When she first started going to Art4Vets meetings a few years ago, Sandy Arnold said she could hardly draw, let alone paint.
Now, her artwork, along with work from others in the Capital Region-based group, is on exhibit at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Virginia and the Dulles International Airport among other locations.
“When I joined this group … I couldn’t even draw a straight line and I sat there giggling because everybody else was so good. But they kept giving me encouragement,” Arnold said.
“The first time I was in an art show I couldn’t believe it. It was like ‘Why would anybody want to see my artwork?’ But then, now we’re in [Arlington], it’s such a sense of pride and accomplishment. I’m just overjoyed.”
The exhibitions, which include artwork from veterans and their family members, are part of a national project called “Summer of Healing with the Arts.” It’s organized by Uniting US, a group that strives to empower and inspire the military community through the arts. Art4Vets, a local group of veterans that does everything from art therapy to meditation to writing workshops and more, partnered with Uniting US and sent more than 130 pieces of artwork that will be featured in the juried exhibits.
“It’s phenomenal. We’re all kind of in shock,” said Penny Lee Deere, a veteran who founded Art4Vets several years ago. The group has grown this year, not only in terms of membership but also through programming and partnerships. They work with art therapists like Heather Hutchison, who is also the executive director of CREATE Community Studios, as well as organizations like Songwriting With: Soldiers and others to provide programming that allows veterans to express themselves and their stories.
It has certainly helped people like Arnold, a Glens Falls resident who has been with the group for several years. A self-portrait included in the national exhibits speaks to that; half of the composition shows Arnold crying and the other half reveals how she looks today. Along with the portrait, Arnold wrote about her experiences.
“Back then, I was suicidal so I wrote about how I felt being suicidal and the things that I did to not commit suicide because I felt it might help somebody. I joined a church group, I joined Art4Vets, I started doing things for other people,” Arnold said.
“With the artwork, you get to express yourself, like I would never tell people I was suicidal. Nobody ever knew until I did that painting. That’s how I felt before I joined Art4Vets … so it’s really helped me heal … I’ve really blossomed since I’ve been in it.”
Because she’s immunocompromised, Arnold said she’s had to stay home for much of the pandemic, which has been depressing. However, weekly Zoom meetings with Art4Vets helped to provide a sense of community.
It’s become a tight-knit group, especially during this last year.
“People weren’t isolated. We made sure that everybody was okay. Even if they didn’t Zoom, we called and we texted, checked in and distributed art from one place to another. If anything, I think we were more connected,” said Deere.
That’s exactly what Schenectady veteran Amy Bergstrom found.
“We send each other texts … like if they haven’t heard from somebody in a while, ‘How are you doing?’” said Bergstrom. “Everybody kinda looks out for everybody.”
She joined Art4Vets shortly before the pandemic started last year.
“But it’s been nice because we Zoom every Friday from 9 to noon so I’ve gotten to know the other people in the group that are on Zoom and then through Art4Vets we’ve been able to get, there’s some other foundations that do things for women veterans,” Bergstrom said.
“Art4Vets, isn’t just you do art. There’s so many things that have come about because of it.”
Pauline Daigneault, a Cohoes resident and Air Force veteran, agrees. Before she’d joined Art4Vets, she’d done some painting, but has branched out exponentially since then and even joined other arts groups.
She typically paints scenes that reflect the natural world and said that when she’s working on art, her stress and anxiety seem to disappear.
One piece by Daigneault that’s included in the national exhibits features hot air balloons floating above a body of water.
“I painted hot air balloons because it gave me a freedom during COVID to be able to do that, thinking, you’re up there flying and you’re away from the virus. It just made me feel like I’m a little freer,” Daigneault said.
The exhibits, which will also travel to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center this year, are a first for Art4Vets. The group has participated in quite a few local exhibits at CREATE Community Studios, as well as Empire State College and others. This will be the artists’ first time participating in a national exhibit, with more than 1,000 pieces of art from people all over the country. The artwork is also for sale, which is another new element for the artists in Art4Vets, who usually create art for themselves.
Some of the artists in the group will be venturing down to see the exhibits this summer, though others plan to enjoy the show virtually.
“It’s really cool to think that a group of us veterans up here in Schenectady and Albany New York have art down at the Military Women’s Memorial,” said Bergstrom, who has several pieces of art in the exhibits.
For many in the group, it’s an honor and a point of pride.
“In my case, I like to show my work. Some people just do their artwork and they don’t care if it ever comes out of a closet again. I get gratification from other people seeing my artwork and then their interpretation of it,” Deere said.
“It’s incredible to look at the courage [of these artists who] put their ideas and thoughts out there, even when they’re not professional artists. But they’re doing it because it’s helping them heal and bringing our communities together,” said AnnMarie Halterman, the executive director of Uniting US.
The artwork featured in each exhibit will rotate throughout the summer. The exhibit at the Military Women’s Memorial will be up until November and will focus on three themes at different points, including healing, freedom and family.
For more information about “Summer of Healing with the Arts” visit unitingus.org. For more about Art4Vets, find the group on Facebook at Art4Vets and much much more/Support Our Troops committee.
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