The Veteran Artist: Caught Between Creativity and Therapy

November 4, 2013

The assumption that the military and the arts represent two different worlds overlooks an important fact: many veterans continue to serve their communities by sharing their experiences through innovative art.

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Combat Paper Veteran Artists

Drew Matott, Peg Board Chopper, 2008. Woodcut on pigmented Combat Paper. Initiated by Drew Matott and Drew Cameron, the Combat Paper Project is a collaboration among veterans to express their experiences with the military by reclaiming their uniforms as art through a transformative process of papermaking.

There are many stigmas associated with veterans returning from combat. We are all presumed to suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress, and many believe we simply don’t have the capacity to properly assimilate back into society. This assumption can be especially difficult for those of us who enlisted in the military to be part of something larger than ourselves—and who consider art-making and creative expression a continuation of, rather than a release from, service.

Because most people see the military and the arts as two very different worlds, they assume I am pursuing the arts because it serves as a kind of therapy, preparing me for reintegration or allowing me to express years of traumatic experiences. While those realities surely exist for many veterans, that very assumption creates a bias that is incredibly difficult to overcome. The truth is that many military service members are creative individuals who continue to innovate, serve in their communities and use the arts to communicate a unique veteran perspective.

Combat Paper Veteran Artists

Drew Matott, Deployed, 2010. Relief print on Combat Paper.

In 2009, I returned to the arts after eight years in the military, during which I was deployed four times for Operation Enduring Freedom. Although I had been out of the arts scene for nearly a decade, I was by no means new to it. I had been a musician and performer all of my life. I was excited to reconnect with my love of the arts, but I was especially struck by meeting so many other veterans who had similar stories of putting their love of the arts on hold to serve. So I approached the programming director of a small community arts organization in Baltimore and shared my idea for a showcase in which veterans from different disciplines would present their creative skills. I will never forget the director’s response: “I don’t know—veterans tend to be long-winded.”

I believed the programming director in Baltimore sincerely wanted to highlight veteran experiences for her community, but I knew it would be an uphill battle to do so on my community’s terms. We were being boxed in, once again. I realized then the next battle I was meant to fight: bridging the gap for veterans between a life in the military and a career in the arts.

Combat Paper Veteran Artists

Drew Matott and Dick Iacovella, What We Left Behind, 2010. Pulp painting and pulp printing on Combat Paper.

Many organizations help veterans to express themselves and address issues related to combat and reintegration through art. But sometimes veterans are simply looking for mentorship and networking opportunities to transition into a career in the arts. The tension between art as a creative practice and art as therapy often becomes a barrier for veterans seeking to work in the arts. Many veterans are creating art works unrelated to their military experience and don’t want the creative community or society at large to assume they are wounded or ill.

The value of veterans in the arts is not just about veterans; it gives the civilian population the opportunity to understand the veteran experience. Less than one percent of the American population has served in Afghanistan or Iraq since the September 11 attacks. This extreme gap in perspective is driving assumptions about veterans that are often perpetuated by the arts and entertainment industry. Giving veterans the tools, training and access they need to work in the arts community gives a voice to a population that is too often the subject of media misrepresentation.

Veteran Artist Program

The Veteran Artist Program’s “Operation Oliver” mural in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by Josh Davidson, 2011.

The arts have always been the best way for members of a society to understand one another, communicate the value of change and transform the world in which we live. I am privileged to have an incredible platform, the Veteran Artist Program, to share my experience and consider the roles for veterans in the arts. The challenge is answering the question, “What’s next?”

The answer is twofold. Veterans have to take care of each other, out of mutual trust and a shared understanding of our collective experience. At the same time, we need the mainstream arts community to embrace veteran artists and invest in the belief that this generation of military veterans is not only comprised of warriors but also represents a new creative class capable of transforming the arts in America.

This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by The Daily Beast.

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  • markpintoart

    Hey BR, well done and thank you for voicing this. When we met in SF this summer I heard you speak of this and I immediately understood it as part of my own experience. There are many of us and I’m excited to be a veteran artist. I know the works of so many talented veterans; they really do deserve their own genre in the art world. Keep up the good work and see you soon!

  • Tara Tappert

    While you have a point that not all veterans who are
    interested in the arts are pursuing their interest for therapeutic
    reasons, the promotion of a perspective that cordons off the healing
    aspect of art making for veterans creates a confusing negative regarding
    the transformative benefits of art making. I also think it reinforces a
    perspective that people who have served in the military are tough and
    don’t need to use the arts for healing.

    Your point — that many veterans just want to pursue their interests
    in
    the arts for professional reasons and not because there is trauma to
    settle — stigmatizes the therapeutic and negates the value of using the
    arts to help veterans heal. Additionally, it is not just veterans who
    benefit from the use of the arts as a therapeutic tool. There are many
    other focused populations — civilian communities impacted by war,
    domestic violence victims, those who have experienced sexual trauma,
    children, seniors, and those suffering from life threatening illness –
    who have been
    exposed to art making to heal and transform.

    Art therapy
    is actually a particular way of using art making to help people deal
    with all sorts of issues. A true art therapy experience is done within a
    therapeutic setting under the supervision of a professionally trained
    art therapist, or with a professionally trained art therapist on hand to
    deal with anything that comes up that may be triggering. For example
    – Melissa Walker, art therapist at NICoE, leads mask making sessions
    with Wounded Warriors sent to Walter Reed. Her sessions are controlled
    art therapy experiences with medical outcomes at the base.

    In contrast to the professional art therapy experience is the
    art making of community veteran art groups like The Telling Project,
    Combat Paper Project, Veterans Writing Project, and the dance
    performances of Roman Baca. These community based projects offer
    expressive opportunities that have the potential to lead to
    healing and transformation — but strictly speaking, these are NOT art
    therapy experiences. In fact, the art making process and the work
    created can have many, many purposes.

    One of the most useful ways of defining the purposes of the
    arts was presented by the retiring chief curator at the Museum of Arts
    and Design. He speaks of the arts as functioning on a circular
    continuum — fine arts continue into the decorative arts into design to
    craft to folk art, etc., etc. All these forms of expression are on the
    continuum — and with equal position and value (which has not always
    been the case art historically). All of these forms of visual
    expression can also be telescoped out to embrace the performing arts.
    The purpose and function in all forms of art making is incredibly
    diverse. Within that diversity purpose and function can equally include
    professional career ambitions as well as healing and therapy.

    Embracing all purposes and functions of
    art making eliminates divisive in-fighting. Finding language that
    explains the nuances of professional art therapy and community arts
    projects that may promote healing and transformation allows everyone to
    be a part of the conversation. By valuing all perspectives and
    recognizing the merits of all types of function, the art making process
    is allowed to go wherever it needs to go.