New arts initiative helps veterans explore creativity, create community

Dean Hensley found that his pain was literally decreasing. Patrick Paquin said that making art offers “relaxation and peace of mind” in the midst of struggles with physical and emotional issues. Robert James said before exploring creativity, he was just “sitting at home waiting to die.”

“Doodle to Fine Art” is a two-part exhibition at the Carnegie Gallery inside the Downtown branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. (A reception is planned for Thursday, Feb. 22.) Both bodies of work represent art made by veterans as part of a Veterans Administration initiative to engage them in the arts.

One collection includes work made by 60 veterans during two five-week art classes taught by CCAD adjunct faculty member Nicole Monahan. The class was the basis for a study on the effects of art-making on veterans. The second is a group show curated by the Veterans Arts Council (VAC), a group of veterans who meet to plan arts-related programming through the Veterans Administration. The pieces in the exhibition are all done by veterans with established art practices.

The VAC serves as the board for the Veteran Arts Initiative (VAI), which oversees both the arts programming and research workshops. The VAI was started last fall by Heather Seymour, a licensed social worker at the Chalmers P. Wylie Ambulatory Clinic on the East Side.

“We see [the VAI] as an opportunity to build community and meaning-making for a lot of veterans,” Seymour said, adding that the program is not intended as art therapy nor to replace any other service provided by the VA. “Everything is veteran-led. They get to decide what kind of programming they want, what kind of workshops.”

The recent five-week workshop led by Monahan was open to any interested veteran — no selection was made based on any clinical diagnosis.

“My approach was to just see everyone as artists making art. Part of the goal was to work with artist-grade materials and use processes I would use in any art class,” Monahan said.

“We were interested in how art can connect people, and what kind of benefits you would see from making art,” said clinical psychologist Laren Conklin. “What we saw was the creation of a small community of veterans. But we also saw an increase in connectedness to the VA, having conversations that allowed people to connect to services both in and outside of the VA.”

“Like a lot of veterans, I just came in [to the VA] for my [medical] appointments and what have you,” said Paquin, a Navy veteran. “This program helped me kickstart a sagging interest in art, and I got to feel like I enjoyed being together with these other people.”

Hensley was told of the program by a pain psychologist at the VA.

“I wanted to see if painting every day would help me, by concentrating on mediums I had never experimented with before,” said Hensley, an Army veteran who has since built a portfolio and has been accepted into CCAD. “But I also benefitted from being around other people with shared experiences.”

Closing the workshops with an exhibition is important, Seymour said, both as a way to celebrate the art made but also to provide a platform for awareness both within the veteran community and beyond “of not just what it means to be a veteran but to be human.”

“Saying from the get-go that there's going to be an exhibition changes how they view their contributions and elevates the outcome,” Monahan said.

New VAC member Robert James not only contributed work to the exhibition (which also includes work by Darnell Winston, Richard Isbell, Cecilia Roman and others), but helped in the final stages of getting the workshop art ready for the show.

“I came out and maybe now I'm helping somebody. And I finished a painting,” said James, who had suffered a stroke and had stopped making art. His eyes wandered upward before he concluded. “Maybe he's keeping me around to do something, and maybe this is it.”