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WHAM Art Program Helps Veterans Battle ‘The Beast

Budd Gilbert rode his motorcycle to old town Surprise Monday hoping to find another creative outlet that puts a leash on the beast.

Thats what the 15-year Army veteran, who saw combat in Panama, Iraq (Operation Desert Storm), Somalia and Bosnia, calls his inner feelings of depression, rage and other symptoms of his post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the years, he found taking part in music and the arts were the most therapeutic releases for him and a way to avoid the isolated, quiet times that often bring on the beast.

So the Glendale man signed up for a monthly program Art: A Path to Healing, at the Whats Happenn Art Movement headquarters, 16560 N. Dysart Road in Surprise. This free professional arts class for veterans is presented in partnership with the Arizona Art Alliance and is the first of its kind in the West Valley.

We always say that were inclusive, not exclusive. We have professional people but those people are giving back, WHAM president Connie Whitlock said. Were about getting the community involved and connecting through art. This fits perfectly with what were trying to accomplish.

Gilbert has played harmonica and sung in blues and rock bands for two decades and said he sees his music in colors. That prompted his girlfriend to give him a beginning art kit for Christmas.

He said he put some of the music in his head to paper and was surprised with the results, even selling some of his early drawings.

It brought a real focus but a calmness at the same time. My counselor at the VA clinic came across an email on this class and told me I should check it out, Gilbert said. Painting, you actually see results of what you created.

Whitlock said hes one of 16 to sign up for program, 11 of whom attended Monday. The class is a blend of men and women and spans generations from a 90-year-old woman who served in World War II to veterans of the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars in their 20s.

Arizona Art Alliance founding president John Fontana spearheaded the inception of the program in Scottsdale in 2012. The local VA gave organizers 15 vets who could benefit from the classes. That group grew and spilt into two Scottsdale classes, fostering the idea of expansion.

The alliance applied for and received a $5,000 grant to add two more sites, and chose the Arizona Artists Guild in Phoenix and WHAM. In September, the art alliance will partner with the Mesa Art League to open a fourth group.

The monthly class begins with four months of basic drawing and painting. From there, the veterans have a full menu of mediums to try out with offerings in 3D work, clay, metalwork even more exotic art forms like gourds, glass, woodcarving and wax work.

Everybody sees art as drawing to begin with. Then well start some of the other mediums, Whitlock said.

Gilbert said he looks at things in an abstract sense, and is interested in exploring abstract art, particularly acrylic abstract, in the later stages of the program.

The liberating nature of art has often served to bolster confidence for veterans struggling with PTSD. As people who in their military career had very specific tasks to accomplish in a prescribed way, they learn things can be more flexible.

For these people, their mindset is such that theyre insecure. You dont fail in art. You just paint over it. That was a big step, he said.

Beyond the art content, the program can provide a chance to socialize with veterans who bring vastly different experiences to the table.

The class is open to all veterans, though some aspects of it could be more beneficial to vets suffering from PTSD.

Gilbert said hes still early into dabbling in art but thinks its promising as a coping mechanism.

When you meet people who have gone through similar things and youre focusing on something, that distracts you from the beast coming out, Gilbert said. Our negative thoughts have to do with some extreme things. Im just finding ways to manage it and control it, not just here but in other therapy groups.

Fontana said hes watched several veterans enter the class scarred and standoffish and slowly start to open up, in their art and with the other vets in the class. One man struggling with PTSD spoke to a local news crew as the first class wrapped up, saying he has a better outlook on life and less dependence on alcohol and medications.

Another veteran gained enough confidence through art to reinvent her career path.

She had a job that was just a low-paying job. She also is going to the VA and in counseling through a therapist, Fontana said. After the fourth class the therapist told her, This art is really helping you. I noticed an increase in your confidence level. Sure enough, she interviewed for and got a higher-paying job as a result of the confidence she gained.

And veterans learn of other people and groups that value their service sometimes more than they do.

As a veteran, were taught to serve. To have people and organizations come out of the walls and adore us with their appreciation, its hard to take sometimes. Were always thanked for our service, and I say, It was my honor. Gilbert said. What I hope to get out of this is some more technique and enhance my skills that way. On the other side, I’m meeting interesting people, my brothers and sisters. I’m sitting next to a lady who is a 90-year-old World War II vet.

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