The Amateur Veteran Painter: Harry Edwards and History Remember
Posted June 1, 2023
Topics: The ArtsMilitaryMuseum Collections

By: Jenna Fawcett, Human Resources Assistant

It may sound cheesy, but the thing that drew me to Ohio History Connection is connection.

I am a current Human Resources Assistant, but my educational background is in history. I spent more time in the Barbara Reynolds Memorial Archives and Quaker Heritage Center Gallery than in the classrooms of Wilmington College. As my career began to grow in a different way, I found myself at Ohio History Connection. I still get to be connected to history on a daily basis even though that isn’t my current career. Not long after I started this job in August 2021, my dad told me he had a resident who has a painting at OHC. My dad is a nurse at the Ohio Veterans Home and one of his residents, Harry Edwards, claimed to have donated a painting to OHC.

I had done many laps of the museum floor and knew if we had it, it wasn’t on display. I attempted to do a quick search in the online catalog but couldn’t find it and it soon left my mind as I focused on my work. Over a year later, at the first in-person staff meeting since the pandemic, curator Becky Odom shared with staff a recent acquisition of furniture from Thomas Worthington. She ended her session by saying that if staff are ever curious about something in the collection to reach out. This sparked my memory of Harry’s painting.

Painting on plywood by Harry Edwards

This time, I took a deeper dive in the online catalog so I could be fully prepared to ask Becky about this painting. I was able to find the entry and copied down the number. There was a tiny photo attached to the entry from when it used to be on display, but I couldn’t really make it out. I sent Becky an email with a little context about why I was interested and acknowledging that I knew it may not be possible to see it due to the building of the collections care facility where most of the history collections would be packed away and relocated to the new building when it was ready. A few days later she let me know that the painting was actually stored at the Ohio History Center and the next time she was in the building she could take me to see it.

Sure enough, a couple weeks later she let me know she could take me to see it and I walked over to a storage room I had never noticed off of the main museum floor. Before she opened the door she warned me that I wouldn’t be able to fully view it. When she opened the door, there was a huge painted piece of plywood leaned up in the corner of the room. The low quality photo in the catalog did it no justice, this thing was massive.

Detail of painting by Harry Edwards

Detail of painting by Harry Edwards

What the general public may not realize is that a very tiny percentage of our collections is ever on display at a time. They might be used in a temporary exhibit, loaned out to researchers or other institutions, or never on display. This doesn’t mean they are sat on a shelf and forgotten about. While not a historian myself, one of my favorite parts of my job is hearing about how proud everyone is of the work they do. I was almost brought to tears once over Natural History Curator Dave Dyer talking about “rescuing” a collection of insects from an abandoned loading dock.

History is remembering and retelling. The thing that struck me the hardest when speaking with Harry is how he felt forgotten about. Harry served 2 tours in Vietnam and when he came back to Columbus, remembrance and honor for those who lost their lives were high, but he felt there was nothing done for the living. He told me that he had asked the governor for a monument for living and was quoted a pretty hefty price he could not pay.

Although never an artist personally or professionally, Harry said he felt a calling from God to create a painting to honor those who survived the Vietnam conflict. That painting became this very large piece on plywood with acrylic paints. The day he went to “install” it on the grounds of the statehouse (that’s a story for another day) it poured rain and he worried that all of that work would be washed away. However some 50 years later, the painting looks like the day it was finished. After it was time for his display to come down, he found his way to the fairly new Ohio History Center that was beginning to collect Vietnam artifacts. He donated the painting and several uniforms from his service. To him, the government and public left him behind, but the history collections have cared so deeply for his painting.

In my time here I may have been able to hold a mastodon tooth and smell the gunpowder of a Civil War Battle Flag, but it will always be the stories that stick with me. I will always remember the plywood painting of a young veteran from Columbus, and so will he.

As Memorial Day just passed, let us remember those who have passed and those still with us. I think that’s the catch. Why care about Ohio history? Why care about Vietnam? Why care for a veteran? Why care for an amateur painting? To connect and remember.

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