Exhibition channels the living history of veterans

Students have used art to reflect the war and post-war experiences of Vietnam veterans, writes Pascal Adolphe.

15 April 2021
A young girl and a war veteran stand either side of a panel of artworks and photographs.
Image: Living history: Ruth Blanco Pastrana shares her artwork with muse Vin Cosgrove.

Hilltop Road Public School Class of 2020 students have used the living history of Vietnam veterans as their muse to produce powerful artworks.

The Valuing Our History exhibition is now on show in the foyer of NSW Education’s head office in Parramatta.

At the recent exhibition opening, Deputy Secretary School Operations and Performance Murat Dizdar said these “powerful pieces” reflected some of the stories “we need to respect and keep alive”.

“These are the experiences of real people and real events in history; not from a text book,” Mr Dizdar said.

Mr Dizdar said he “got teary” reading the stories behind the artworks.

“I’m a big advocate that Australia is a nation of stories; so many powerful stories like those of our people – teachers and non-teaching staff – who have served in war,” he said.

The exhibition was the result of creative collaboration between the students and the Merrylands RSL sub-branch members following a visit to the school by Vietnam veteran and retired primary school principal, Vin Cosgrove.

Over the past 10 years Hilltop Road Public School had fostered a relationship with the Merrylands RSL and the sub-branch through various initiatives, special events and projects.

Mr Cosgrove and his wife Nancy have spent the past 17 years volunteering to talk to high school students about Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war. In that time, they had delivered 970 presentations to around 80,000 students.

Last year, they seized on an opportunity to deliver their presentation to the senior primary students at Hilltop Road.

“I was blown away by the thoughtful questions from the Year 6 students there,” Mr Cosgrove said.

The Valuing Our History project emerged calling on the students initially to undertake ethics training and learning around how to conduct an interview.

They were then able to interview veterans and service men and women, and the interviews prompted the idea for artworks reflecting their stories.

Mr Cosgrove said he was equally “blown away” by the maturity displayed by the artworks.

His story is featured in a digital artwork dubbed Agent Orange by student Ruth Blanco Pastrana.

Ruth, who is now in Year 7 at Greystanes High School, said after listening to Mr Cosgrove’s interview, she wanted to raise awareness of Agent Orange, “the nasty, horrid and dangerous poison that was used to clear forests during the Vietnam War”.

“When I found out it causes so many really serious health issues like cancer, leukaemia and genetic deformities, it made me more passionate about spreading awareness of Agent Orange and maybe the change I can make to help people through it,” Ruth said.

Carly Thorpe’s artwork, Mates in Training - a painting that depicts two soldiers doing rope training on a river - was inspired by the story of World War II veteran, 97-year-old Charles Munnery.

“In his interview, Charles spoke about their jungle training where a non-swimmer in the river was being helped by a mate climbing across a rope above the river. They have to trust each other,” Carly said.

“Mr Munnery tried to explain for us the importance of trust and friendship. Mateship is about putting your life on the line for someone else. That was really inspiring.”

The Valuing Our History exhibition was initially shown at Merrylands RSL.

However Mr Cosgrove believed it deserved of a wider audience and the Department of Education office came immediately to mind.

“The artworks being so fantastic, it deserved to be displayed in head office,” he said.

The works will be on display at NSW Education head office in Parramatta until after Anzac Day. For more information visit the Valuing Our History project website.

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