Josh Zeis:

Return, 2016

documentary material from public art performance (9 photographs by Mark Anthony, rucksack, boots)
courtesy of the artist


“Fargo Vet Uses Art to Unpack the Horrors of War,” Minnesota Public Radio

“[re]livingThe Art of Warfare,” Tracy Nicholson, Midwest Nest

On June 9, 2016, Fargo-based artist and Iraq War veteran Josh Zeis strapped on a 100-pound block of sculpted ice within the rucksack he carried while he was in combat. With this cargo on his back, Zeis retraced, through 90-degree heat, the 20 miles he traveled throughout the day he learned he was going to war – from his apartment, to the National Guard armory, and to his sister’s house. While the melting block of ice approximated the weight of the rucksack he carried as a medic in a unit that searched for roadside bombs, its presence signified the weight of the memories veterans carry with them when they return home.

“After a few miles I came to realize that the more I focused on sharing my story, the less I noticed the weight. I was drawn to enact this performance mostly because while deployed, my thoughts regularly went to where I found myself standing in a sunflower field after a panic. It was on that route, on that day, and I’m looking around at the vast, open nothingness of the land. My feet and my hands were covered in mud and clay and somehow I felt the embrace of the land. The fear and dread quickly faded away.”

What remains from this performance – photographs, the backpack frame, Zeis’s boots – stands as evidence of individual experience, but also of the need to honor and sit with these shared experiences of combat and military service, and to sculpt these lessons into a material form. Born in Langdon, North Dakota, Zeis’s military service and the art he has crafted in response to those experiences underscores the outsized role of rural America in the armed forces: 24% percent of veterans live in rural areas, and 19% of the Native American population has served in the military. Beyond this piece, Zeis has offered his ceramics practice as a vehicle to cope, share, and build community among fellow veterans. This important work has been recognized by National Endowment for the Humanities, through the Project Unpack: Telling Stories, Creating Community initiative with North Dakota State University. In speaking with Midwest Nest Magazine, Zeis recalled the importance of his initial encounter with ceramics while serving in Iraq:

“After one of our phone calls, [my brother Zach] decided to send me some North Dakota clay that had been donated to his class by Hebron Brick. It came in a parcel package and black garbage bag; it was a block that weighed around 15 pounds. I’d never done anything with clay before. I remember when I opened it, I knew what it was and the meaning behind it. Coming from a farm family, having a tie to the land, and Zach mailing a piece of that to me - it was an amazing thing and really comforted me.”

In addition to his ceramics work, Zeis is co-owner of Mothership Workshop, an art and furniture design studio that creates pieces primarily from concrete. Zeis is an instructor at North Dakota State University and Plains Art Museum. As an artist, he has participated in exhibitions, residencies, and workshops throughout the United States.

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