- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A German shepherd struggles to crawl back to safety after being severely injured in Vietnam.

A Belgian Malinois appears to pant as it stands on four legs - its front-left paw replaced by a prosthetic limb and its left ear gone after an explosion in Iraq.

Although these canines are made of wood, they represent the real sacrifices that American soldiers make while serving the country.

James Mellick’s sculptures - seven total - also serve as a potent reminder that man’s best friend, too, plays a role in the military, whether sniffing out bombs, scouting or tracking.

Though not a veteran himself, Mellick, like many other Americans, said he has long empathized with U.S. troops who return home from combat with physical and mental scars. As a longtime artist, the Marysville-area resident decided to tell their story the best way he knew how.

Thus, his “Wounded Warrior Dogs” project was born.

“I just have a heart - I have a visual heart,” said Mellick, 69. “I’m moved by these young people who come home with mobile amputations.”

Others, too, are moved by such difficult realities: At the recent ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Mellick’s sculptures won the public vote - one of two $200,000 grand-prize awards.

“That means so much more to me than what the jurors award would’ve meant,” he said. “Art is about the people.”

Mellick began creating the sculptures in February 2015 in the studio on his farm, outside Milford Center in Union County. Using several varieties of wood - from cedar to sycamore - each dog took him about 45 days to complete.

Wearing service ribbons for various U.S. wars, the dogs depict physical wounds that the pooches or their human counterparts often suffer overseas. An American flag-draped coffin represents a canine that made the ultimate sacrifice.

Although the traveling exhibit has been shown at several venues in Ohio, the Grand Rapids event marked the first time Mellick was present to see viewers’ reactions.

Lois Buckley, a hairdresser in Grand Rapids, sought out Mellick’s work among 1,400-plus competition entries after hearing several clients discuss its poignancy.

“I just got choked up; it was profound to me, it really was,” said Buckley, whose younger brother served in Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War. “This was to bring awareness to the fact that this does happen; this is real.”

The competition, featuring artwork from around the world displayed at 170 locations in downtown Grand Rapids, attracts more than 400,000 visitors for the 19-day run, said Kevin Buist, exhibits director for the nonprofit organization.

Buist said he wasn’t surprised that Mellick’s work took the people’s choice award.

“People were just lining up to see it,” he said. “It’s pretty clear why it would have a widespread appeal.”

A $200,000 prize is significant for any artist, said Donna Collins, executive director of the Ohio Arts Council. The recognition - as well as that for other Ohioans at the Michigan event - reinforces the state’s strong artistic tradition, she said.

Mellick said he’ll donate a portion of the money to K9s for Warriors, which pairs service dogs with veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The rest will help cover the costs of creating more wounded service dogs.

“I really felt like this project was God-given,” he said. “I think I’ve found a new mission with this work.”

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, https://www.dispatch.com


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