Vets Helping Vets 9

Oklahoma’s Veterans Share the Healing Power of Art

As soldiers, sailors and pilots, Oklahoma’s veterans were often forced to destroy. Now they’re being offered a unique opportunity to create–and to heal themselves in the process.

The healing is beginning at the Norman Veterans Center, where residents are taking part in a pilot program sponsored by the Oklahoma Arts Council and the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs.

Launched on Dec. 1 as part of the OAC’s new Oklahoma Arts and the Military Initiative, more than 300 residents have the opportunity to participate in photography, visual arts and creative writing classes, all taught by other veterans. First up on the schedule are weekly photography classes.

“We used to do art classes, but we didn’t have that much teaching talent on our staff,” said Jeannene Wade, activities administrator for the Norman VA. “We tried so hard to do these things with our limited skills, and then (OAC) came in, and they’re changing lives. This is just the photography session so far, and it has been so therapeutic.”

The Norman VA purchased four cameras for the initiative, while some vets have purchased their own as well, she added.

Russell Jeter, an Air Force veteran who served in the Vietnam War, has been taking photos ever since his days in the service and even took photography classes in junior college. A recent stroke, however, left him unable to use both hands. That hasn’t stopped him, though–he’s a regular at the classes and has learned to operate his camera with only one hand.

Brothers Rick and Mike Varnell, both Vietnam veterans, also are enjoying the chance to expand their creative side. The two are champion ice carvers and award-winning chefs–skills they don’t get the chance to use at present.

“We were asked if we wanted to take part, and we said ‘Let’s try it out,’” Mike Varnell said. “We are always up for something new.”

A core group of about 10 veterans are actively participating in the photography class, while a number of other residents come by to watch and socialize. They’ve received college-level instruction on everything from lighting to props to choosing subject matter, provided by Sarah Engel-Barnett, who teaches photography at Rose State College and at Norman’s Firehouse Art Center. She was asked to teach the class by the center’s executive director, Douglas Shaw Elder, an Army veteran.

“I love it,” she said. “Douglas asked me, and it seemed like a really interesting project. It’s been really fun, and they’re legitimately interested. What I’m teaching is the equivalent to what they would receive in a beginner class at Rose State.”

In addition to lectures, the class reviews each other’s work and looks at professional examples on different themes. Their choice of subject matter is up to them, and to date the vets have done everything from flowers to self-portraits to random objects. For vets like Homer Rowell, it’s provided an opportunity to share his earlier work and to ease the pain after the recent loss of his wife.

Like Rowell, Wade said that the classes have lifted the spirits of many of the residents, and sparked an interest in some who were otherwise not very interactive. Chandra Boyd, OAC’s arts learning and community director, says she has seen the same thing.

“After the (center’s) Christmas party, one of the things that really stood out to me was that a resident came up and said ‘I want you to know these classes have given me a sense of purpose,’” she said. “That is really special.”

Next up on the schedule are creative writing classes, to be followed by visual arts, and Wade said she is eager to see the results.

“So many of these vets were amazing war heroes with amazing stories, and they’ve kept them locked inside,” she said. “We want them to tell these stories. They so often have what we call ‘moral wounds,’ from experiences they had in combat, which is why you see so many veteran suicides. We hope to help them heal these wounds.”

The writing class will be taught by Jason Poudrier, a published poet and a decorated veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who has led poetry workshops around the world. Once the creative writing class is complete, Elder will lead a team of artists to provide visual arts instruction. Plans are for a showing of the veterans’ works to be held at the Firehouse sometime in August.

Meanwhile, residents at the Lawton Veterans Center also are participating in the OAC pilot program, and the experiences of both Norman and Lawton veterans will be used as a model for the Oklahoma Arts Council to expand the program statewide, Boyd said. The goal is to work with local community organizations like the Firehouse to expand creative outlets and help veterans improve their mental health in the process.

“Veterans comprise almost 10 percent of our state’s population,” said OAC’s Executive Director Amber Sharples. “Our pilot program will make these benefits more widely available to those who have courageously served us. Veterans, active duty servicemen, and women and military family members deserve to experience the benefits of the arts.”

Maj. Gen. Miles Deering, who serves as executive director for the Oklahoma VA Department, agrees. “I’m excited about the opportunities it will bring,” he said. “Providing meaningful, quality activities for our veterans, while providing tremendous therapy and skill development, facilitates connections to the past, present and future for our heroes. I know that this will enhance their quality of life and bring tremendous diversity to their daily activities.”

More information about the program is available by calling Boyd at 405.521.2023.