The Arts Say Thank You to Our Veterans and Active Duty Military
As we celebrate both Thanksgiving and National Veterans and Military Families Month this year, we honor the service and sacrifice of America’s more than 18 million veterans across the country. Arts and humanities events and programs remind us of the contributions that veterans and active duty military and their families have made and the power of joining together through the shared experience of art. We recognize the growing number of state and local-level arts and military initiatives that are creating greater access and more opportunities across the country. These programs unite us, bridging the civilian/military divide in a non-partisan way that only the arts can, in communities both large and small. And these efforts aren’t just one-time events; they represent long-term commitments from artists and arts groups to serve those who have served.
The National Veterans Creative Arts Festival (NVCAF), now in its tenth year, supported by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Legion Auxiliary, kicked off the month and was hosted by the VA Central Iowa Healthcare System in Des Moines. More than 120 veterans, gold medal achievers in the arts from VA centers all over the country, gathered for an immersive experience of multidisciplinary workshops, seminars, rehearsals, and readings, culminating in the Creative Writing and Visual Art Exhibitions, and the Stage Show Program held at the historic Hoyt Sherman Place.
“We are beings meant to move and create, to break down the barriers we face from our past and present, and create a beneficial future,” said NVCAF participant and US Army veteran Sarah Watson, of the Central California VA.
In nearby Milwaukee, the nonprofit Feast of Crispian has been helping military veterans transition into the community since 2013 through the words and stories of William Shakespeare. Co-founders Bill Watson and Nancy Smith-Watson inspired and mentored staff at the Tennessee Shakespeare Company to develop Feast of the Crispian South in a collaboration project with the Memphis VA Medical Center. A grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission and the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services supports a 10-week residency in the chemical dependency unit, post-traumatic stress disorder unit, and the psychological rehab unit at the Memphis VA Medical Center with sessions that combine theater practices, live performances, and text.
The humanities also play an important role in helping Americans understand the experiences of service members and in assisting veterans as they return to civilian life. The Florida Humanities Council helped bring Matt Mitchell’s 100 Faces of War Experience to Florida’s Museums as part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The exhibition features 100 life-sized oil portraits of Americans who went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001–2014. Haunting and poignant, every portrait includes a candid, first-hand narrative of the American experience of these wars, which Mitchell conducted before painting each subject. The exhibit is the basis for community dialogue through workshops, panels, and events.
I am thrilled to see arts and military programs across the country expand, not just for National Veterans and Military Families Month, but year-round. For instance, in New Mexico, military and civilian communities came together in September for the 10th Anniversary of the Love Armor Project, first conceived of by artist Shirley Klinghoffer in 2007 as a symbol of caring and support for our troops fighting in Afghanistan without logistically armored Humvees for protection from roadside bombs. Klinghoffer obtained the specs of military Humvees from the Department of Defense, created pattern pieces, and recruited knitters from around the country to create the “Humvee Cozy,” symbolizing that vulnerability as well as the caring community. More than 70 participants, including members of the New Mexico National Guard, assembled the “Humvee Cozy”, sewing it together with red threads called bloodlines.
The Love Armor 10th Anniversary Exhibition & Community Outreach Program featured conversations on advances in art therapy for treating post-traumatic stress, diversity in the military, and the activism of fabric artists around the world, as well as an oral history training session. Ten years later, American military service members are still in Afghanistan and the Love Armor Project continues to serve as a testament to community collaboration and the healing power of art and creativity.
Military service members and veterans contribute significantly to the artistic and cultural legacy of this country, shaping our understanding of how vital the arts can be to everyone’s lives. To find individuals and organizations advancing this critical work, consult the Arts & Military Services Directory, compiled by the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military at Americans for the Arts.
Throughout history, in war as well as in peace, the arts and humanities have played an active, meaningful role in the lives of our military service members, veterans and their families. As we each celebrate their service — which I myself had the opportunity to do at Hell’s Bottom VFW Post 350 in Takoma Park, Maryland — we are grateful as well to all those artists who bring their stories to life.