The Combat Grass exhibit, just after seeding. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

The Combat Grass exhibit, just after seeding. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Before he headed to the war front in Iraq in 2003, Matthew Boulay’s preferred reading list was nonfiction for the most part.

When he returned home and was trying to find his way back to civilian life, he continued to read, but poetry, specifically work by veterans, took on new meaning.

“I began by reading the poems of soldiers from 100 years ago who were expressing emotions and thoughts that were all in my head. It was a different war and different circumstances, but I would have written exactly what they wrote,” Boulay said. “It struck me that there was a universal element to being a soldier at war.”

The poems inspired him to try his hand at painting and explore other mediums, and his latest exhibit is the centerpiece of a new military history display at the Keizer Heritage Center Museum.

Artist Matthew Boulay in front of Carl Sandburg's poem. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Artist Matthew Boulay in front of Carl Sandburg’s poem. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

One of the poems Boulay encountered, Grass by Carl Sandburg, spoke to him unlike many others. The poem juxtaposes scenes of the war dead with the voice of the grass that will cover the their bodies and, eventually, the memory of their deeds. It inspired the exhibit at the museum.

Boulay’s exhibit, Combat Grass 1916-2016, brings his experiences, the poem and death notices sent to families during World War I into a single space. It is contained in a glass display case, and he has to water and seed it regularly.

The exhibit starts with combat paper. It’s made in San Francisco by a group of veterans who mill their military uniforms into paper.

“I aged it with coffee and red wine because that’s what they would have had in the trenches of WWI, but the paper literally has the blood, sweat and tears of soldiers who served,” Boulay said.

There are roughly 150 pieces of combat paper in the display case, each of them is letterpress printed with a representation of the telegrams families in Oregon would have received when their loved ones died overseas. They read:

“Dear Sir or Madam:

Salem, Oregon

Deeply regret to inform you that your son/brother/husband/father is officially reported killed in action.

Acting Adjt Genl”

While the actual telegrams would have picked one of the four options Boulay chose for his project, he felt including all four in his representation added to the almost chilling tone of the impersonal messages.

“One of the poets I read, Wilford Owen, was killed about a week before Armistice Day, which marked the end of the war. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death while church bells were ringing in celebration,” Boulay said. “Reading about that was where the inspiration for the telegrams came from.”

The combat paper telegrams provide the base for a perennial rye grass growing under, over and around them. Even just a few weeks into the exhibit some of the paper is beginning to mold and rot and some grass is already dying as Boulay shuffles pieces from the bottom to the top. The live grass requires constant reseeding and water.

“The soldiers back then dealt with a lot of mold and water rot in the trenches which I think is fitting for the exhibit,” Boulay said. “Even the glass display case feels a bit like a coffin.”

The constant witness is a field camera taking photos at frequent intervals and capturing the progress, and decay. Eventually, Boulay will stop tending the grass and allow nature to take its course. After the exhibit ends Nov. 15, he plans to let the telegrams and grass turn to compost which he hopes to use to fertilize flowers at a military cemetery.

“I want it to speak to the cycle of war repeating itself from before WWI right up to the present day. Like the poem, I want to capture the duality of time. On one hand, it heals all wounds, but it also allows us to forget,” Boulay said. “I would like to scale it up somewhere and have a display for all 968 Oregon members of the armed forces who died in WWI, maybe all 117,000 Americans one day. But I want it to be interactive, a place where people can take part in the act of remembering or forgetting.”