War Veteran’s Art Seeks To Make Connections, Change Perceptions

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Photo: Identification Please 1 | Mark Fitzsimmons - SWolf
Denver interdisciplinary artist Mark Fitzsimmons walked more than nine miles, with a weighted American flag, on April 13, 2018 for his performance art piece titled “Identification Please (Flag Piece).”

Veteran Mark Fitzsimmons say he’s become accustomed to people thanking him for his military service. But for a time, especially when he first got back from being posted overseas, he had a hard time with it.

"You're desperately trying to communicate with a community, to reconnect,” Fitzsimmons says. “But the moment somebody said thank you so much for your service, it became isolating."

Fitzsimmons joined the United States Army in 2007 as a medic, and was honorably discharged in 2014 after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s wrestled with being a veteran, saying it can “be a burden.” These struggles with his identity often show up in his art and his latest work is no exception.

Last week, he walked nearly 13 miles through Denver and Lakewood for his performance art piece called "Identification Please (Flag Piece)." For the bulk of that time, he had a 43-pound American flag -- he sewed iron-sand weights into the flag’s red stripes -- draped around his shoulders to signify the heaviness he feels as a veteran. Fitzsimmons describes the work as a meditation on public perceptions of veterans and war, and his responsibility to adhere to those.

Stephanie Wolf/CPR News

Interview Highlights

On where this burden comes from:

"The war I was fighting was to try and save lives. I wasn't too worried about what side those lives were on because, when it comes down to it, no matter where you're at on the planet, you're a victim of war. Even the guys I was working with and serving with, as much as they believed in what they were doing -- and they were righteous in their belief -- that doesn't mean that I approved of the idea that war was the right answer."

On if his art offended anyone:

"I have good assumptions [that some people were offended]. I know that before I did the walk, before I hung the fall and let it rest on the ground, one veteran just kind of walked away from me, when I said what I was going to do. Oddly enough, when I got to the [Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design] campus, is when I started noticing the dirty looks. I think some people feel that a symbol needs defending more than the idea."

On the story behind the name of the work:

"When I think about the division in our country know, people want to know where you stand [on something]. But the reality is everything is more nuanced. Like people will hear me say being a veteran is a burden. In reality, it is a burden. But it's a burden that I proudly carry... So there's much more nuance there. But we don't seem to have much nuance in our national discourse right now."

“Identification Please (Flag Piece),” which was Fitzsimmons’ senior thesis for Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, culminated outside the school. He flew the weighted flag upside down up a flagpole he built. The resulting sculpture, along with a video of the walk, will be on view at Philip J. Steele Gallery in Lakewood.