“Reflections” has been so popular and so widely distributed around the world that many myths have taken root. Below is a story by Jim Belsaw that was published in “The VVA Veteran” March/April 2004 and accurately presents the story of the painting.
“Describing Lee Teter’s painting Reflections carries two risks. The first is inadequacy. No words can capture it. The second is redundancy. It is possible there is a Vietnam Veteran somewhere who has not seen it and been moved by it, but the likelihood is low, given the large number of prints in circulation. Nothing in the art world, save the Wall the painting depicts, has had the broad impact of Teter’s 1988 work. Nonetheless, a brief description: A man places his hand against the black granite wall. He doesn’t see names on the Wall. He sees faces. He sees a past that never leaves him.
“It was the strangest thing,” Teter said of the moment the image crystallized in his mind, well before the first brush had been dipped into paint. “When I thought of the picture, the hair raised on the back of my neck. I felt it then, and I felt it the whole time I painted it. I knew it would be powerful.”
Teter licensed the rights to VVA Chapter 172 in Cumberland, Maryland. It has been a continuing success and print sales have benefited veterans, their families, and their communities. In 1988, shortly after the painting was completed, Teter took it with his historical artwork to a black powder shoot in Virginia. He remembered the Virginia event being a “re-enactment kind of thing” at which nothing modern was supposed to be seen, but he wanted to show the painting to some friends who were Vietnam veterans.
At a slow moment during the event, he left his tent to get something to eat. When he returned, there was a long line of people standing in front of the tent. Other people were coming out of the tent. They were crying. He could see the tears running down their faces.
“I knew what happened,” he said. “Someone had put out Reflections (the original, not a print). These people coming out of the tent would immediately go and get one or two other people to stand in line, and then they’d wait again so they could see the picture with them. Back then, the black powder field had a lot of Vietnam veterans in it and they loved the painting.”
The veterans asked Teter what he intended to do with the painting. He told them VVA was going to sell prints as a fundraising tool.
“A guy said he wanted one,” Teter said. “Then another guy and another guy. Somebody got a pen and started writing down names and addresses, and before it was done, we’d sold enough prints to pay for the first printing.”
He painted Reflections early in a long, prolific career.
It was only the third oil he painted. He looks at it now, and his eyes goes to technical flaws, things he would have done differently with a more experienced eye. Teter said he has trained himself to look for such flaws in his work and in others. Each flaw corrected, he said, brings him a step closer to perfection.
“Oh, it looks worse from a technical standpoint,” he said. “I should have spent another week and half on it, rounded it more, got a little more depth. I should have used a few glazes that I didn’t do back then.”
The idea for Reflections came to Teter quickly. He settled on the concept right away and began work.
“The impact was immediate, and in fact, I felt the same impact when I was painting it,” he said.
He understood its potential, too. He knew exactly what he had on his hands. In St. Louis last year, when VVA presented him with the prestigious President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, he was asked a pointed question. “Well, the real question was this: ‘Did you know what you were giving away?’ he said “The answer is ‘yes,’ I knew exactly. But some things shouldn’t be done for money. I thought of the concept and the emotions that American veterans and families had invested in the Vietnam War. I’d make my money somewhere else. I didn’t want to pollute the purity of it by making a lot of money off people’s misery, people’s sorrow, people’s pain and that’s what this picture’s about.”
He marvels that the painting is as popular as it is.
“Let’s face it, it’s a wonder,” he said. “It brings back painful memories for people, and I didn’t want to pollute those memories. I knew what I had. I knew it was worth a million bucks and I didn’t care.”
He said Reflections was unique in his body of work because he paints historical works, and the past is what he calls a “foreign land,” not easily accessible to the viewer today. But, Teter said, this is not so with the people who lived Reflections. Vietnam is not a foreign place in the memories of the millions of men and women and their families and loved ones.
Teter said that much of the impact of Reflections can be attributed to the powerful memories the image evokes.
“The picture is light reflecting off pieces of paint and the canvas,” he said. “That’s the painting. The picture itself is in the mind of the viewer. The art becomes every person. It triggers memories that are very, very personal. While we all see the same image on the canvas, we don’t all see the same picture. The people it truly affects are people who have deeply buried memories, sometimes not so deeply buried. The faces they see are the faces they are familiar with, not the ones in the painting. People aren’t seeing the painting. They’re seeing reflections of their own past. That’s why they cry. It’s not my art. It’s their memories. “
Lee Teter lives modestly in Wyoming. The Owl Creek Mountains and Wind River Mountains are his neighbors. He finds peace there. He paints there. Then sends his work into the world.“When Reflections was done and I took it over to the VVA meeting room, we put a cover on it and then unveiled it and I was surprised,” he said. “I didn’t see it anymore. I’d painted it away. It was gone. I’d given it to the world, and the world is a good place for it.”
WRITTEN BY JIM BELSAW