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Ink Stories: Symbols of Service returns to honor veterans at The Firefly Artists

Opinion / Letters by: Guest writer Kathryn Heaviside, November 11, 2022

An image of Ink Stories: Symbols of Service, now on view at The Firefly Artists through November 13. Photo courtesy of The Firefly Artists.

In November 2019, the Northport-East Northport Public Library (NENPL) honored local veterans with a unique art project. Inspired by WarInk, an organization that tells veterans’ stories through their tattoos, the exhibit hung in the two library buildings for one month, and in that time hundreds of community members visited, viewed and were moved by the recollections of the veterans. Kathryn Heaviside, NENPL Community Services Librarian, took the lead on the project, creating a logo and designing and framing posters that displayed each veteran’s branch of service, story and photos. Other library employees used their time, talent and library resources to fully accomplish the project at minimal costs.

“Ink Stories: Symbols of Service” is currently on display through November 13 at The Firefly Artists at 90 Main Street in Northport Village. Below Ms. Heaviside details in her own words how the project came about, and its deeper meanings to the entire community.

This project was over a year in the making. The team’s goal was to ask military veterans on Long Island to share their stories. Knowing how difficult it is for some veterans and active service members to share their military service experiences, we felt the idea had to be unique and interesting enough for them to want to participate. We conceived the idea of veterans telling us about their military-inspired tattoos. After presenting the idea to library administrators, we came up with a timeline on how the project would be accomplished.

We contacted a friend [Chris Cordone of Foxlight Studios] who is a wedding and sports photographer and told him about the project. He signed on at no cost to the Library. We had a total of five photo sessions over the course of five months and photographed 34 veterans. When the veterans came in for their photo session they filled out a questionnaire about what inspired their military tattoo(s). The team gathered the information and photos and moved to the graphic design phase.

I designed and framed posters that were 24” x 36” that displayed their branch of service, their story, and the photos. Many service members and veterans get tattoo(s) relating to their service time in the branch(es) into which they enlisted or were drafted. Whether it is while they were in boot camp, traveling from port to port, or when they came home, they have amazing stories to tell about their service and the tattoos they received.

Prior to the photo session, we contacted numerous community groups including veterans associations, locally-owned veteran businesses, the American Legion, Rotary groups, police departments, fire departments, Veterans Hospital, recruiting offices, local officials – in total over 170 community members from across Long Island. The act of reaching out and contacting organizations regarding this unique project was an opportunity to highlight the relationship of libraries to the community and visualize libraries in their role of uniting a community, recognizing heroes, and demonstrating artistic value. The end result was this amazing opportunity for veterans to open up about their experiences; it became personal. Many expressed their profound appreciation for the opportunity to talk about their experiences and how proud they were of time served.

On November 8 [2019], we had a reception to honor the veterans who participated in the project. We opened the library art gallery to the public and received rave reviews. The exhibit hung in our two library buildings for one month, and in that time hundreds of community members came through and learned about these proud veterans. We printed two sets of the posters and the veterans each received a copy of their own portrait after the exhibit was over. Our goal was, after it was exhibited at our library, one framed print would be given to the veteran and the other would remain as part of a traveling exhibit to other libraries and organizations.

Before the exhibit ended, I received an email from the Paramount theater, a venue in Huntington Village, asking if they could borrow the exhibit and hang it in their gallery called Spotlight. They had a beautiful space where the pieces were displayed for a month. During the month they had events that honored veterans including bands with military veteran members and a story hour session where veterans came and shared their experiences. More than 200 people came to the reception with hundreds more visiting during the month. The Paramount did their own marketing, and it was at no cost to the Library.

This creative, unique project was an absolute honor to do and implement.