Art Works Blog

Spotlight on the Art of the VA

Looking Into a PTSD Mind by Bill McCormick. Photo courtesy of Bill McCormick

"It's not so much about the art; it's what the art represents." --- Liz Mackey, on artwork by veterans

The photo framed above features, quite literally, a pile of junk. The glasses, barbed wire, rusted coils, and padlocks weren’t artfully arranged, but rather lie jumbled together just as photographer Bill McCormick found them as he walked near his Vermont home looking for inspiration. But according to Liz Mackey, director of the National Veterans Creative Arts Competition and Festival, “It’s not so much about the art; it’s what the art represents.”

For McCormick, a Vietnam veteran, the photograph illustrates his enduring struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In his entry to the competition, McCormick described how the tangled coils mimicked his own confused, blurry thoughts; how the padlocks keep his traumatic memories from escaping; and how the barbed wire is like his own internal prison. The photograph, titled Looking Into a PTSD Mind, won the competition’s Best in Show award this year, and will be shown at the 2012 festival, which will take place in Boston from October 8-14.

At Veteran Affairs (VA) medical centers across the country, art therapy is often used to help veterans cope with both psychological and physical wounds. Art projects such as basket weaving or painting crafts can be used to develop motor skills or eye-hand coordination that may have been damaged in combat, or through natural ailments such as a stroke. For PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI), art can help patients gain hold of a mind that might seem beyond their control.

“A lot of our returning military are suffering from PTSD, so the arts are one way that people can express what’s deep inside of them, what’s in their soul, in their minds, in their spirit, and express it through a healthy outlet,” Mackey said. “So many people choose unhealthy ways of coping with their problems, whether it’s turning to substance abuse, or just feeling like they’re losing their minds. And we redirect by saying here’s a healthy, positive outlet.”

Mackey said that arts participation at VA medical centers will hopefully continue throughout veterans’ lives, whether it means singing in a church choir, painting at home, or joining a ceramics class. “We want it to be an ongoing, lifestyle commitment, not just ‘I’m here in the hospital and I’m going to music therapy sessions’ and that’s it,” she said.

Both the National Veterans Creative Arts Competition and Festival are designed to encourage this ongoing commitment, while simultaneously providing a means of recognizing veterans for their creative accomplishments. The events are run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Help Hospitalized Veterans, and the American Legion Auxiliary, and are open to veterans enrolled at VA centers throughout the country. The annual process begins at the local level: veterans are invited to submit entries in visual art, drama, dance, writing, and music through their community’s VA center. Winning entries from each center then go on to compete at the national level, which includes 173 categories that range from solo Broadway vocals and patriotic poetry to ventriloquism and Western wheelchair dance. This year, 3,725 veterans submitted entries to the national competition, 140 of whom have been invited to participate in the week-long festival. During the festival, award-winning artwork will be exhibited, and a show will be staged by medal-winners from the performance categories. There will also be workshops, city tours, and panels for veterans in attendance.

But the festival, which is hosted by a different city each year, isn’t just for veterans: it’s for the public, who are invited to attend both the visual art exhibit and performance. The issues often addressed in artwork, whether it’s PTSD or veteran homelessness, can help raise awareness, and serve as reminders of the many challenges our veterans face. Mackey said that, hopefully, this will inspire people to support veterans in their own communities, as well as renew appreciation for veterans’ sacrifice and service. The artwork presented might even be able to offer a ray of hope for others, whether or not they have served in the military.

“The stories that come out of the veterans are so incredible, and so inspirational and then it helps other people who are going through similar challenges,” Mackey said. “They may not be artists, but yet they can relate, and feel stronger because they see someone who is overcoming their challenge and saying, ‘I can do that too.’”

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