For young artists, support is crucial. Children look to parents and teachers to provide the reassurance needed to go forward and confidently pursue their chosen craft. If you are painter Elizabeth Boutin, though, that support can come from a somewhat unexpected place.
“There were these contests in the TV Guide where you tried to recreate a particular drawing, and there was one of a cartoon turtle [named Tippy] that I decided to enter,” says the 51-year-old Bellevue resident of her formative artistic experience. “A few weeks later I got a typed letter back saying that I hadn’t won, but that I should continue practicing and consider attending art school.”
It’s an unusual start for an artist whose work focuses on the inner turmoil of military veterans and the horrors of war, but for Boutin, it was just the vote of confidence she needed.
Already an avid drawer from spending time with her artistically gifted grandmother (“she used to make doodles whenever I came over”), Boutin took that TV Guide letter to heart and ended up enrolling at North Idaho College in fall 1986. The experience only lasted a year before life got in the way.
She married a military man and spent the next 25 years hopping from base to base, raising three children in the process. Though she was not regularly painting during this time, the frequent travel was a source of inspiration both in subject matter and style, especially when the family was stationed in Ramstein, Germany, from 2003 to 2006. This gave her the chance to visit some of Europe’s iconic museums, including the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay.
It was during this time that Boutin started volunteering for the Red Cross at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center during the height of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. “I was helping with basic necessity—changing sheets, serving lunch, and, occasionally, I would help change Band-Aids,” Boutin says. “I learned about the treatment of a lot of these injuries…and I also listened to their stories.”
It was here that Boutin experienced firsthand the damage that war can inflict on both the mind and body.
“My first moment of real shock happened during my first month,” Boutin says. “I walk into one of the rooms and greeted the people in there with a pleasant ‘hello, how are we doing?’ and one of the men there goes ‘how do you think’ and throws his blanket up and his leg is split open from the top of his thigh down to his knee. The whole thing was stuffed with gauze and there was this knock-you-on-your-knees smell.”
To cope with the experience of being surrounded by so many wounded souls, she started writing her experiences down in a journal, using as much detail as possible. “I wrote down everything except their [the soldiers’] names because I wanted to respect their privacy. I can still picture all of their faces plain as day.”
Those memories stuck with Boutin, but she never acted on them until a family friend from the Army committed suicide.
“That was rough,” she says. “It’s still rough.”
At that point, Boutin and her family had relocated to Bellevue, as her husband was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base. She was also taking classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to get her bachelor’s degree in fine arts and was looking to branch out from the traditional still lifes she was painting at the time.
“I hated talking about this subject matter [mental health] in the past, but it seemed so pertinent at the time,” Boutin says. “I brought up it up to my professor and said ‘I kind of want to do this, but I’m not sure that I should’ and she just looked at me without hesitation and said ‘go for it.’” Boutin has been working on the resulting series of paintings, Effects of PTSD, ever since.
The series’ symbolism is about as on-the-nose as it gets: dog tags draped atop bottles of pills and vodka, a soldier slumped against a wall surrounded by words such as “suffocating” and “alone,” and skulls placed alongside Desert Eagles and war medals. It’s dark, and Boutin realizes the heavy subject matter might be the reason she is not able to book more public showings.
Those who get the chance to see Boutin’s work in person, especially those in the military, are incredibly moved. Boutin says she has had several people break down and cry while looking at her work, telling her that it accurately captures their struggles.
It’s also allowed Boutin to deal with struggles of her own, helping her cope with the loss of her friend and the things she saw while volunteering in Ramstein. This year, she began dipping into her journals from her Red Cross days, using the words to accompany her images. “I’m finally starting to express these stories from my journal on canvas,” Boutin says. “I look at it as a form of art therapy, as a way to process it all.”
She makes it clear, though, that this project has always been about more than herself. “We have these guys and girls going out on the line for us and we need to take care of them once they get home,” she says. “It took me a long time to realize that’s what I wanted to say with my work.” As the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race.
Visit elizabethboutin.com for more information.
This article was printed in the November/December 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.