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San Diego Navy Chief who created powerful 3-D military art says exhibit sends a message to visitors

Posted at 7:40 AM, Mar 29, 2023

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – As part of Liberty Station’s centennial celebration this year, you’ll find a moving exhibit in the Arts District at the Dick Laub NTC Command Center.

One hundred years ago, Liberty Station opened as the Naval Training Center. Then in 2001, the transformation began to turn it into the community-focused Liberty Station we know today, but as Laurie Albrecht, the director of Liberty Station, says to appreciate the present, we need to honor the past.

“We cannot celebrate Liberty station without remembering the history and the men and women who served our country,” she says, “and Joe's art is amazing."

Joe is Joseph Pisano, a Navy Chief Petty Officer, and Liberty Station's artist-in-residence. The exhibit is called "The Art of Immortalizing Heroes."

It all began two years ago.

“So 2021 Honor Flight had just had their 94 veterans come back to San Diego,” recalls Joe.

“Then, when I started looking around the crowd, and I saw our veterans in wheelchairs, I thought, you know what, I'm going to make a war memorial replicating all the memorials in DC that they visit and have it here in San Diego, so in case they didn't want to go, couldn't go, they would have something here that they can see.”

Joe's 8-piece display begins with World War I.

“It features Cher Ami which is an amazing hero that saved 194 lives,” explains Joe.

Cher Ami was an Army homing pigeon that carried vital messages. That Joe would include him is one of the first things you notice. Joe's attention to detail and his World War II panel is no exception.

“So I called up this gentleman that used to be my high school teacher (and said) ‘Mr. Rice, I'm doing this war memorial. Would you be a part of it?’”

Mr. Rice is the late Tom Rice, the beloved WWII veteran who leaped into the national spotlight when he jumped from a plane again over Normandy in 2019 on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. He was 97 years old at the time. He passed away in November 2022.

“He actually installed the first 101 screws in honor of the 101st Airborne that dropped in Normandy with him in 1944.”

The panel also includes the 'Kilroy was here' meme that became synonymous with WWII. Some say it started with a ship inspector who wanted sailors to know he'd been there. They also say the Germans thought it was the code name for a spy.

“One of the veterans that actually participated in this told me, you have to have Kilroy,” remembers Joe.

Joe says his artistic process begins with prepping the large wooden panels.

“You draw the image on a panel, which in this case is why you would draw it out, then you have to drill the pilot holes. So there's over 20,000 drywall screws here.”

Joe places the screws at different depths creating texture and shading. He then adjusts and paints and adjusts over and over. Joe also uses other items, such as golf tees and dog tags.

One unique piece that shimmers with silver dog tags features the Battlefield Cross. The panel, Joe explains, represents the Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT for short. Joe has been part of that mission himself, which means he has stood with these heroes. But too many of them were lost after they returned home. They are represented by the simulated bullet holes in some of the dog tags.

“When they come back, they're still fighting that battle. So we're approaching around 33 to 35,000 suicides, which is a staggering number.”

With his GWOT panel, Joe wants people to see and hear that message.

“When the wind is blowing on it, you do hear the chimes,” he says, “but what you're also listening to are the voices of our fallen comrades. And they're saying, if you just listen to us… we can help you help the ones that still can be saved,” Joe says, choking back tears.

His poignant exhibit culminates with his version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial combined with the Wall of Stars, also called the Freedom Wall. Joe always gives the community opportunities to be part of each work. For this one, children and special-needs adults painted the 3800 stars, each slightly different from the next.

“Our Armed Forces are the most diverse organization in the world, hands down, and if you look at it, everyone's different, but when our forces come together, we work.”

Joe says there’s something simple he would like visitors to think about when looking at his art.

“I want them to be able to reflect on one individual,” he says, “I want people just to remember the ones that have paved the way to have the freedom that we have today.”