Art for his enemies

For a Sitka artist, combat debris came together for friend and foe alike

Posted: Sunday, September 25, 2005

When not patrolling the streets of Baghdad with his National Guard unit Keith Gibson created art to give to his "enemies."

Gibson, a 1981 graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School and now a Sitka resident, sculpted art out of debris found in the combat zone to give to all Iraqis, he said, enemies and allies alike. One of his creations is housed in the Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad.

"I think all people and all races and even angelic beings are going to be reconciled with the Creator through that process, by reaching out to your enemy just like he did with us. And I think that is the true way to bring us together," Gibson said.

He gave a talk on his experience and art Saturday evening at Glacier Gardens.

A sculpture of a bald eagle Gibson made in Alaska can be seen above the escalator at Juneau International Airport.

Gibson joined the Alaska National Guard in the late 1990s and decided to volunteer to go to Iraq as a medic when he heard the Washington National Guard was seeking help.

"I didn't know exactly why or how it was all going to work out. I guess that's part of the journey, is not knowing how it's all going to work out," he said. "And when you say, 'OK, I'm gonna do it' and you're committed to that, then things fall into place. I saw many miracles, day in and day out."

Gibson said he felt called to go to Iraq, just as he feels called to create art.

"I didn't have all the answers and I still don't today and I don't know the repercussions of giving artwork to your enemy and what all that means. I just feel called that it's worth my life to risk for that," he said.

Gibson said he worked with Iraqis to build two replicas of their national flag, which included material from one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. One of the sculptures was given to the Iraqi interim president.

"That's the steppingstone of artwork," he said. "We gave it to him. We made it together and it's a national flag and it's made out of Plexiglass and it stands on its own like the Iraqi people. They are going to stand on their own."

Gibson said he began giving art to his enemies after he bumped into a man who bullied him as a child in Atlin, British Columbia. Realizing physical aggression would not solve anything, Gibson later made the bully a Christmas tree as a symbol of peace.

"While I was building that tree, not only did I think of all the hell he put us through but also the good times that surrounded that time period. ... It made the balance," he said.

Gibson said the same peaceful gesture can be made on a global level.

"If you think about countries pounding each other with bigger and bigger bombs or whatever, that never gets balanced," he said. "Like initiation in school, you never get back at the people who initiated you. It's an endless cycle that never gets complete."

While running on a treadmill one day in front of a mirror, Gibson said he thought about the Vietnam Memorial. He decided to turn a mirror into the shape of Iraq with the country's national bird, a golden eagle, crashing through with an olive branch in its mouth.

Gibson said everything fell into place and he had Americans and Iraqis helping him get tools and supplies. He said he was particularly moved by an Iraqi stranger who gave him a large mirror - a scarce commodity in an area where most glass mirrors are destroyed by shock waves created by explosions. The artwork is now on display for all Iraqis at the Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad.

Gibson said he doesn't seek recognition, awards or medals, only to get his message of peace across. He said he gives his art away and doesn't sell any.

"That's been confirmed within me since I've been back from Iraq, that I should continue to give that work away," he said.

He said one thing that helped confirm his stance was the people of Iraq. As his unit was traveling from Kuwait into Iraq he saw a girl standing by the side of the road in dirty clothes with matted hair making a sign for something to eat.

"That's why we were there, to help the people. If you're looking at what am I going to get out of it, what does she get out of it?" he said.

Gibson said he hopes he has helped plant a seed of peace with his art.

"I made this stuff out of what I found there. It's all garbage, you know, and given back to the Iraqi people but with a twist."

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