Giving Voice Through Art
I am an artist and a military spouse. I create artwork that expresses the fragile strength of life as an Army wife. My husband and I married just as he was joining the Army. Of his subsequent 20 years in the military, the greater part of the first 15 were stationed overseas, and included seven deployments and a consistently high Op Tempo—which meant that I was often raising our nascent family alone, in a country whose language I had to learn, and oceans away from any kin and traditional support system. I don’t say this to elicit sympathy because I know so many service members and their families have experienced far greater challenges than I have. I’m not injured. I don’t have a debilitating disease. My husband returned from war in mostly one piece. My life as a military spouse has been challenging, but no more so than anyone else. Who am I to say anything that’s less than rosy?
But that doesn’t mean life can’t be difficult at times. I have found that if I can express these challenges and frustrations through my art, the message is less finite or specific. The artwork is not just about me. And it’s not only cathartic to me, but it leaves room for the viewer to bring his or her own experience and voice to the visual conversation as well—in ways that words and writing can not. Others can see their own story in the bits that I have shared. They can expand upon what I may have started. The viewer may find interpretations in my art that I never intended, but are no less valid for them, as it is what they see in the art with their own eyes and hearts. It’s good to be able to work through one’s own issues, but when one can give voice to others who have yet to find their own, it’s even better.
In 2014, I was deeply honored to have been a part of the very personal and meaningful art on display at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s Healing Arts exhibit. That same year, I was also lucky to have had several pieces of mine on temporary exhibit at The National Institutes of Health, whose halls are filled with calming, inspiring, enriching, and thought provoking artwork. I truly believe it’s important for people to have myriad ways of expressing themselves, not just through words, but also through images. And it is important to share those expressions so that others may find understanding, and perhaps a bit of their own voice in the art as well.
In speaking with people viewing my own art, I often hear that those with military connections saw their own experiences reflected in the artwork. For others, talking about their reactions to or interpretations of the art was a way to create a bridge between a civilian and a military community. In this sense, both creating art and viewing art can be seen to play important roles in understanding and healing. Studies have also shown that making art produces endorphins. Making art makes us feel good.
We also know that resiliency is a key component of military members’ and their families’ health. It is also a large part of why I created my Army Wife series. I didn’t know that when I started the series. All I knew was that I needed to make these pieces and each time I created one, an idea for the next would spring to mind. After more than four years, a dozen artworks, and a solo show, I realized that I wasn’t so down anymore. I wasn’t so frustrated with nothing and everything. I didn’t feel the desire to run away. I can’t put a finger on specifics, but I know that I felt better after making the art, and that after five years on this series, I’m about ready to move on to another topic. Part of that I can probably chalk up to a stateside assignment with a slower op tempo, and ultimately my husband being medically retired. But I’m sure that a large part of it is because of the art I created. My art helps me be centered and resilient.
In preparation for a short talk I gave at the Healing Arts exhibit, I read a white paper on Arts, Health and Well-Being Across the Military Continuum. I was surprised to realize that although we rarely associate arts with the military, they have actually had a long partnership. Colors and insignia, songs, drums, and bugle calls are integral. Paintings have immortalized military failures and successes as tribute and as lessons for the future (Washington Crossing the Delaware, The Coronation of Napoleon, Guernica, for example). The connection between arts and healing is much more personal than the use of arts for communication and education such as regimental patches, fife and drum corps, or painted portraits of our leaders, but it is communication nonetheless. It’s our conscious communicating with our subconscious, helping us build our resiliency. It’s the service member communicating with his or her family and medical team. It’s our community communicating with the world.
Not just for me, but for many, it’s a lot easier to express one’s feelings, or to work through things, by creating something with our hands rather than trying to craft just the right words, and because of that it is vital that we have the space and the resources, whether it’s through creating art or merely the opportunity to commune with it. I hope that programs which bring in the arts as part of the healing process continue to grow and flourish. They may not seem mission critical, but if a strong and resilient force is necessary for the mission (and we all know it is), then art must be included in the kit.