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Healing hobby: War veteran creates life-like images using toy soldiers

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Posted at 12:59 PM, Jan 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-14 23:51:37-05

RICHMOND, Va. — It’s a visual treasure trove from another time. Grainy images of battles gone by.

“I try to keep it very authentic,” said Clutch. “I feel like it helps the viewer because it puts the viewer right there where you are.”

They are snapshots capturing the intensity of World War II.

“I’ll look at how the light will come back through and I’ll find that one view I might like,” said Clutch. “When I’m taking a photo of a person, I try to get real tight on the individual.”

But if you look closely, these historic pics are anything but.

“So what I’ll do is, I’ll get in this position and I’ll say 'how is this going to look if I come down at this angle?',” said Clutch.

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The photographs are the work of an artist known simply as "Clutch."

“The person steps back and takes another little look and the person takes another look and says, ‘I’m I really looking at a toy?’”, said Clutch.

Using miniature soldiers, the 51-year-old recreates life-like combat in black and white and vivid color.

“If they’re holding a weapon, get them in the crouch behind a building,” said Clutch. “I can feel my body tighten up when I’m trying to pose into that figure.”

The VCU grad seemed destined for this creative endeavor.

“I didn’t get a lot of toys. I had a lot of Army men. I loved that,” said Clutch.

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Clutch uses toy soldiers to create life-like images of war.

As a boy, Clutch got lost in the world of military make-believe. Borrowing his father’s camera, Clutch would direct home movies of famous battles like Iwo Jima.

“So I’m sitting here with little sticks under the sand, and I’d push on them to get the sand go up while I had the 8mm camera. To this day I still got it,” said Clutch.

But Clutch didn’t want to settle with just playing with plastic soldiers.

“I’ve always known I was going to wear green. I’ve always known it,” said Clutch.

At 24, he joined the U.S. Army. Clutch was in his element. The platoon leader deployed to Bosnia and then Iraq.

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“I joined to be combat arms,” said Clutch. “That is what I joined for. There is combat, so point me in that direction.”

On April 1, 2008 while fighting in Sadr City, Clutch’s life nearly ends on a rooftop.

“We went into it that night and got into a firefight that night,” said Clutch.

A 500-pound bomb is detonated on the street below.

“The whole building looked like the Oklahoma City Building,” said Clutch. “They had to climb up debris to get to where we were at.”

Clutch suffered a traumatic brain injury, hearing loss and internal injuries.

“Just a lot of haze. I can close my eyes and physically see the Stryker ramp down and the 50 cal firing and Joey had me on his back,” said Clutch.

The soldier’s toughest fight was just beginning. All these years later, the married father still lives with scars on the outside and in.

“It is a constant. It is a daily thing,” said Clutch. “I found that I can’t just sit and talk to some therapist who has never been down range. But I can put it in a photo or I can do it in a drawing.”

For an outlet, Clutch is turning back the clock. Combining toys with his talent is proving beneficial to this innovative veteran.

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“So in a photo session, I’ll probably take 300 photos,” described Clutch. “Just to get three or four photos I like.”

Clutch finds the graphic photographs and drawings of close combat therapeutic.

“It is big healing for me,” said Clutch. “To get that out and put it on canvass is kind of like letting go of something that is bothering me.”

When some of his images trigger dark memories, the artist retreats to photographing his other passion: Star Wars.

“There are days that it will consume me. Realism is extremely important,” said Clutch. “I guess what I’m also trying to portray is that it is not pretty.”

His pictures are gaining a loyal following on social media.

“Some people have asked me are you pulling from experience. Are you pulling from imagination where are you pulling from,’” said Clutch.

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Last fall, Clutch’s artwork was selected to appear in the Veterans Art Gallery at the Virginia War Memorial.

“Yeah. I was like where is it? The Virginia War Memorial? What? How did that happen,” said Clutch.

The Memorial’s Stephanie Saavedra said Clutch’s lived experiences shine through in the grittiness of his images.

“So first when you walk by, you see dioramas similar to a toy that you have played with as a child,” said Stephanie. “When you see the photo you see journalistic photography.”

Clutch’s next project is a series of comics detailing the stories of WWII veterans.

“What these guys went through in my opinion was unbelievable,” said Clutch.

The artist known as Clutch is coming full circle while keeping it simple.

“Just using an iPhone 7 and one app,” said Clutch. “And one great big imagination.”

With a camera in hand, he is reliving his childhood.

“It is endless you can take it in any direction. I could stay with WWII,” said Clutch. “You could do a lot with toy cars and make it look real.”

It’s a long-time love affair with little army men that just may lead this real life soldier down a path of healing.

“Hopefully if there is anyone else out there. Pick a camera up look through a lens get a different angle because it helps you see things in a different light.”

You can follow Clutch on Instagram at bloodangel_47

If you know of someone with an interesting story email me at gmcquade@wtvr.com

Like powerful stories? Watch CBS 6 News at 11 p.m. Fridays for Greg McQuade’s “I Have A Story” reports. If you know of someone Greg should feature, email him at gmcquade@wtvr.com



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