For veterans, art a chance for much-needed release

Veteran art
With Vietnam veteran Tom Youness sitting nearby, Marine veteran John Finlay glazes a tile at a Minneapolis, Minn. pottery studio Friday, April 19, 2013. Finlay and Youness, who were working on a mural for the Veterans Resource Outreach Center in Minneapolis, both have work featured in a Veterans in the Arts exhibit at the Minneapolis Photo Center.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

An art exhibit opening Friday in Minneapolis is the culmination of more than two years of teaching military veterans to express themselves through art and resolve difficult emotions stemming from past conflict or trauma.

Eighteen veterans will have pieces in the mixed media show that includes painting, photography, ceramics, metalwork, sculpture, prints, glass and collage work.

One of the veterans, John Finlay who served in the Marine Corps, said that working with pottery makes him feel calm. He likes making ceramics on the potters wheel but said the more hands-on techniques of hand-building with clay suit him better.

"I was looking for a way that I can release stress," he said. "I like doing slab, I like doing coil. It's a little more controlling for me."

Finlay and the other two veterans worked on a recent afternoon in a south Minneapolis studio as part of a program called Veterans in the Arts. The recently formed non-profit offers hands-on art classes in a variety of mediums for free. The goal is to give veterans the skills to express themselves creatively throughout their lives.

Finlay said he gets a lot of satisfaction from making art in the company of his fellow military veterans.

Mural rendering
A rendering of a mural that will be hung at the Veterans Resource Outreach Center guides the work of Veterans in the Arts potters in a Minneapolis, Minn. studio Friday, April 19, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"It was a nice atmosphere to have and to be able to share ideas," Finlay said. "If I thought of an idea, asking it, putting it out there and seeing if people responded, seeing how they felt about it and then overall seeing if it's possible. And if it is possible then I ran with it and then if it wasn't possible, back to the drawing board."

But the program is not meant to be therapy, said its founder Suzanne Asher.

"We are not therapists, we are artists," Asher said. "We are taught by really fine artists who have the broad skills to be able to work with the veteran to say 'okay you want to do this thing, this is pretty complicated this is what you're going to have to do first.' "

"I felt so comfortable when I was done that I had produced something out of all this agony."

Asher is an Air Force veteran who worked with nuclear weapons. She was the first woman to serve in many of her units. She said she was inspired to form Veterans in the Arts after making a piece of art out of one of her old military uniforms.

"I felt so comfortable when I was done that I had produced something out of all this agony," Asher said. "That is the role the arts can play when you have emotions that you, you just don't know what to do with."

Veterans in the Arts partners with organizations around the Twin Cities to teach different art-making techniques. Some of the instructors are also military veterans.

The understanding they share offers traumatized veterans much-needed peace.

Veteran Tom Youness struggled for decades with undiagnosed mental health problems after getting home from Vietnam.

"You get home and you don't really, really relax. You think you are but you're really not," Youness said. "You're always on edge about something, loud noises, whatever. I'm much calmer now. I had one nightmare for, I'm not exaggerating, probably 10,000 times in 30 some years."

A few years ago, Youness finally got the treatment he needed to get well. He said Veterans in the Arts helps in a way he didn't anticipate. Making art in a roomful of veterans provides healing camaraderie.

Glazing tiles
Vietnam veteran Tom Youness glazes a tile at a Minneapolis, Minn. pottery studio Friday, April 19, 2013. Youness has a maple syrup pottery set featured in a Veterans in the Arts Exhibit at the Minneapolis Photo Center.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"I didn't join it for the therapeutic value but it's sort of ended up that way. We've sort of become friends," Youness said.

Youness has two ceramic pieces in this weekend's show.

Asher said the veterans in the group are excited for their first-ever gallery show.

"It took a great deal of courage for them to do so because we don't want to say that our art is super great," Asher said. "We feel very humbled by what our talents are but it's real art. It comes from the heart and for that reason a lot of the veterans said I want to show it. I want to share it."

The Veterans in the Arts show runs through the weekend at the Minneapolis Photo Center.

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