Protest pieces

The Baltimore Sun

Making art is often a solitary pursuit.

But George J.E. Sakkal of Ellicott City said he was particularly alone five years ago when he started using his collages to explore what he saw as a war based on "lies and deceit" in Iraq. At that time, he was told that he was unpatriotic.

"It's very difficult to be by yourself ... when you know so strongly that you are right," he said.

Today it is a relief and a source of pride that his exhibit of complex, symbolic collages - titled The Art of War: Decisions from the First Year - has found acceptance from audiences and been reinforced by other critics of U.S. policy in Iraq, Sakkal said.

He said in his artist statement that he is not concerned with images of war, per se.

"I focus my presentation on a visual interpretation of the decisions that took us to war and the decisions that were made in its management and conduct," he said.

The exhibit will be on display in the Columbia Art Center Galleries through Nov. 16.

Sakkal, 66, who teaches at the art center and at Howard Community College, has been exploring his approach to collage for more than three decades.

His works use thousands of bits of paper chosen for their color, texture and structure, and put together to make complex, original compositions that do not reflect the source material.

From across the room, the finished collages resemble sprawling architectural structures against bits of sky. Closer up, the individual pieces of paper become clearer, including some specific shapes and images - people, flags, words - that reinforce the message of the work.

"The work is not something you can see the first time," he said. "You will not get bored with them. Each time you will see something you haven't seen before."

He calls his style "obsessive visuality" and explains that it stands in contrast to the current trend toward minimalism in art.

"I'm trying to get people to understand that collage has an entire area that has yet to be discovered. ... You cannot achieve these kinds of results in paint."

It is a departure from popular art styles as well in its embrace of intuition and not just cognition, he said.

For 95 percent of his pieces, he said, he has no idea what they will be about when he starts. Each one begins by laying down a foundation of colors and shapes directed by his feelings.

About two-thirds of the way through the process, he said, he will look at what he has, determine what it is trying to say, and then add the elements that will make the theme more concrete.

The war in Iraq is a topic with personal significance.

An architect by training, Sakkal spent five years working in Iran for the Peace Corps in the 1960s. He is of Syrian descent and learned that his grandfather was likely killed by the Baath party after helping his family escape Syria amid persecution of Catholics.

He said his understanding of the people and customs of the region led him early on to worry about the repercussions of a pre-emptive war in Iraq. Since then, he has followed the issues closely and been distressed by the outcome of U.S. actions there.

He said art is a useful way to explore these issues.

"You have to read a book," he said. "Art is visual and it's immediate. When you stand in front of it, it hits you. ... It immortalizes a moment in time, and it's available for generation after generation to see."

The show, which is intended to travel as a whole, has been displayed twice before. Sakkal said he was not satisfied with previous efforts to put those exhibits together.

"I decided I'm going to get it curated my way," he said.

The exhibit includes digitally enlarged giclee prints beside the original works that make the tiny details easier to study.

The collages are accompanied by printed descriptions that discuss not only the art but also the historical context and the political events that each piece draws upon. Next to the works, on pedestals, stand books on the Iraq invasion and related topics that Sakkal has found informative.

The exhibit includes five new collages, completed within the past 18 months, that focus on the repercussions of war in the United States. The themes include the environment, the nation's infrastructure and the mortgage housing crisis.

Sakkal "represents a unique style," said Liz Henzey, director of the Columbia Art Center.

"He draws upon his artistic expertise to use his art as an outlet. ... He desires to educate the viewer and provoke them," she said.

The center tries to offer artists opportunities to explore a range of topics, Henzey said, from the lighthearted to the serious.

Sakkal's exhibit "feels like a very timely show given that we have a critical election coming up," she said.

The Columbia Art Center Galleries are at 6100 Foreland Garth in the Long Reach Village Center. The exhibit is free. Information: 410-730-0075 or

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