Area vet finds therapy in sculptures
Casting. Carving. Hammering. Modeling.
As his tools strike the brass, metal on metal, area multimedia sculptor Bill Stronach loses track of time and place. It's a welcome relief for Stronach, permanently disabled, due to malaria complications and post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in Vietnam.
"Once you kill people, it changes you," he said. "You can't say it doesn't."
Stronach, who has retired to a secure gated community at the base of the mountain near Lenoir ("It's so quiet out here. This is what I need."), spends his days in his basement studio, working through a difficult life with the twist of a torch.
He spends his evenings with his family, wife Susan and his two dogs. His children, Natalie and William, have both grown up, leaving the security of the log cabin for college at UNC-Charlotte and N.C. State, respectively.
It's a time when others his age are settling into the relaxation of retirement, quiet golf games and long fishing trips. For Stronach, it's his chance for therapy, for a cure. And it's been a long time coming.
"I didn't start out crazy," he joked.
And despite what he'll tell you, he's not crazy now. It's evident in the careful way he presents himself, even though there's clearly something troubling in his past.
Stronach grew up in Anaheim, Calif. His father worked in parks and recreation, alongside the legendary Walt Disney himself.
"Every time we'd go to Disneyland, his personal secretary would be our guide, and I thought I was somebody," he said.
It was in Anaheim that his love of art began to shine through.
"Everything was abstract in our house," he said.
In the '60s, Stronach's family moved back to the place of his father's birth, Avery County, and Stronach was set, never straying far from the mountains of North Carolina. Never, that is, until a misstep while attending Lees-McRae College for a business degree.
"I was within two weeks of graduation ... and we had a frat party, and I got thrown out, which put me a semester behind my class, and I got drafted," he said.
Two years of Army infantry reconnaissance followed, including 13 months in combat, and his world changed forever.
"People hated you back then," Susan Stronach said. "It's not like you came home welcomed."
It's hard for her husband to talk about and, until recently, the war and what followed simply wasn't discussed. After all, in those days, there was no formal therapy.
"Post-traumatic stress disorder didn't exist until 1982," Stronach said. "They didn't recognize it. It was nothing ... but you send a man 18-years-old into combat, and he comes back a whole different person.
And he has advice for new members of the club no soldier wants to join: PTSD victims.
"You're OK ... it's natural," he said forcefully.
Watching the news today, he sees parallels, what he calls "kids" going to war, and repeatedly he offers himself as a resource. After all, he's been there. And people who haven't? Well, they just can't understand.
"I've got ghosts ... I hate war. You ask any veteran," he said. "I'm glad that what I went through had an effect on me, or else I'd be plastic ... but there's no way in the world you can kill somebody 10 feet away and look at him eyeball to eyeball and you're not going to carry it with you ... that's something people don't realize ... you don't get away with it. If you take a life, it doesn't go away."
War, he'll tell you, takes the soldier out of "what life is supposed to be like," a place with rules and morality, and shoots them (literally) into hell.
"How do you prepare a kid in 10 weeks basic training for that?" he asks, "We're stupid. We're the worst students of history in the world. That's why you study history, so you don't repeat yourself ... we haven't learned our lessons. War always boils down to one guy in a hole there, facing another guy in a hole there. I don't care what kind of bombs and other things you've got."
And, if you return, the hell doesn't stop.
That's why Stronach carves.
"It's my therapy," he said. "If I never sold another piece in my life, I'd be down there working."
The war is never far from his mind.
At the entrance to his studio is a glass cabinet, host to war memorabilia, medals, photographs. Next to the door hangs an Army green pack, adorned with machine gun rounds. It's the same equipment he walked with through the jungle all those decades ago, and it has its place. Stronach compares it to the yin to his artwork's yang, one can't exist without the other.
"It's a tribute to all my friends," he said. "It's part of me."
Since Vietnam, Stronach (who did end up graduating with a degree in industrial arts) has done everything from own a jewelry store in Boone to operating a trout farm to being the color lab director at a furniture design company (and some interesting stories in-between). The mountains have helped him keep his sanity. "They're quiet," he said.
But his artwork is what keeps him from the brink, through PTSD, his wife's cancer (she's been cancer-free for six years) and all of life's smaller turmoils.
"I'd go out there and carve," he said. "I'd go out there and didn't have anything on my mind, I just wanted to carve away. It's a culmination of my feelings and emotions through that period of my life. Sometimes I start up with a definite figure in my mind. Sometimes it's a seed. Sometimes it ends up being a semblance. You start putting pieces together."
While he sticks to the abstract, he does it through endless media.
"I've got multiple personalities, which means I'm a metalsmith. I can cast. If a hammer makes me mad enough, I can melt it down with a plasma cutter," he joked.
Standing with his plasma cutter, there's nothing he can't control.
"It's the coolest thing," he said. "I can cut anything. I can cut your car up in 20 minutes."
And his "therapy" has dazzled art critics across the region. His pieces are on permanent display at the Wilson's Creek Visitor's Center, downtown in Lenoir, at the Broyhill Civic Center (a winning piece from Caldwell Visual Arts Competition) and other places throughout the High Country.
Through it all, he maintains a close relationship with the soldiers he served alongside, active in veterans' reunions and support groups. He makes it a point to speak out about his therapy. He hopes his honesty will help returning soldiers deal with their own demons.
His advice to veterans? Find your own therapy. While it may not be sculpture, there's something out there that can help you reconnect. "Find it," he said.
Stronach's work will be on display alongside paintings by Pavel "Paul" Nikitchenko at Art and Artifacts (159 Sunset Drive) in Blowing Rock. The show, sponsored by Art and Artifacts and Blowing Rock Gallery of Homes and Land is called "Two Points of View" and is part of the monthly Sunset Stroll on Sunset Drive celebration, held the evening prior to Art in the Park. The opening reception is from 5:30 to 8 p.m.
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