Metro veterans benefit from art program

Only creatives would likely understand the mix of emotions Eddie Washington felt as he reflected on his work displayed in the Oklahoma Capitol’s Governor’s Gallery earlier this month.

His eyes filled with pride as he glanced at his piece, which replicated the famous parrot self-portrait by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Like most artists, he was a tough self-critic.

“Lips: Too big. She would swallow me up,” he said before erupting in laughter. “Another mistake is the nose opening. It’s too big too.”

Washington’s critique wasn’t all bad. He nodded in approval as he pointed to Kahlo’s hair and the two parrots resting in her arms. He knows he can improve. The U.S. Army and Vietnam War veteran demonstrated the confidence to make adjustments as he creates his next drawings and paintings at the Norman Veterans Center.

A year ago, instructors Sarah Engel-Barnett, Jason Poudrier, Jane Lawson and Douglas Shaw Elder began teaching college-level arts courses in photography, visual arts and creative writing to Norman veterans. The program is part of the Oklahoma Arts and the Military Initiative offered through a partnership with the Oklahoma Arts Council (OAC) and Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs (ODVA). The two state agencies expanded the hands-on arts learning program to the Lawton/Ft. Still Veterans Center this year.

As a result of state funding, vets are socializing with the center’s staff and each other, reflecting on their military life and finding a renewed sense of purpose and identity.

“The program has opened so many doors for so many of our veterans — many who had closed the books on their artistic abilities,” said Jeannene Wade, Norman Veterans Center programs administrator. “They began to express themselves through the arts: photography, creative writing and visual arts. They continue to grow, and it gave them a sense of hope.”

Copy that

Six years ago, through a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Department of Defense, creative arts therapists began working with servicemembers with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder at Water Reed National Military Medical Center. Called the Creative Forces program, it helps members and veterans cope with haunting memories, disabilities and their futures through painting, writing or playing musical instruments.

With strong, emotional endorsements by participants, it caught the attention of Congress, which appropriated a $1.928 million budget increase to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in fiscal year 2016 specifically to expand the military healing arts program. Today, there are 11 Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network clinical sites across the country.

As Oklahoma Arts Council’s executive director, Amber Sharples also pored over NEA reports. Ten percent of Oklahoma’s adult residents are U.S. military veterans. Sharples knew she could develop a community-based arts program to support veterans and their families.

“[The NEA] were seeing the power of arts, music, drama and other arts disciplines helping with rehabilitation,” Sharples said. “We started getting information about the power of the arts in transforming very serious challenges. … If the NEA could do it, maybe we could take that model and tailor it to what made sense for Oklahoma.”

With the support of ODVA and Norman’s Firehouse Arts Center, discussions began about designing arts programs for veterans living in the state’s long-term care facilitates.

Unlike the national program with its emphasis on art therapy, Oklahoma leaders developed a program to engage and inspire the creativity of veterans, who are typically under-represented in the arts and art-making.

Its curriculum encourages veterans to review their accomplishments, communicate through their art and interact with arts experts. Perhaps most importantly, instructors provide college-level courses. Beginner-level curriculum wouldn’t cut it.

“We were very intentional about that because we knew that these individuals had come from very disciplined backgrounds,” Sharples said. “We didn’t want to diminish what they could do; [instead], we raised the bar very high and asked them to do their very best.”

Pass it along

In March, veterans parted with what they considered their best work for Veterans: Experience and Expression, an exhibition in the Governor’s Gallery. Additionally, a Norman publisher printed Recollected: Tales of Life and War, an anthology of creative writing produced by 30 veterans who participated in a 10-week creative writing course.

Both are tangible evidence of the program’s successes, but as ODVA deputy director Col. Doug Elliott explained, the program’s ability to contribute to participants’ quality of life is what’s most impressive.

“It didn’t take long to see the benefits of this program,” Elliott said. “Basically, people that were in their shell, didn’t interact or didn’t want to be around anyone slowly began to interact … and be part of the center and the community. If nothing else is a win, that is.”

In addition to introducing the arts to veterans, the pilot program serves as a case study. A researcher with University of Oklahoma’s Knee Center for Strong Families at the Anne and Henry Zarrow School of Social Work closely follows the initiative. Both OAC and ODVA wanted to establish a model that organizations and artists could replicate to benefit veterans, active duty personnel, guardsmen, reservists, military families and others who have served.

Engaging Veterans through Creative Expression is a catalog of the pilot program that reports what works and what doesn’t when serving military populations through the arts.

Before the initiative’s launch at Norman Veterans Center, arts leaders — including Sharples — hypothesized the initiative would increase socialization, emotional expression and self-efficacy. Instructors, volunteers and staff said it also encouraged veterans to congregate around a common activity. During the moments when they worked side-by-side, they shared stories and connected in ways they never had before.

As Norman’s program administrator, Wade noticed photo students checking the center’s events calendar for opportunities to practice their skills.

After a few weeks in the creative writing class, participants asked if there also was room to join the visual arts class. Recently, the center welcomed instructors to teach oral history and military history to veterans.

“One photography student told me that he was so amazed by the program because it reminded him of his college days,” Wade said. “We have another veteran who has started writing a book.”

Print headline: Art works, Arts Council and Department of Veterans Affairs deliver college-level arts courses to veterans, renewing confidence, purpose and identity.

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