David Lane, “Billy Pilgrim’s War Chest”

Diorama: War chest with lid open and diorama visible


Cemetery: War chest open with infinite cemetery drawer open


Retrieving Book Box: Removing the book box from the hidden compartment


Book Box: Book box open displaying the book, Dresden plate, dog-tags, and bullet casings.




Artist: David Lane (Minneapolis, MN)

Title: Billy Pilgrim’s War Chest (2012-2013)

Medium/technique(s): Woodwork with hickory, cherry, walnut and maple; diorama with modeling supplies; signed first edition of Slaughterhouse Five; Dresden Porcelain Dish ca 1920s; bullet casings; replica dog tags.

Dimensions, open: Chest: 20 x 23 x 14; Book Box: 12 x 13 x 10.5

Dimensions, closed: Chest: 13 x 23 x 14; Book Box: 1.5 x 13 x 10.5


Artist Statement:

Billy told her what had happened to the buildings that used to form cliffs around the stockyards. They had collapsed. Their wood had been consumed, and their stones had crashed down, had tumbled against one another until they locked at last in low and graceful curves. “It was like the moon,” said Billy Pilgrim. – Slaughterhouse Five

I am a librarian who also has a passion for woodworking. I have dreamed of combining the two and realized that opportunity with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, one of the great anti-war novels (or as Vonnegut’s friend Harrison Starr suggested, “anti-glacier” novels) of our time. As readers we are drawn into the excitement, drama and even humor of war while repeatedly being reminded of the futility and senselessness of the endeavor. The ubiquitous phrase “So it goes” appears over 100 times in the novel, driving home this message.

In designing and building Billy Pilgrim’s war chest I intended for the viewer to experience that same conflict in a visceral and tactile way. The infinite cemetery (utilizing four front-surface mirrors) is revealed in the drawer below, but only after the viewer has experienced the artist/dioramist James Morgan’s rendering of soldiers advancing through a fire-bombed Dresden. The goal is to evoke the intrigue and wonder of the battle scene, followed by the shock and reality of it’s result. “So it goes” is engraved on the handle to the cemetery drawer.

That result, however, failed to share the hope and beauty that are also present in the novel. I met that need by designing a smaller box secured within a hidden compartment below the cemetery drawer. In it you will find a 1920s-era Dresden china plate, shell casings from bullets used to create the diorama’s bomb craters, a replica of Billy’s dog tags, and a signed, first edition of Slaughterhouse Five. In this way beauty and creativity are able to endure, secretly preserved, beyond war and death.

I collaborated in this project with artist James Morgan who painted and created the diorama and with Rene Betgem of The Netherlands, a professional painter of military figurines. Both men’s contributions are obviously integral to the work. Both James and Rene are excited about submitting the project for this prize.

Books and boxes have a lot in common. Both offer a sense of anticipation with a cover/lid and both offer the promise of meaning, emotion and surprise upon opening. My goal with Billy’s war chest was to capture that parallel and offer the reader/viewer an alternate way of experiencing Vonnegut’s message about war.