When it’s suggested to Alicia Dietz that the arts world is not typically pro-military, she lets out a whoop of acknowledgment.
“You’re telling me. My Facebook page is bipolar,” says Dietz, 37, an Army veteran and woodworker whose work examining the lives of soldiers has been garnering attention. “I’d say that in most cases the arts community and the military community are on opposite sides. But in a big way, that’s fueling my work. I feel like there’s a lot we all have in common. What I’m trying to do is to get to the core of people’s empathy. We’ve all experienced loss, pain, and camaraderie.”
Some of Dietz’s intentions are directly traceable in her work, such as in the stark Fallen Soldiers (2015), whose centerpiece is a pair of carved wooden combat boots covered with handwritten names of soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other components are covered with more names, totaling the 6,849 who have died thus far in the two wars.
Other pieces she has made as an MFA student in the furniture design and woodworking program at Virginia Commonwealth University are more open to interpretation.
In Reintegration (2015), for instance, Dietz used wooden pallets to create an uneven floor shaped like an aerial map. The platform holds a lone chair, from which visitors can hear a looped audio mix of natural soundscapes bleeding into war sounds – for example, a woodpecker transforming into a machine gun, a nod to the way military experiences seep into civilian life. The inspiration came from Dietz’s table saw. “There’s this sound when it’s winding down that seems so much like helicopter rotors winding down,” she says.
Dietz’s lifelong desire to be a helicopter pilot is what spurred her to join the Army, starting with the ROTC at Ohio University. She served from 2001 to 2011 as a US Army officer, working as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, maintenance test pilot, and company commander. Her first mission was flying over Baghdad during wartime, where she transported troops and VIPs. Later she was stationed in Alabama, Alaska, Germany, and Egypt.
“Sometimes I feel uncomfortable talking about my experience in the military, because it was mostly positive,” she says. “I got to fly and travel and lead soldiers. Those were things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise. I’m not suffering from PTSD or anything like that. But what every soldier faces is reintegrating into civilian life, and that can be difficult.”
Dietz’s transition began in 2011, when she resigned her commission to follow her other passion – woodworking.
She had learned basic skills growing up in Ohio under the tutelage of her father and grandfather, and later worked on her own pieces at Army recreational facilities. She first spent two years at the Vermont Woodworking School, her tuition covered by the GI Bill. She won several furniture design competitions and after graduation had planned to set up shop as a fine furniture maker.
But an internship with conceptual wood artist Wendy Maruyama opened her eyes to another way of working with wood. She began incorporating conceptual elements using her traditional woodworking skills and in 2014 enrolled at VCU. She is set to have completed the MFA program this May.
Dietz plans to stay in Richmond after she graduates to continue her studio work, creating more thoughtprovoking pieces such as Reintegration. But she has another aim in mind as well, harkening to what drew her to the medium in the first place: “I want to make some furniture.”
Wake-up call: When Dietz started classes at the Vermont Woodworking School, the schedule intimidated her, but not in the usual way. “It was so laid-back, totally not what I was used to. Like, I learned that 9 o’clock means 9-ish. I thought, ‘Not in the Army.’ ”
On arriving in Baghdad in wartime: “I probably fit in the too-naïve category. I had finally gotten my dream – I was a pilot. I won’t get into my personal views of the war, but my job was to fly.”
Recent work: In the installation Collective Cadence, for Dietz’s graduate thesis, she arranged a series of boxes, each containing veterans’ stories and made of different kinds of wood mimicking the colors of camouflage.
Dietz’s Reintegration is on view in “On the Edge of Your Seat: Chairs for the 21st Century” at the Center for Art in Wood in Philadelphia through July 23. Diane Daniel is a writer based in Florida and the Netherlands