Actively Seeking Peace with George salaS

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"Imagine where I would be if I would get myself out of the way."

George salaS kokopelli

There is a house on my grandmother’s street that stands out like none other. It casts the most interesting shadows. Shapes move in circles as the sun rises and sets. This house is always filled with art. Blue bottles catch the sun and splash color across the desert ground. Gemstones sprinkle light that bounces off the rocks, and broken glass fills crevices with color. This yard is full of metal creatures, spirits that look across the street at passers bye. There is a giant dragonfly in the corner. A flag once stood frozen in the wind, a big metal flag with white stripes and stars made of light, the spaces cut from the metal. This is the home of Albuquerque artist, George salaS.


When I was a girl, I snuck into his yard once with plastic Easter eggs filled with candy. I hid the eggs all over the strange places in the workshop, and George kept finding them for months and months after Easter had passed. He has always been a friend of the family and a mentor to me. I’ve always known George salaS with a smile on his face and a mystical quality of creative wonder emanating from everything he did.

George salaS sculptureThe years passed by and I came and went along my journey. One day, I was returning to my grandmother’s house and my Jeep stalled out. I was used to this, and I was almost there. I put the Jeep into neutral and stepped onto the road with the door open. I pushed and pushed. Slowly the Jeep inched toward my grandmother’s home, up to a slight hill that was just enough to make it difficult. When I got to George’s house, he was out working in his shop, and he ran across the street to help me out. I was angry about it, and I cursed. If you can picture this comical scene, you’ll be surprised that I shouted at George as I pushed the Jeep along and insisted I didn’t need his help. I wasn’t angry at George, but I lashed out at him all the same. He didn’t take it personally. He had a smile on his face, and he looked back at me with knowledge beyond my years.

He came to see me later and said, carefully, that he’d like me to talk with someone at the VA. He said he knew people who could help me out. Help me out? I wondered. Help me with what? I’m fine. The idea of seeing anyone remotely related to my military service bothered me deep down, terrified me. I was out. I was done. I didn’t want anything to do with the damned military! George nodded his head with that same understanding that went over my head at the time. I blew him off.

George salaSAs the years passed, I got worse. I got angrier. I grew more distant from my family, I lived in isolation and entertained thoughts of suicide. I never thought about George, and I never thought about him asking me to get help. He had tried his best. He even gave me a ride to the women’s clinic one day, and I couldn’t fill out the paperwork and asked him if we could please get the hell out of there. He had brought me into the New Mexico Veteran’s Art Association and had set up a meeting for me with gentlemen who worked in VA Benefits. But you just can’t help someone who doesn’t want help and believes they don’t need help. It’s especially hard to help those of us who believe, for whatever reasons, that we don’t even deserve help. Despite his efforts, I committed suicide.

Obviously, I failed, and it was the VA Hospital he had brought me to that saved my life. After I spent some time in the psych ward and began treatment for PTSD, I ran into George again. It had been years. I brightened at the sight of him and hugged him. He was shocked. We were both at the VA Hospital that day for similar reasons, and we sat on a couple of rocks in the sunlight to catch up. He reminded me of the day I had cursed him out while pushing my Jeep along the road. I had forgotten. He laughed and laughed as he remembered it. He didn’t say, “I told ya’ so” but boy he could have!

George salaS workingGeorge Herman-salaS is a veteran who served in Vietnam. He grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He comes form a lineage of combat-seasoned veterans. His grandfather served in WWII, and his father served in WWI. He’s considered himself an artist for about thirty years. But how did this combat seasoned hard ass Army Veteran become the gentle artist I know today?

As a boy, he grew up hearing his father’s war stories around the campfire. His father fought the Japanese in the South Pacific during WWII, “he had Japanese lead in him. His right shoulder was still carrying it. His legs were shot up by machine guns,” says salaS, “he was also struck in the forehead from a butt end of a Jap rifle, so he had a silver plate in his skull .” I asked him about his grandfather, and he tells me, “I didn’t listen too much to his stories he was very quiet about it, but he was full of mustard gas and other things from WWI.” His father was different, “he was a very proud to have served soldier and very mean.” I was surprised to learn that salaS’s father was a white bigot because, well, George looks like his mother; Hispanic. His father was of German descent, and salaS tells me, “as soon as he got a drink in him he hated Mexicans, Catholics, and everybody else and it was due to his illness.” George Herman goes by George salaS, his mother’s maiden name. SalaS tells me that his father would say, when questioned about bigotry, “I'm not prejudiced I just hate everyone equally.” His father was an abusive alcoholic, a trait which salaS, I am sorry to tell you, also possessed.

George salaS christmas sculpturesAs a boy, salaS would sneak drinks from his father’s stores and refill the bottles with water so he wouldn’t get caught. It’s an endearing quality to think of in a young lad, the daring of it. Unfortunately, it didn’t bode well for his future, “I can honestly say I was a full blown alcoholic before graduating high school.”

