Art helps former soldier overcome horrors of Yugoslav wars

In October 1998, Robert Bradley held a dying man in Bosnia with one hand and a radio in the other, begging a military operations centre to airlift him to a hospital.

No help came because the dying man was a civilian. With no other option, Bradley drove him to the nearest hospital, 40 minutes away, where he eventually died.

To cope with the painful remembrance almost 20 years later, the former soldier has entombed the memory inside a sculpture, now one of 14 artworks on display at the Fritzi Gallery in Ottawa.

"The top half of the sculpture, that is me. I have no mouth, so I cannot speak, I'm holding a radio [in] my left hand and I'm holding my face on the right with my eyes closed," he told CBC Radio's All in a Day​.

"The whole process has been very hard [and] emotional."

Painting away the pain

Bradley, 51, pursued art therapy after he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in May 2012. After 28 years of military service, he's a now a student at the Ottawa School of Art.

His exhibition, called V is for Veteran, showcases his experience as a soldier and the realities of war through sculptures, paintings and prints.

"It was a great distraction from my reality, when I paint and sculpt," Bradley said. "I kind of focus on what I'm doing. I'm not stressed about anything else; I'm just in a really nice place and producing something that expresses what I feel."

Bradley was sent on several missions around the world, and his most painful memories are of the wars in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Each of his sculptures at the Fritzi Gallery provide a snapshot of that period in his life.

Next to many of the art pieces, Bradley, who grew up in Newfoundland, has included journal excerpts detailing the memories that inspired them. Many of the descriptions are of destruction and darkness.

Memories of war

Bradley's sculptures incorporate the realities of war in a physical sense, too. Several encase pieces of jagged shrapnel he collected on beaches in Germany where he was once based.

"I use real shrapnel to show the reality of war through its jaggedly sharp steel intended to violently tear its targets apart," he wrote next to one of his marble sculptures. "From past to recent conflicts, it's the shrapnel projectile that has maintained its presence."

Bradley said he wanted to do something different for the exhibition, rather than create "just another sculpture of a soldier."

His favourite painting is of a village depicting a crisp blue sky and subtle odes to war — broken lights and holes inside the walls of buildings and homes.

"It shows the level of destruction and what people had to live in in their daily lives," Bradley said.

"There was not a house that was not touched by shrapnel or bullets, and the beauty of the town was destroyed. But there is also a beauty and a rawness in what was remaining as well."

V is for Veteran runs at the Fritzi Gallery until April 22.