Americans Remember Vietnam…
… and artist George Herman Salas in his Albuquerque studio by Allen Dale Olson
Art can be born in anger. So said George Herman Salas who makes no secret of the anger he felt after serving in Vietnam after the 1968 Tet Offensive and the hostility he experienced when returning home.
Salas had enlisted intent on making a career of the Army, and his early experiences in Pforzheim, Germany, strengthened his resolve to have a military career. Several members of his family, including his father, had served in the military, so service was in his blood. His mother, for example, could trace her ancestry back to the Conquistidores in 1690.
Vietnam changed all that. “Quick-Levy” moved him suddenly from maintenance work on helicopters in Germany to gunnery service (as well as maintenance) for the 610th Air Transport near Da Nang and some of the most turbulent action in Nam and the decision to leave the military.
Discharged at Fort Lewis, Washington, Salas flew via Denver to Albuquerque. In the Denver Airport he saw first-hand the divisiveness of the American people concerning the war in which he had been fighting. He was spat upon and screamed at by total strangers who had no regard for the ravages of war upon his health and emotions.
After years of therapy for PTSD and alcohol– and the loss of his wife because of all that, Salas found a creative inner self with the help of fellow artist, Rachel McGargee who became his current wife. Together they nurtured his creativity, the results of which can be seen at the Veteran’s Memorial in Tijeras, a few miles east of Albuquerque, and in the New Mexico Veterans Memorial Park just out the west gate of Kirtland Air Force Base.
The Tijeras flag is painted on metal and gives the impression of flying in a breeze. The flag’s stripes are separated to symbolize the division of public attitudes about this controversial war, and stars are misaligned and missing to symbolize those who aren’t coming home from that war or who came home seriously hurt. While the flag appears shredded, it also illustrates love of country, a bond that brings Americans together instead of separating them. It is a moving piece highlighting a moving memorial.
Salas admits that that flag sculpture was born in anger and did much to soothe his rage. It also led to the Vietnam Veterans of America commissioning him to do a sculpture for the state memorial park, where his bronze of a kneeling soldier causes visitors to pause and reflect on the meaning of military service and sacrifice.
The soldier-turned artist says his work falls into categories: patriotic, whimsical, and religious. One of George’s and Rachel’s patriotic bronzes is in the Department of Defense Mark Center in Alexandria, Virginia. It shows a female soldier seated atop two truck tires reading a letter from home and is modeled on the first female Native American soldier killed in combat.
His religious art consists of retablos and likenesses of saints. He says the saints helped him recover his Catholicism which in turn helped him recover from the despair he felt after his war experiences. Rachel works with him on many of his works, and he says he draws inspiration from her own creativity. He explains that without her, his art would never have come out. He calls it “self-inflicted,” because he never had formal training in the arts.
These days George Herman Salas is busy with commissions and shows and his studio has several shelves holding the awards and trophies for his work. He looks back on his service in Vietnam as “a million dollar experience that I wouldn’t have given a dime for.”