Healing Wounds in the Wilderness

Brushwood Center’s At Ease: Art and Nature for Veterans and the Military Community
A two-story building with people in front of it with artwork.

Brushwood Center, a nonprofit that is striving to improve health equity and access to nature across Lake County, Illinois. Photo by Michael Kardas Photography

The Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area is a 565-acre forest preserve about 30 miles north of Chicago. When you’re hiking the area’s six-and-a-half miles of trails, you’ll also cross paths with the Des Plaines River. In the middle of the woods, which are the ancestral home of Algonquian-speaking peoples as well as other Native nations, there is a historic home that houses Brushwood Center, a nonprofit that is striving to improve health equity and access to nature across Lake County, Illinois.

The center’s location is no accident. As described by Brushwood Center Executive Director Catherine Game, “What is core to our belief at Brushwood is that nature is for everybody, and these spaces, these resources, they need to be accessible for everybody. Our work is really centered around a mission focused on improving health equity through the arts, through nature, and through community.”

The center’s staff work with artists, community organizations, health care providers, and scientists to conduct arts programming both on-site in Ryerson Woods and other locations around the Chicago area, including at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, the only combined veteran and active-duty hospital in the nation. At Ease: Art and Nature for Veterans and the Military Community, the initiative that developed out of the partnership between Brushwood and the Lovell Center’s recreational therapy department, each year offers free nature-based painting and drawing classes, music classes, and photography workshops to approximately 400 veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety. There is also a growing number of other community organizations that partner with Brushwood to reach veteran populations.

In 2022, Brushwood Center received a $50,000 Creative Forces Community Engagement grant to expand its At Ease programming to more veterans, as well as active-duty personnel at Naval Station Great Lakes. Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs that seeks to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers.

“With all the need for mental health services in the [military and veteran] community, it's so important to invest in these community-based programs and to create opportunities for people to access non-pharmacological methods of healing, knowing that both modalities are super important. There's a lot of untapped opportunity,” Game explained.

“Our approach is evidence-based, and there is a lot of evidence demonstrating the mental health benefits of the arts. There's also a lot showing the mental health benefits of spending time in nature. Spending just five minutes in nature, standing outside in a quiet space in nature, immediately you'll start to see physiological impacts of reduced stress in your body,” she added.

For Game, the success of At Ease owes a lot to the program’s natural environment. “There's actually research that shows people are more compassionate and more open-minded when they're in natural settings,” she said. “It's why these spaces are so conducive to creative expression. Nature creates this space where you can let go, you can feel safe, and you can let your mind do what human brains have this incredible ability to do, which is to create new ideas and to translate that into artistic expression. [At Brushwood,] we strongly believe that everyone has the ability to do that. This is not limited to the veteran community—there are a lot of adults, especially, who think, ‘I'm not an artist. I don't know if I can do this.’”

Group of people painting mural on inside walls of building.

At Ease participants painting a mural at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center. Photo by Ewa Pasek Photography

Another critical aspect of At Ease is that the programs are mostly recurring, rather than one-off events. Game acknowledged that this continuity is important for the community-building that occurs among participants.

“You're coming back time after time, you're meeting new people, you're getting to establish relationships. We have seen in our evaluations that's an important part of this—the social connection that comes with creative expression in a group setting. There's also the shared understanding of experience, which is really helpful. We've had folks come through who've said that the program has saved their life,” Game said.

To demonstrate that the beneficial effects of being engaged in nature are not only anecdotal, the center has recently released its first locally focused report, Health, Equity, and Nature: A Changing Climate in Lake County.

“We incorporated arts throughout the report, working with 26 different artists who created pieces kind of inspired by the major themes of the data, which I think made the data even more powerful, to be able to see representation from an artistic perspective,” Game said.

“There were many veterans actually from our program who participated in the qualitative data collection component, and what we saw is many people identify nature as a source of healing, especially for individuals who are coping with traumatic experiences,” she added.

“There's an example of one of the veterans we worked with who shared how after having dealt with killing people through his service and being in the process of recovering from that experience, being able to create life and to be around life, to plant something in the ground, and then to reflect on it, to create artwork and [have] creative expression was very powerful. The researcher who worked with us on the report phrased it as a kind of restorative justice, because you're confronting [trauma] in a way that is healing.” 

A group of people posing for photo, holding up artwork they have done.

Group photo of At Ease participants with their final artworks of the 2023 Water(color) for the Soul Music Composition Residency with Black Moon Trio. Photo by Michael Kardas Photography

According to Game, further proof that the program is working is that program participants themselves actively work to help the community grow its partnerships.

“They’re out in the community thinking about, ‘Oh, Brushwood should partner with XYZ organization because they're doing amazing work,’” she said. “One of the bus drivers from Lovell helped to connect us to this group, Growing Healthy Veterans, which is another organization in our region that has community gardens that provide opportunities for veterans to help grow food and access food. He helped bridge that connection, and now we have this really strong partnership with them. One of our staff serves on their board.” 

She also acknowledged that it’s important to tackle issues like the well-being of military and veteran populations at the community level, in addition to any statewide or national offerings, as local organizations tend to have greater flexibility.

“There's so much opportunity for this work, but it's challenging to be nimble when you are a very large system, and I think that's a huge asset that community-based arts organizations can bring—this nimbleness, this ability to be responsive to the needs of different populations,” she said. “It’s actually a really efficient use of resources in many cases because of that. I just hope that there is a lot of investment in this work in the future, across the health care space, because there is so much need.”