Artist's Exhibit Reflects On Loss Of Uncle He Never Knew (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Artist's Exhibit Reflects On Loss of Uncle He Never Knew

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
This next story is about another man who lost a family member in a time of war, but unlike Dan Sullivan, who we just heard from, Benjamin Bellas never actually met that family member, an uncle named Richard Hunt. Hunt mysteriously disappeared while serving in Vietnam. That was ten years before Bellas was born, but that lack of a direct relationship doesn't mean Bellas hasn't felt a sense of loss over his uncle's death.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:30
Bellas is now an artist. And in a new exhibit, "Losing Something You Never Had" he digs through maps, slides and his uncles old uniforms to explore that loss. Emily Berman has more.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

00:00:44
If you walk into Chinatown's Flashpoint Gallery at just the right moment the back wall will be illuminated with bright blue waves and a seagull flying low over the ocean's surface. This slide was taken by Benjamin Bellas's uncle, Richard Hunt. It's timed to project once every 23 minutes. Hunt was 23 when he was last seen alive. In 1966, Hunt was on a top-secret mission, flying over the South China Sea toward Vietnam. It was a routine mission, until suddenly, it wasn't.

MR. BENJAMIN BELLAS

00:01:20
The plane runs into some type of mechanical failure, they believe, and starts to drop altitude rapidly.

BERMAN

00:01:25
The pilot signals for everyone to check their parachutes and jump.

BELLAS

00:01:29
My uncle and three other crew mates did that. They bailed out of the plane into the South China Sea.

BERMAN

00:01:34
Immediately, the Navy began a search and rescue operation. They found one soldier's body and a life vest, but that was it.

BELLAS

00:01:42
Basically, vanished. And for the longest time that's all the more details the family had. Uncle Richard was lost at sea.

BERMAN

00:01:52
Now, nearly 50 years later, Benjamin Bellas is using visual art to explore what's known about his uncle's disappearance and what's not. Some of the pieces of art are made using his uncle's belongings, like this standard issue pea coat that Hunt got when he enlisted. It's sitting upright on the floor, filled out by bunched-up paper, but not just scrap paper. It's stuffed with the article that ran in the newspaper after he went missing.

BELLAS

00:02:20
When you lose someone like that and at a young age, you lose not only your uncle, but you lose, you know, an aunt. You lose cousins. I mean it's kind of exponential, right, on down -- you lose an entire branch of your family that you will never know.

BERMAN

00:02:36
The exhibit also includes a copy of Hunt's flight log, a branch cut from a tree and a small wooden camel he sent home to his family from abroad. Bellas says he's interested in how context changes the way we seen an object. When we look at the flight log, he says, suddenly we notice all the empty space below the last flight. Sure, it's just a page in a notebook, but it's also fraught with emotion.

BERMAN

00:03:07
Just down the gallery wall, a grainy video plays on a small screen. This is the voice of Richard Hunt. Not his uncle, a different Richard Hunt, one who toured Vietnam and produced a video all about his trip. It came up in an online search so Bellas ordered a copy.

BELLAS

00:03:24
You know, for an ordinary individual watching this video with no sort of relationship to this story or this history, it's simply what it is. This kind of tour of Vietnam and the sights and the sounds and the tastes and those types of things, but for an individual with my history and my context, when I watch this it resonates very differently.

BERMAN

00:03:43
Not only did Bellas's uncle disappear during the war, but also 20 years later, when the Vietnam War Memorial was unveiled, his name wasn't on it.

BELLAS

00:03:51
So he was even further disappeared from the record.

BERMAN

00:03:54
Bellas's sister took up the cause. She worked for a year and a half to have Richard Hunt's name added.

BELLAS

00:04:00
Essentially, what happened is that it was a clerical error. The flight that he was on was on had been recorded as an operational flight, when in fact it was a combat flight. They got the code wrong.

BERMAN

00:04:10
His name was added this past May. And in a nod to that memorial, Bellas created his largest piece in the Flashpoint exhibit -- a giant blue rectangle.

BELLAS

00:04:20
Thirty-five feet long by about 42 inches tall.

BERMAN

00:04:25
It takes up the entire gallery wall and mimics the scale and shape of the Vietnam Memorial. Only this wall is blank.

BELLAS

00:04:34
Within the incident report, they specified the point in longitude and latitude where it was he bailed out from the aircraft. And so I took those coordinates and placed them in Google maps and it located that point on the map. And then I zoomed in as far as I could zoom in and took a screenshot of that.

BERMAN

00:04:52
There's nothing there now, Bellas explains, but it's easy to imagine what might have been there the day Hunt disappeared. And in that way, the plain blue rectangle is a canvas for the viewer's imagination. Leaving us to create stories, draw personal associations and like Bellas, lose something we never had. I’m Emily Berman.

SHEIR

00:05:19
"Losing Something You Never Had" runs through December 21 at Flashpoint Gallery, in northwest D.C.
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