The Beauty of a Shell Casing

Atomic Testing Museum explores the canvas that is wreckage with Trench Art

The Art of War: From Swords to Plowshares, the latest in a series of temporary exhibits at the Atomic Testing Museum, is a testament to man’s ability to create art out of destruction and find beauty amid death. The free show focuses on a relatively modern form of wartime creations known as Trench Art: the taking of materials found on the battlefield and turning them into souvenirs or using them as part of the rehabilitation process.

The idea of creating art and souvenirs from war’s cast-offs has been around as long as war itself. But it wasn’t until World War I when it was finally given a name, since it was in the trenches of the battlefields where most of these works were created.

“World War I was very interesting,” curator Karen Green says. “It was a kind of a cusp in warfare. You had everything from carrier pigeons to dogs to horses. You have the beginning of air warfare.” And you had a lot of time sitting around, waiting for something to happen. Time to create.

According to Nicholas Saunders, an expert on Trench Art, “Unlike commissioned paintings and war memorials, which represented war from a distance, Trench Art was made from the waste of war itself and utilized the vehicles of death and mutilation directly. … Trench Art was made for a variety of practical reasons—for sale, barter and personal use—but could also possess deeper spiritual meanings associated with religious belief, grief and mourning, and relief or guilt at surviving war when so many did not.”

Most of the 150 works on display use large shell casings as their primary medium, with designs punched out from the inside. For example, there’s a brass rendition of a captain’s hat and a shell casing vase with the image of a graceful woman on the side, her demure head tilt an ironic or incongruous fate for a weapon fragment.

The brass materials proved malleable enough to allow soldiers to use improvised tools such as their knife hilts to beat the metal into intricate patterns. Similarly, you can try making recycled art yourself at 10 a.m. April 24 with the museum’s $5 Family Fun Day.

Now through June 14, Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m., 755 E. Flamingo Road, 794-5161, free.

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