Staring through the pitch-black night, listening for a sound, while trying not to make one himself, Vietnam era veteran Gary Humphries starts to recall memories long forgotten about his time at the Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. Dripping with sweat, he remembers trying not to scream as he cleared the giant spider webs that would wrap around his face. Gary is just one of 32 veterans who has recently participated in a series of art therapy workshops held at the Overton Brooks Medical Center in Shreveport.
Gary describes his recent experience with art therapy as a way of letting go, “It’s not a cure all, but it’s the process that allows me to work through things I hadn’t thought about in years.” It happens to everyone in one form or another, those experiences that change who we think we are and how we participate in the world around us. For many veterans the challenge of re-adjusting to civilian life after being in the military can be a long and difficult road. “The military taught me how to put my uniform on but they didn’t teach me how to take it off,” says Scott Morris, a veteran who served in Somalia, Central America, and Iraq.
Over the past year and a half, Scott Morris has lost 14 of his military brothers to suicide. After the loss of fellow veteran Callahn Talcott, Scott felt as if this was all too much to handle and decided to seek help from the VA. “Callahn was an incredible artist. I was so amazed by the creative things that came out of his head, and I thought I would like to do something like that one day.” While staying at the VA, Scott asked for a pencil and paper and started drawing for the first time. It was this exploration of self- expression that enabled Scott to see his PTSD in a clearer light and seek out other opportunities for creative expression.
Shreveport is home to nearly 14,000 veterans, all of whom have their own story to tell. According to the VA, the rate of veteran suicides has increased by over 32% since 2001. Many veterans have a hard time talking about mental illness making it difficult to reach out for the help they need. The VA is beginning to bring in other modalities of therapy and programs to help those who have served this country. Yoga classes are now being offered in the military and many art therapy programs for veterans are becoming more popular across the country.
Recently, a series of art therapy workshops funded by a grant from the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development: Division of the Arts that was awarded through Shreveport Regional Arts Council gave local veterans at the Overton Brooks Medical Hospital the opportunity to make artwork that expresses their feelings about their military experiences. Rebecca Thomas, a Board-Certified Art Therapist with a Ph.D. in Psychology and a practicing artist, facilitated these workshops.
“My goals were to offer veterans the opportunity to use a variety of art materials to experience the benefits of art making, to express feelings related to their military experience and to create a receptive opportunity for their art to be seen and responded to by others,” states Dr. Thomas.
Each participant was given the opportunity to complete 3 different tasks: an abstract painting using acrylic paint on canvas that expresses a feeling; a collage that depicts how their military experience has changed them; and a mask that represents feelings about military experiences they have felt they must hide. The veterans were then given the opportunity to exhibit one or more of their artworks with the community in an exhibition called VET/ ART curated by the Agora Borealis at Vintage Gallery on Lake Street in downtown Shreveport.
The impact on the program participants is undeniable. For Gary, the collage piece was the most intimidating task but he says he really enjoyed the technical aspects of the technique. “I had a hard time putting so much of myself into that thing! It was very telling,” admits Gary. Dr. Thomas explains that sometimes there is a communication loop that exists between the artist and the canvas. When the veterans describe their experience, one common point is the ability for their work to communicate back to them things they are thinking about in a different way, which can lead to a greater sense of self-awareness. “I was physically and emotionally tired after that first day,” recalls Scott, “I just went home and slept. But, it was at that moment I knew that this art thing could be a way for me to speak without speaking, a way for me to better express myself,” claims Scott.
Many of the participants describe the creative process as one that allows them to slow down and relax in order to have greater focus. Instead of relying on, and often times abusing substances to suppress difficult emotions, the participants were able to work through their emotions in a way that has provided a more sustainable form of relief.
Not all of the veterans who participated in the workshops had served in combat, and many had not been active duty in years, but they all found ways of relating with one another. “I learned so much from this group of veterans about their experiences and really enjoyed seeing so much kindness and reaching out to others that I do not usually see in other groups,” claims Dr. Thomas. Gary feels the experience would not have been the same without Dr. Thomas facilitating the process in a way that was comforting. It was a calming experience having her there quietly on the sideline lending an ear and a soft voice to guide the group through the process.
“Things are less foggy for me now and I am beginning to think more artistically since taking the workshops,” says Gary. Although he has had more experience with writing and poetry than with painting, Gary has created at least 15 other pieces of art since taking the workshops this year. Recently, Gary won an adult essay contest with the Mavis Wallette Branch of the Shreve Memorial Library with his essay, “The Spiritually Empowered Woman” and has become more involved in the local arts community. He would really like to see the workshops continue and have more opportunities for the local veterans to experience art therapy and share their work with others. “I have had such a good experience, I want to share that with other veterans by teaching art & writing. I think it is a necessity that we continue with these types of programs,” shares Gary.
Scott has also been so inspired by his experiences that he has recently started the not-for-profit organization, the Art of War Project. “Our mission is to connect and engage with veterans so that we can help address and fight PTSD through education, community involvement, speaking platforms, mentoring, art and love”, says Scott. Through the program Scott hopes to make it easier for veterans to find the support they need and explore a variety of creative experiences including art, music, dance, drama, and poetry. “You know a lot of people ask me ‘How do I get involved? How can I help?’ and honestly its as simple as just listening to what our veterans have to say. Find out what their story is,” claims Scott.
One of the most significant parts of the workshops for many of the veterans was being able to share their artwork with others in the community. Many of the people who viewed the exhibition claimed that they were able to learn something about the experiences of those in the military. “It has been very liberating sharing that part of myself with others,” says Gary. Sometimes art has nothing to do with whether or not the work is aesthetically pleasing but more about what it can communicate to the viewer. There can be so much gained when we take the time to listen to others, to ourselves and sometimes maybe even the art on a canvas.
So again ones bleeding instrument has united with
pressed fibers long sought
with which to bond thoughout the ages.
Words are composed
and clamor excited, tears flow or perhaps gray-matter pulses
outwardly towards a future not yet lived.
However does a word coupled with another,
another, and yet another
complete a heart that has yet to beat
and alter an existing world
before the future is corrupted?
Should it not be contemptible, a media wielded
with such cunning strokes
in the hand of a single mortal life-form which fills the veins
and ignites life’s engine, it’s consciousness
within a micro-universe of self so powerful it dares to chain
the awesomeness of a soul?
The question has been begged: Are those
enlightened few, poets, transcending
the written word to hold them close to breast?
Or perhaps the poet breed is slowly vanishing into oblivion.
We should all suffer not this insult on on one’s
motality nor of narrow-browed
minds intent on ingorance of the masses.
Let us not be weary in our resolution nor
grow faint in continence when
truth may be that which fails in the end.
G. Wayne Humphries