with Reflections 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
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
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
"e-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
"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 had painted. He looks at
it now, and his eye 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 a 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 enough
of the concept and the emotions that American veterans and
families had invested in the Vietnam War to 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 painand 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. 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 woman who served there
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."
Prints of Lee Teter's Reflections can be ordered
from VVA Chapter 172 at