The Heart of Art
October 7, 2013
Recently, I took up painting. It was an awkward feeling. I can’t draw a straight line. I dropped by a Vet Center art workshop during the summer to see what some friends were doing, and the woman running the program handed me a bag of paints and brushes.
The other guys—mainly retiree Vietnam vets and a quiet young fella who did combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq—were working seriously amid light-hearted banter on a wide assortment of art work. What could I do? I spent several Tuesday morning sessions doodling on an idea that didn’t work out. Meanwhile, the other guys were lining the main hallway at the Vet Center in an office park in Secaucus, NJ with arresting paintings of war scenes, nightmares, vibrant city scenes and soothing landscapes.
I’m a writer. I can paint with poetry. I once lived with a highly accomplished artist. But I was stymied as to what to do with an artist brush.
But watching the other vets encourage each other to try various media—pencil sketches, charcoal drawings, acrylic paint, water colors—an idea emerged to convey the vastness of the jungle-covered mountains in Vietnam and depict how hard it was to find a plane when it crashed in such terrain.
I found water colors worked for what I had in mind, because I could paint over my mistakes as I layered in peaks and ridges and swirls of monsoon rain in a rough facsimile of this corner of the world I haven’t seen in nearly 50 years. That intense focus brought back vivid memories of being a radio specialist in an Army aviation unit that lost planes and aircrews in those mountains.
Meanwhile, the other guys were turning out a growing gallery of art works that caught the attention of other vets coming to the Vet Center for therapy appointments. One of those vets talked with someone who knew someone who runs an art gallery. And before long, an art show was being organized at the Brennan Gallery in the Justice William J. Brennan Court House in Jersey City, NJ.
The “War & Peace: Art by Military Veterans” exhibition opened this week in the rotunda of the historic court house. Lawyers striding through between courtroom rounds stopped to take a look. Sheriff’’s officers and janitors dropped by to check it out—and then proudly pointed out to vets the stunning murals of historic figures in the Hudson River city’s early years displayed on corridor walls circling the marble columned rotunda.
Guided by Angela Maio, a family therapist at the Secaucus Vet Center, participants in the vets’ art workshop explored a variety of media to probe, uncover and convey hard-to-express experiences.
“After many years of doing talk therapy with veterans, I realized that another more powerful outlet was needed.” Maio said in a news release statement. “The ‘Paint Your Pain’ Art Group has had a healing cathartic effect on participants’ combat stressors. Several members have expressed the feeling of finally finding closure to their nightmares and to the Vietnam War.”
One of the most stunning works is a painting of a “Point Man” on patrol raising his arm, signaling other GIs (and viewers) to “follow me” into a murky mist in a jungle clearing. The artist, Barry Jensen, a retired carpenter who jotted in a sketchbook during the war, was wounded while serving with a long range reconnaissance patrol unit in Vietnam.
One of the most creative commentaries on what the art workshops mean to these men is a water color titled “Forty-Five Years Later,” by Joe Lis, a combat infantryman and retired nurse. It shows several vets working on art pieces under the hovering blades of a military helicopter, from which one vet is set to jump waving a paint brush, rather than a rifle.
Other artists with works on display include Jim Fallon, Michael Eckstein, Frank Wagner, Tom Sears, Walt Nygard, and Wilson Montaleza. Montaleza served in the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. The other vets served in Vietnam in the Army or Marines.
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