Veterans and the Creative Arts

Making the Milwaukee Steles

Making the Minnesota Steles








One of the areas I am exploring in some depth right now is the role the creative arts play in the lives of active and returning veterans. Do we know how important this has been and what rich and diverse art pieces these men and women have created? I think most communities are not aware of these developments. The image to the right shows an artist-veteran working on one of the steles created for the Turning Points exhibit developed by  the Veterans in the Arts project in St. Paul represent major transformations in the lives of veterans.

In ancient times, steles were used to mark boundaries, to transmit information, to commemorate military victories. An obelisk is a particular kind of stele and in our time one commemoration of the Holocaust is a field of empty steles.


This organization, founded by a former Air Force veteran Suzanne Asher, evolved from her experiences with two groups who brought workshops to Milwaukee in 2009, the Combat Paper Project and the Warrior Writers Project. She had the experience of taking her old uniforms and transforming them into handmade paper. In her introduction to the organization she notes the importance of the arts in the lives of veterans: “The experience of violent conflict and trauma seeks resolution in an individual. Left unresolved, it can lead to inhibition and repression of wellbeing, and sometimes can lead to violence against themselves or their loved ones. Resolved, it can lead to a deeper engagement and reverence for life that can enhance the life of the individual and their contribution to their family and the community.” The arts are powerful instruments for resolution.

Veterans in the Arts has a comprehensive program supported by various partners. There are classes in art, music, photography, theater workshops, woodworking and writing. Forty veterans have the opportunity to attend an art retreat. The focus of the group is to help the artist-veteran to navigate the professional world of the arts.



Enemies Meeting in the Rain John Plunkett, Vietnam Vet

Enemies Meeting in the Rain
John Plunkett, Vietnam Vet



This is probably the art museum that nobody knows. It is a stunning collection of art by veterans from the Vietnam War to the present. Located in Chicago, it has evolved over the years from collecting and exhibiting only the work of Vietnam era vets to including pieces from artist-veterans from all the wars from Vietnam to the present day.

The current exhibit, on through August 1 is “Esprit de Corps: An Exhibit Highlighting the Spirit of Creative Resilience.” The guide notes that the exhibition “traces the process and roles of therapeutic art from the act of initial perception through expression of experience to an ultimate communal sharing of understanding of the impact of war.”

The museum will open in a few days the new exhibition “Surrealism and War.” There is a powerful trailer on the museum’s website. I recommend that you watch it and, if you are in the Chicago area before November, see it for yourself.


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The first and third photos are of veterans performing at the 2013 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. The center photo is of a group of the prize winners at the festival.

This VA sponsored activity grew out of two competitions begun in 1981 at separate VA medical facilities. Muriel Barbour founded VET ARTS at the VA medical center in Richmond, Virginia; Shirley Jefferies established the Performing Arts Competition at the VA center in Waco, Texas. These two ventures merged in 1989 and added drama and dance sections. In 2005 at the St. Louis event, creative writing became a new area for competition. For the 2013 festival, 3,883 veterans from 119 VA medical facilities competed for the prizes and exhibits or performances at the 2013 festival.

The Veterans Administration has integrated the creative arts into their recreation programs at each medical facility. The VA is also working to change the culture in their nursing homes, now called Community Living Centers. In Illinois and Wisconsin they are adding some Green House models to the Community Living Centers. See my post on Innovations in Senior Housing.

I will be posting more examples of veterans in the creative arts over the summer.


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