive, the way that this works. I throw this shape on the wheel, cover it with white slip, let it dry for about an hour, then I pick it up and just start pushing from the inside, getting that slip to crack and show a narrative of the forces that were exerted from within.”
Even though Zeis has found ways to better understand his emotions, he knows that he needs to keep encouraging other veterans to share and cope with their experiences. He’s able to do just that through a program called Project Unpack. Founded in January 2016, this program is a collaboration between NDSU, veteran’s and their family members, and other community partners. Zeis is the lead artist who hosts ceramic, heirloom cup workshops with veterans and their families.
Using art as an avenue for creating dialogue, Zeis asks them to bring in meaningful objects like canteens, knives and medals – really anything which might represent pieces of their life during deployment. These items are then used to stamp or etch the clay, leaving a lasting imprint and taking another step toward sorting through complicated emotions.
Pointing out a cup that had been imprinted with a knife blade and named “Chavez Shank”, after the veteran’s friend, Zeis explains the process. “We use clay as a recording device. It’s about that experience that we had with a veteran at that moment, one-on-one, for however long it takes. It’s very therapeutic.”
“Sometimes when we go to retirement homes and talk to veterans, I feel like they might not have ever talked to anyone about it before. It can get pretty heavy, and I feel like this is probably the most meaningful work I’ve done,” said Zeis.
Healing Moral Injuries
“I definitely have PTSD. There are also moral injuries, that’s another thing that’s come to light,” explained Zeis. “During war, there are just things that people end up having to do and they become more complacent. They’re at war, so it didn’t matter then. But afterward, they have to live with it and deal with it. I find that I fall into both categories,” said Zeis. “I’m not going to try and forget about this. I’m going to remember as much as I can because it’s my experience and it’s my life. That’s what makes my perspective unique and hopefully, people learn from it.”
The Weight of War
On June 9, 2016, as part of Project Unpack, Zeis strapped a 100-pound block of ice on his back which he’d carved to resemble a military rucksack. Throughout the day, Dan Gunderson from MPR followed his entire 20-mile trek with a microphone, revisiting all of the stops Zeis went to in 2007, upon finding out he was being deployed. Re-enacted as performance art in the name of awareness, Zeis summoned his own emotions to help veterans ease the aftermath of war. “I am no longer afraid to make myself vulnerable – I know that there are people that I trust all around me,” said Zeis.
The Value of Art
Zeis is open to the idea of commissioned work, but he understands that his recent work carries more emotional than monetary value. When asked if he would ever consider selling pieces from his latest exhibition, he replied that it’s a topic that is open to discussion. Like every artist, he might have reservations about selling some of the more emotionally-driven pieces, but he’s also content in knowing that he can recreate it.image
“I’m really excited to see what’s next,” said Zeis as he walked us through the museum’s ceramic studio. “I’m ready to take the work to the next level.”Later on this year, Zeis will be getting married. Despite his life’s inevitable changes, there’s one aspect which he is determined to stay focused on – his conversation with veterans. Recently, the Plains Art Museum has agreed to look into having him teach ceramic classes to veterans in their on-site studio. To make this happen, they will need donors. “It’s not even about therapy, it’s about something tangible, something that has noticeable results. You can see it right in front of you. I think that’s what a lot of veterans are lacking – we don’t have any results of what we went through, other than things that we can’t really touch. Clay is great in that aspect because it’s so immediate in its response to what you’re doing to it and you can just get lost in it,” said Zeis.Until then, he encourages veterans and their families to reach out, making himself available and unafraid to speak the unspeakable. Just as art has taught Zeis to embrace his fears, it is art’s more tangible path that he uses to connect with others, teaching veterans that vulnerability is necessary and that even the deepest wounds can heal.
Visit Zeis’ [re]living Exhibition
Plains Art Museum – Xcel Energy Gallery
704 First Avenue North, Fargo
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