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Veterans Changing the Arts: Share Your Story

“Breaking Rank” by Drew Matott, 2007, Combat Paper Project

After years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, art therapy programs for veterans to sprout up, including the Combat Paper Project, which will be featured on Monday’s PBS NewsHour. (We’ll have a link to the segment Monday evening.)

The increase in the number of professional artists with military experience and therapy programs related to military service has been so pronounced that a new collaboration called Arts, Military and Healing states that veterans are changing the arts in America. The collaboration is a week-long event in May that will bring artists, art institutions and art therapists together with service members and veterans.

Brian “BR” McDonald, an Army veteran, performer, founder of the Veteran Artist Program and one of the leaders of the initiative, thinks that the veteran experience adds an “amazing and palpable” energy into the arts and arts therapy worlds that wasn’t there before.

“When you combine the focus of a military veteran with the creativity of an artist, it is an amazing hybrid for change,” McDonald said. “When you consider that less than one percent of Americans have served, that’s a perspective that most artists don’t have.”

The Smithsonian Institution’s Jane Milosch, who directs the Provenance Research Initiative in the Office of the Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture, and is an adviser for the initiative, agreed.

“This is something that is unique in time,” Milosh said. “There is a lot of vapid contemporary art driven by the art market today, so it’s refreshing to see this type of transformation art that’s emotional and is full of risk-taking.”

The transformational power of creating and exhibiting art from veterans hasn’t been lost on the U.S. government either, Martha Haeseler, art therapist and director of the Giant Steps Program at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, said. Haesler has seen an increase in interest in art therapy in her career that spans over three decades. Just last month, the Army asked art therapists to train workers at several bases in the U.S. on simple arts therapy exercises they could do with soldiers there, Haeseler said.

“Art therapy engages all parts of the brain and taps into the sensory images that may not come out through talk therapy,” Haeseler said. “So many veterans say ‘When I’m making art I don’t hear voices, I don’t feel pain.’ The art allows them to experience life more fully. Also, there is the product which other people and the community can see to better understand, if the person wants to share it.”

“Art therapy has always helped people focus on their strengths,” Haeseler later added via email. “And art-making becomes a great strength that helps people find meaning in their lives.

McDonald, Milosch and Haeseler had many examples of veterans who have entered the professional art world or who have been affected by art therapy. We want to give you the opportunity to share your story. If you have artwork or insight to share, submit it in the form below.

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