As a recipient of our Arts + Wellness grant program, The Veterans Art Foundation (VAF) is committed to providing arts therapy to veterans and their families to promote healing, self-expression, and assist veterans in re-adjusting to civilian life. In this post, volunteers of VAF share their experience on the first of several mask-making workshops for veterans. The next workshop is Saturday, June 4th from 9:30am – 3pm at the Art Connection Studio.
On April 23, 2016, the Veterans Art Foundation held the first of four free mask-making workshops. Specifically offered to veterans, the mask-making workshops are a wonderful way to reach the Veteran community and offer productive support. Honoring veterans in this way helps promote healing through the process of creation. Each veteran had the opportunity to explore a variety of materials and create a unique mask that speaks from their specific perspective. The event included food for all participants through the generous donation of Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ of Hartford.
It was my extreme pleasure to help facilitate, along with Rachel Sclare – Arts Director of the VAF, such a fulfilling event. The experience was moving from beginning to end. The Art Connection Studio donated its beautiful space illuminated with natural light. Large work areas gave each person the room to create unencumbered. Rachel and I took joy in setting the supply tables with what appeared to be endless items of paint, paper, books, beads, ribbons, baubles and ‘do hickeys; all sorts of stuff’ to get the imagination reeling. Offering such a vast array of options for creating helped unlock each veteran’s unique potential. No two masks were the same.
The energy in the room was electric. As the veterans worked diligently on their masks you could hear the rising and falling buzz of conversation. People were making connections and sharing ideas. All levels of experience were acceptable. The push was simply to create whatever came to mind. The masks were exquisite!
Towards the end of the workshop, the veterans were excited to display and examine each other’s work of art. It was amazing to see such vast differences in the masks. Some veterans created two masks as if to say, one mask would not suffice, for they were brimming with explosive expression. The comments were encouraging and insightful. Everyone seemed to come away having been grateful for attending. I know I was.
~ Michelle Thomas
I helped create the Veterans Art Foundation in 2008, after spending over a year in combat in the sands and cities across Iraq. The Arts are a powerful healing tool and the VAF is an incredible pathway to readjustment. Just recently, I had the honor of attending our first ever mask-making workshop.
I was impressed by the creativity our veterans showcased through their masks. Many vets will profess to have no artistic abilities, (myself included, especially my painting which is horrible), but when you place blank masks, paint and artistic supplies in front of vets, they’re capable of making masterworks of creativity. Just looking at the other masks left me breathless and in awe of what the group of vets had crafted.
I built a mask representing the internal and external struggles depicted in the “Devil’s Sooty Brother” from Grimm’s Fairy Tales; a story about a disgruntled and desperate veteran stoking cauldron for the devil and letting himself go physically. The Devil’s Sooty Brother held simmering grudges against his military leadership, and faced economic strife upon returning to his home after service. I saw myself in the story and created a mask reflecting the character.
We all wear masks; in uniform, basic training, combat, and especially during our civilian lives, including jobs, in public, and even with our families. Whether we ever talk about it is another matter. Creating masks with other veterans helps us safely express our inner dimensions without the need for words.
~Michael Hawley, Veterans Art Foundation founder and President of the Board
Mask making with the VAF was an experience. I don’t say good or bad experience because it was neither, or perhaps both. I showed up with my usual baseline level of anxiety and coped with it by being a talker, my usual MO. After a few minutes the opening and introductions started – always a slightly awkward time, where everyone’s wondering what they’re going to say or how many people it would take to bring down the huge guy with the beard (he was a very nice guy, Navy vet who also hooked us up with Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ lunch that was delicious, so thanks!). Needless to say, I was itching to get my hands on a task.
Once the directions were given, the anxiety found a home in engagement and problem solving. I first stared at my human likeness of a canvas and tried to listen. Not to it per se but to me. What is in me looking for a place to come out? For me on that day and many recent days, the answer was a mix of guilt for being destructive, anger for not being able to maintain the initiative in the battle of daily life, and fear of many things, some of which happen but rarely so. I had been feeling raw and overly sensitive that day as I do most days, and that’s what I helped my mask to convey…the unhuman appearance of some exposed damaged flesh. Along with those feelings, I’m aware that I do some things with my thoughts, words, and actions that I believe ensure my survival, but in reality these things hurt me at least as much as they help, probably more. So I gave my mask some threatening looking protrusions with chess pieces (symbolizing the waste and misuse of my intellect), toothpicks (to symbolize sharp weapons coming through the skin hurting me and threatening to hurt any who get too close) and the central shaft of a broken spiral sea shell protruding from the position of the third eye in eastern belief (to give my mask a ray of the organic, natural, beautiful, and unexplainable that carries a glimmer of hope for me).
The truth that came out in my mask is that my raw skin keeps me from living life and my sharp defense mechanisms keep other people from approaching. They keep me in a state of loneliness and exasperation. And just like that, after what seemed like a few minutes (but in fact was several hours) we were done. It was evident in the very personal sharing of intent and motivations at the end that we, either by choice or by instinct, used our mask to communicate. Some to nurture, others to explore/question, others to seethe in rage, all to solve the problem of making tangible the mask we came in already wearing that day. After making my mask I, for one, experienced a sense of relief.
These workshops are made possible by an Arts & Wellness grant from the Greater Hartford Arts Council. Wonderful lunches are made possible by Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ of Hartford.
Our next FREE mask making workshop will be held on Saturday, June 4th from 9:30am – 3pm at the Art Connection Studio – 56 Arbor St #206, Hartford, CT. A light breakfast and lunch from Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ will be provided.
Pre-registration Only: 860-977-7129 / ArtTherapistVAF@gmail.com
Slots will be filled on a first come, first served basis. If you need transportation please let us know.
The Veterans Art Foundation is run by a team of incredibly devoted volunteers. For more information and to stay in the know about our happenings, please ‘Like’ us here https://www.facebook.com/VeteransArtFoundation/
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