When George salaS was in high school, it was the 60’s, “It was like a football score. We lost 20 men they lost two thousand. It was nothing but propaganda from the news media and my yearning for experience in life lead me towards that.” He joined at 22, soon after graduating from high school and after a semester in Silver City, “I joined the military the spring of ’67, and after basic training, I spent 19 months in West Germany. In ’68 they took a lot of our troops out to Vietnam, and I was called in what was called a quick levy. You got 48 hours to clear post and report to Vietnam. I went from Germany to Vietnam almost overnight.” He spent a year in Vietnam, in combat.

self portrait by George salaS detail After he returned, so did the drinking, “I was a pretty mean drunk when I got back from Vietnam. I was nasty to my first wife and my kids, and I had to change.” Times were hard. He had no income and owed child support. He worked in the semiconductor business, in a machine shop as a maintenance welder, for more than eleven years. He had been seeing psychologists at the VA for help as well, but it wasn’t until around 1982 that the VA Hospital recognized PTSD as a treatable disease. Before that the symptoms were labeled “shell shock” and “combat fatigue” and weren’t taken seriously. SalaS was selected by the VA Hosptial to be part of a startup group for a study on PTSD. He soon began getting treatment for PTSD through the VA, and things in his life took a turn for the better.

“I have so much to be thankful for,” says salaS, “my AA program through the alcoholism and my PTSD program with the VA. My artistic endeavors just in general. Nineteen years ago I started a program called the NMVA. I worked there for seven years and then turned it over as a rotating president, and they’re still rotating, catering to the artistic needs of veterans of all ages and of all military service.”

george salaS workstationGoerge salaS says of his time in Vietnam, “It was a million dollar experience that I wouldn’t give a dime for today.” But he believes that serving his country was the right thing to do and says he’d do it all over again, “If it wasn’t for that conflict, police-action government, there would be no taring down of the wall there between East and West Germany. There’s a lot of chain of events that occurred because of the conflict.” His relationship with his father also paid the price during his time in service. The protests and media coverage that went on during the war lead his father to refuse to accept salaS as a fellow veteran. When he returned, his father referred to him as a “baby killer” and said that the Vietnam war was just a “Boyscout movement.” Having been ingrained with his father’s pride for service in the military, it was a hard blow.

Heroes cross by George salaSSalaS explains, “We were doing the right thing at the time. I disagree with some of the military actions individuals had taken upon themselves and become the bad guys in destroying the civilian population. I am convinced that had the pot-heads and the politicians stayed out of it, it could have been a clean war.” Regardless of your notions of what a “clean war” would be, George salaS has made a goal of actively seeking peace in his life since that time.

He recently stayed in a little town in Mexico, San Miguel Allende. He describes his visit to me. He was in a tiny hotel room in this city that was filled with churches. The main Cathedral has a bell probably four feet in diameter. Every morning he awoke to the sound of the bells, that giant bell in the main Cathedral followed by the echoes of smaller bells from all the other churches. They’d set off fireworks to wake the Heavens. He stayed for twelve days.

He tells me about his Sundays. Every Sunday he goes to mass, not because he’s religious, but because he has befriended a priest, “He chose the path of the cloth, and I chose the path of drinking,” says salaS. It was this priest who brought him into the AA meetings to get help with his alcoholism. SalaS also studies with our beloved local art teacher, Ricardo Chavez-Mendez. Ricardo opens his home to the Orthodox Nuns every other Sunday, and salaS attends mass there as well. SalaS considers himself to be spiritual, but not religious. He does not believe in the kind of God described in the Bible and says that after the war he knew that kind of God didn’t exist. But he believes in a power higher than himself and outside of himself and he believes in the effects of prayer.

George salaS SculptureSalaS explains, “My sister had a horse coral in the backyard of the home I’m living in. For years that corner post was my god. I would pray to that piece of wood for peace. A prayer could be just a thought, ‘thank you’ is a thought but it’s a prayer. Inner peace, even mine, I found it through that.” I imagine George in his backyard talking to a wooden post. I remember the feeling I had when I was in his backyard surrounded by the Kokopelli sculptures and their dancing shadows. SalaS continues, “living under turmoil ... you’ve got this anger burning up here, and all that is is a festering puss that’s infecting your inner life. By mentally controlling this puss disease you benefit your longevity. I finally believe that. It’s nothing that I was taught. It’s nothing a bearded character in the sky has taught me. It’s a belief I’ve come to through life’s experience. Take care of yourself mentally, and the mental will take care of yourself physically.”

self portrait by George salaSOver the years, Goerge salaS has received several prestigious awards for his art making from his peers. The awards are important to him, “They’re important because my peers recognized me as an artist. We’re always mentally saying, ‘No I’m not worthy.’ But to have your peer nominate you for something is telling me those peers, fellow artists, recognized something in me I didn’t recognize.” He smiles and says, “Isn’t it strange how we’re our own worst critics?” He shakes his head and tells me, “Imagine where I would be if I would get myself out of the way. Where would you be if you could get yourself out of the way?” I smiled at him, nodding at the thought.

“Hey there fence post,” SalaS says smiling, “I’m in my way. Handle it. I’ll see you later fence post.”

George salaS is the featured veteran artist in the Face-Palm Patriots exhibition. His work will hang from November 5th, 2017 - January 5th, 2018. 40% of original fine art sales will be donated to Heroes Walk Among Us, an organization working to get homeless vets off the streets and help veterans improve their lives. You can come and see his work at 104 4th St NW, Albuquerque NM, 87102. Gallery hours are Tuesday - Saturday from 1 pm - 5 pm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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