Saving veterans' stories one by one with a twist
Sal Strom creates videos that reflect wartime events
Sal Strom is first and foremost an artist, and she doesn't even pretend to be a writer.
"My life stories have always been in my paintings," she said.
However, Sal found herself affected by stories she heard from World War II veterans and sought a way to project the triumphs and tragedies, the hurts and heroics, the fears and ferocity of being in battle, whether on land or sea or in the air, using only the words of veterans plus images she puts together into videos.
Sal, who has quite a story of her own, was born in Wenatchee, Wash., and raised in Depoe Bay, the daughter of Gracie Strom, the owner of the Sea Hag who made herself a local landmark by "playing the bottles." (See sidebar)
Sal graduated from Taft High School and went to college sporadically, attending 13 schools in 27 years. She also received scholarships to study art in Italy and England and eventually earned a bachelor of science degree in humanities from Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., and a master of fine art degree from Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.
"I have done a lot of art residencies," Sal said of the stints that took her to several states and European countries.
Last year Sal received a professional development grant from the Regional Arts and Cultural Council to start an art/video business called "Tievoli Studios" that helps her fund her veterans' video project.
"As a multi-media artist, I use whatever medium works best to portray the feelings I want to evoke, and I work in everything but oil," said Sal, who once produced a video exhibit at the Provincetown Art Museum in Massachusetts and returned for a month every May and September when art critics would come from the Ivy League universities to critique the artists' work.
"Every single teacher said my work was political," Sal said.
A few years ago she came up with the idea of recording veterans talking about their war experiences and creating videos that subjectively hint at the powerful words being spoken. Interestingly, she does most of her interviews over the phone and not face to face.
One of her videos features a Navy seaman talking about his ship sinking in 1943, which left him in the cold water for nine hours as bodies floated upward from the sunken wreck while he waited to be rescued.
The veteran recalled that the ship looked like a Christmas tree as it went down from all the twinkling red lights that were attached to life preservers.
"And the most amazing thing is that I talked to the only other living survivor of that ship sinking, and he said exactly the same thing - that it looked like a Christmas tree," Sal said.
As the viewer listens to the seaman's voice on Sal's video, images flicker on the screen - maps, water, dancing skeletons, grainy war images, even flashes of cartoons.
"It's a collage," Sal said. "I have added up to 13 layers to make one of the collages."
Another of her veterans' videos shows an image of the Virgin Mary, a pile of body bags, words flashing on the screen and a red liquid resembling blood flowing and spattering.
"I'm a mash-up artist," Sal said. "That's what the tech guys from the Northwest Film Center, where I have taken classes, call it. I collect imagery from a wealth of sources - archival footage, the Internet and kids' museums."
But she also shoots her own videos, with one of her favorite places being the ocean and Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, where she films octopuses, jellyfish and other sea life.
"I can fill up a hard drive faster than anybody," she said. "All my images are categorized - I'm blown away by how organized I've become - but I have to be!"
Sal came by this project somewhat naturally: Her dad was a WWII pilot in the Marines, which gave her empathy for those in the various military services.
And she admits, "This project chose me. I call myself a creative cultural anthropologist. I never was a videographer - I am an artist and a painter."
A couple of incidents led Sal to this video project.
First, in 1999, she was looking for wrapping paper at her mom's house and came upon a treasure trove of letters that her dad wrote during WWII "still in their original envelopes that were sent to my mom by my aunt after Grandma died," Sal said.
"He was writing these letters to his mom as a young man. They are so graphic, and he knew there were censors reading them, but he knew what he could say and get away with."
The second influence on Sal was being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2007 that was successfully treated, "but after that, I didn't want to paint or be introspective," she said. "I reread my dad's letters after I recovered, not as a daughter but with a universal perspective. And after I talked to a friend of my dad's who had been in the war, I came up with the concept of creating abstract visuals and original videos using veterans' real dialogue."
Sal, who alternates her time between King City and Newport, first contacted the Regal Courier to find out how to reach a veteran who had been featured in the paper.
She had already contacted several other veterans featured in the Regal Courier on her own and created videos using their recorded words.
"I am actively looking for more veterans because I want to collect their stories," Sal said. "I'm interested in talking to anybody. I can meet them in person or talk to them on the phone. With today's technology, I can do it anywhere I can use a phone. I love doing this!"