Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An ‘Artist/Soldier’s’ Past Time

(Above) Welsh Dragon
Description: Shell casing flower vase made from German 77mm shell. Embossed figure of Welsh dragon with embossed background. Bottom of shell crimped. Top of shell crimped and flared. Shell dated September 1914 on headstamp. 8” tall.
(Above) Statue of Liberty
Description: Decorated shell casing made from American 3pdr naval shell. Statue of Liberty motif with three birds in flight on reverse. Shell dated 1898 on headstamp. 12” tall.
(Above left) Bird and Coyote
Description: Shell casing flower vase made from French 105mm shell. Bird in tree, flower, coyote, and date 1919 in relief. Embossed background. Shell dated 1918 on headstamp. 15” tall.

(Above right) Grape Vase
Description: Shell casing flower vase made from French 75mm shell. Floral motif with grapes and grape leaves. Top scalloped incorporating leaf patterns. Engraved leaves with embossed background. Shell dated 1916 on headstamp. 12” tall.
(Above) Argonne Vase
Description: Shell casing flower vase made from French 75mm shell. Poppy motif and ‘Argonne’ in relief with embossed background. Scalloped top and twisted fluting on bottom half of shell casing. Shell dated 1916 on headstamp. 13 1/2” tall.
(Above) Larger Floral Vase
Description: Decorated shell casing made from German 210mm shell. Embossed floral motif within two bands. Scalloped top. Shell dated May 1917 on headstamp. 9 1/2” tall.

WITH NEARLY 30 YEARS OF COLLECTING OBJECTS, including folk art, I have often seen examples of “trench art,” an art form largely practiced during WWI but certainly continued during WWII. I always had a rather romantic view of the art form—that of soldiers sitting in muddy trenches during a lull in the action hammering a spent brass shell into something beautiful, turning killing tools into something beautiful for a loved one back home.

Certainly, some objects could have been made while actually in the trenches (whittled wood carvings, etc.) but the reality of these brass artillery shells being hammered into art while on the front lines is largely a myth. More than likely they were made well behind the front, while a soldier was at rest. Sometimes, objects like this were made as a theraputic past time when convalescing from wounds or illness. In terms of raw material, brass shell casings were more than plentiful.

Likely scenarios are that the “soldier/artists” made these objects and sold them to other soldiers; that local artisans in nearby towns made them to sell to other soldiers for gifts back home; or possibly they were made by prisoners-of-war in exchange for cigarettes or money.

However they were made, they are lovely examples of folk art with a real story behind them. Look for these the next time you are hitting the flea markets or antique malls. You’ll find them to be more common than you might think.

Learn more about this art form at www.trenchart.org.

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