Vietnam nurse's art collection compiled in book

Sunday, November 23, 2003

"Spray on some perfume, and put on your lipstick and a smile," because recovering wounded men needed a reassuring and pleasant person to care for them.

That's what the head nurse in Helen White's unit in Vietnam often told White and the other nurses -- and that's what they did. No matter how daunting the day, no matter how devastating the injuries suffered by those they cared for, that lipstick and smile carried through. Now, more than 30 years later, Helen White, an Army nurse who served in Vietnam, has created a book filled with art created from memories of that intense, war-ravaged time and short descriptions of the people, places and events that inspirted the art.

It's called, "Lipstick and a Smile," and its pages take a revealing look behind the smile into the reality of war and the legacy of devastation it leaves behind.

White's paintings, often in acrylic but sometimes in other media, are becoming well-known in the veterans community nationwide -- particularly in the circles of Vietnam veterans.

One painting, "Thousand Yard Stare" depicts the vacant look of horror and shock on the face of a man who'd

White began painting the images that were to become the collection a few years ago, when she found herself dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but communicating verbally wasn't working. So, as part of her therapy in Kansas City, she began painting images of people, places and consequences of war.

Her therapist would hang up the paintings, which would stimulate conversation among other veterans who'd shared similar emotional struggles.

Since then, White's work has been featured in museums and collections across the nation, including the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. "Thousand Yard Stare" become the third piece created by a woman to be accepted into the museum.

"It's quite an accomplishment," to have artwork on display at the museum, White said, but more importantly, she added, her painting will be "part of a collection that might help Vietnam veterans ... that might serve as an outlet for them."

There's a second painting at the Women in Military Service Association in Arlington, Va., and her art has been displayed at veterans events throughout the country. Some of her paintings have even made it into the homes of veterans such as Kerwin Stone of Beaumont, Texas.

After acquiring one called "Angels in the Garden," Stone wrote to White to say, "I am a proud Vietnam veteran, and am active in my local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. As you so appropriately noted, a number of us are still mired in the weeds of the past. Your painting captures the peace and fulfillment that we all seek, although it is often elusive. The first step in treating any problem is recognizing that there is a problem; the next step is to get some help with it. So many are still in denial, and therefore are never able to even find the gate to the garden. Thank you for applying your talents to send such a meaningful message."

Now, White's book offers an entire collection of her artwork relating to her time as a nurse.

The idea for the book, "grew out of an art show in September at Cottey College, about the nurses of Vietnam," White said. At a reception conducted by the college, viewers commented it would help if she explained the paintings, so White took people on tours and explained stories behind paintings.

"So, I thought that I could do that in a book," White said

She enlisted the help of Clint Edwards of El Dorado Springs to convert photos of her artwork for use in a book and Randy and Ellen Bell of Rich Hill, who printed the books scheduled to arrive in Nevada on Nov. 26.

"I have a number of boxes coming," she said. Her first run is for 1,000 books she plans to distribute herself, although she's in negotiation with a local book dealer to distribute the books.

White's already planning a second book, "Courage to Live," inspired by a man who goes on living his life although his face bears the scars of terrible burns.

"Not only did he have the courage to survive that, he has the courage to just live his daily life. A normal life," White said.

The book will be available at Cavener's Library and Office Supply in Nevada.

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