The Arts as a Medium for Veterans' Re-entry and Healing
Something very special happened at the 2013 Maryland Arts Day in Annapolis. It was a spontaneous standing ovation from the crowd of nearly 400 arts professionals from all over the state. The ovation was not for a Hollywood star, nor a seasoned lawmaker, nor a favorite professional athlete. No, on that day, the ovation was for four men and one woman. These were regular people, people who in fact studied art and voice and film in college, and the in the wake of September 11, 2001, a fierce sense of duty clicked in. They put their art on hold and served their country. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines were all represented in this unassuming group of heroes. These five individuals are founding members of the Veteran Artist Program (VAP), a nonprofit organization based in Baltimore, whose mission is simply “to foster, encourage and promote Veteran artists.” VAP reconnects the artist in the warrior to the mainstream arts community through mentorship, networking, collaborations with professional artists and arts organizations, and through original productions.
My first introduction to VAP was at one of these original productions. “The Telling Project” directed by VAP Founder BR McDonald, was performed all over Maryland in 2011 and the first part of 2012. Put simply, this work was a collection of stories from service members, woven together into a script, and then rehearsed and performed by the same service members. There was no sugar coating. This was an opportunity for the citizens of Maryland to hear firsthand about the experiences of our men and women in uniform (and, in this case, from their families too.) VAP is also currently engaged in a juried exhibition process for a major show of veteran artwork which will hang in the Pentagon in Arlington, VA. Using all artistic disciplines, VAP is one of many organizations springing up around the country whose primary purpose is to use the arts to help veterans “re-enter”. Helping our veterans re-connect to home is work we should all be engaged in.
It was Maryland Citizens for the Arts’ (MCA) Board Chair, Doug Mann, who first suggested we should find a way for the arts sector to honor our veterans at the 2013 Maryland Arts Day. When I mentioned my experience with VAP it was obvious that we would involve them. With VAP, we had an opportunity not just to honor, but to engage, promote and collaborate with veterans through our everyday work. It was the perfect partnership. VAP is just three years old and although they have had many large scale successes already, Maryland Arts Day was the ideal venue to connect them to the creative and diverse organizations from every corner of our state.
Each of the VAP representatives attended their respective county delegation visit with lawmakers, and had the opportunity to speak about their service and their art. It was clear, by the end of the day VAP had made many new friends from the hundreds of Maryland arts organizations represented, which was an intended outcome. What wasn’t intended, or at least wasn’t expected, is that our veterans gave us another key tool in the arts advocacy tool-kit; using the arts to re-engage, employ and heal our veterans. To show the power of this partnership, one only need read the fantastic Baltimore Sun story cover of the Sunday Arts section on February 17, found here.
This is a mutually beneficial arrangement. In fact, it is more beneficial than either MCA or VAP imagined.
For me, however, this is also personal. Taking off my director’s hat, if one can ever really do that, I can honestly say that this team of veterans has changed my life. Their partner organization, The Sixth Branch, is one of my regular volunteering gigs, and I am very drawn to hearing and seeing the stories that these artists tell and compelled to find out what I can do to further these efforts. Because of VAP, and other organizations like them, Americans finally have the opportunity to participate in a discussion, not of “why” or “why not” war, but of “how can we support those who served.” The experience of war does change a person; we found this out from “The Telling Project.” The arts are playing an increasingly larger role, not just for “re-entry” but for healing our wounded warriors too (check out the National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military ). Today, through the arts, we civilians can try to begin to comprehend just how much. What’s more, is that these service members can, through their art, begin to put pieces back together again, begin healing, and begin bringing their unique perspective and talents to solving the challenges that face our citizens, our cities and our towns every day.