Humor Enabling Healing to Create Space for Social Change

Posted by D'Lo On December - 5 - 2013
D'Lo

D’Lo

As the dark kid in Hickeville, USA, I remember using my outrageous silliness as a way to deflect and distract from my queerness. I’m transgender, born with a vagina, but always aspiring to look like LL Cool J. Growing up, no one questioned my boyish swag; in fact, for the most part, I felt encouraged in it. I was funny and (thankfully) cool – though a different type of cool than the cool-white-kids at my schools – nonetheless, cool enough not to get bullied.

Moving into adulthood, I used my “funny-ness” to facilitate healing and social change. It is well known in our queer circles, how comedy plays a role in our healing. Carol Burnett said “Comedy is Tragedy mellowed by Time”. Sometimes, we queer folk come back from a family reunion where we have had to hear our blood family react/respond to us with negativity (to put it mildly). We hop in our cars and our tears blur the lane lines and the oncoming traffic headlights, but we don’t care if we get into an accident.  We arrive at our home and drink at our pity-party and hopefully, before the 3rd glass of wild turkey, we have called a friend, rather – chosen family, over to our house. We sit with them and cry again while recalling the events that broke our hearts. And by the time we’ve consummated our water-is-thicker-than-blood ritual, we’re falling over each other, laughing, taking power back by sharing sentiments over the absurdity of close-mindedness.

This humor that enables healing can go on to create space for social change–space to initiate the dialogue, and the sometimes uncomfortable conversations in which mainstream society members have to question themselves and their hetero-normativity.  The vehicle for this humor is our stories. Read the rest of this entry »

In Tribute to Their Service

Posted by Bill O'Brien On November - 18 - 2013
Bill O'Brien

Bill O’Brien

Every November, Veterans Day comes and goes as a reminder for us to thank our American military men and women for their sacrifice and service. As our most recent conflict has transitioned into the longest war in American history, the burden of their service has become harder and harder to ignore. More and more, we are compelled to find meaningful ways to show respect.

Over the past few years, a number of  initiatives have emerged to help rally the arts in support of our troops and their families. These efforts have received a significant boost from The National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military. A broad coalition of military, government and non-profit leaders initiated by the Walter Reed National Medical Military Center and Americans for the Arts, the Initiative has staged two national summits, a national Roundtable, and has published a white paper framing an action plan to advance research, practice, and policy around the arts and the military.

As previously mentioned on this blog, the NEA has also been working with Walter Reed and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) to improve our understanding of the impact the arts can bring in efforts to heal our troops. This partnership, which initially focused support on therapeutic writing, has now expanded into a broader Creative Arts Therapy program that also includes support for research and activities related to music and visual arts-based therapies.

Read the rest of this entry »

Artists in the Wounded Warrior Unit at Walter Reed Hospital

Posted by Shanti Norris On November - 17 - 2013
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Shanti Norris

When Smith Center for Healing and the Arts first brought professional artists into the Wounded Warrior Unit at Walter Reed to work directly with patients, the clinical staff said “we don’t know who you are, but please stay out of our way.” They told the artists to avoid patients that they considered difficult or depressed.  Within a few months, they were giving the artists referral lists of patients that they wanted them to visit with – and asked them to please be sure to visit the difficult and depressed patients.  The staff have come to see the artists as part of their healing team and even request lunchtime sessions for themselves to reduce their own stress.

Four years ago we were invited to bring our successful hospital based artist-in-residence program into what is now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to work with Wounded Warriors in the surgical unit.  Our artists had been working with adult cancer patients at area hospitals for many years. They came to Walter Reed where we trained them in military culture and the specifics of Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other injuries of modern day warfare.  They learned hospital protocol, were trained in HIPPA regulations and went through medical and background screening requirements.  They were educated in the surprisingly extensive history of the arts in the military.  Then they went to work knocking on patients’ doors and offering sessions for family members in the family lounge. Read the rest of this entry »

Art’s Creative Healing Connections for Members of the Military

Posted by Naj Wikoff On November - 1 - 2013
Naj Wikoff

Naj Wikoff

The arts help bring home those who have put and continue to put their lives in harm’s way to protect and promote the values and way of life we cherish.

Tom Smith should not be alive. In Vietnam he was a helicopter scout pilot for the 1st Cavalry Division. In Vietnam, helicopter pilots flew through the heaviest concentrations of enemy fire and an attrition rate twenty times that of U.S. Air Force pilots, and of them, the Cavalry pilots were hit hardest having a forty to fifty percent survival rate and a life expectancy of three weeks. His job was to fly at treetop level, often at 30 mph or less to locate the enemy usually by drawing their fire.

Smith describes the cause of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) not as a result of such horrific experiences of being shot down, the rotors being snapped off by the trees, or looking at the gunman bellow whose bullets are ripping through the fuselage, but by living with the daily grind of fear.

For me PTSD comes from living in an environment of fear more than the events that precipitated it,” said Smith. “When I got shot down and was on fire that was really scary. There was no place to put the helicopter down. I had to fly a burning helicopter for an inordinately long time to crash it and that was terrifying. When I got shot down through 150 feet of trees and had the rotor blades ripped off it was quite terrifying and painful as my jaw and back were broken. I went in knowing what I was getting into, but it’s the daily living in an environment of fear – the fight or flight fear that doesn’t go away, that stays with you after you leave the hospital and into civilian life – it changes you as much if not more than the combat situation itself.

For Smith, it was writing, taken up decades later, that helped him come to terms with and finally be able to speak openly about what it means to living with PTSD and its impact on himself and on his family. Smith’s experience is one that many veterans across the country are increasingly coming to realize; the arts can help them connect with themselves, with others who have shared similar experiences, with their family, and with their community. Read the rest of this entry »

Arts and Health in the Military: An Introduction

Posted by Marete Wester On October - 2 - 2013
Marete Wester

Marete Wester

The purpose was to get control of my problems, medical, personal, at home, family…basically trying to fight and conquer my demons. The angel has the authority, the power over this demon. That’s where I want to be. I want to have control over my problems, to have resiliency. It’s a struggle all the time but I’m slowly learning to control these issues I had before. Pinning down the demon, pinning down my problems…” SM, Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune

“St. Michael Conquers the Demon,” photo courtesy of The Art Therapy Program at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune (NHCL)

“St. Michael Conquers the Demon,” photo courtesy of The Art Therapy Program at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune (NHCL)

Since 2001, more than two million U.S. troops have been deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF, War in Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation New Dawn (OND). The nature of these conflicts is unprecedented in the history of America’s all-volunteer force: over the course of more than a decade of war, America’s military service men and women have endured extended and multiple deployments, exposure to nontraditional combat (e.g., use of improvised explosive devices) and shortened time at home between deployments. The number of service members returning home who suffer from both physical and psychological traumas, including post-traumatic stress, loss of a limb, brain injuries and depression, has increased.

With the conflicts winding down and more troops returning home, there is a growing awareness among the public and private sectors, and the military itself, that the challenges facing service members, veterans, and their families require more than medical treatment to resolve.

Is there a role for the arts to play in addressing these challenges? Over the past two years, that question has been posed to more than 500 thought leaders, practitioners, and decision-makers from the military, government, corporations, foundations, and nonprofits  through a series of national convenings under the auspices of the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military. The results have been released this week in the new report, Arts, Health and Well-Being across the Military Continuum—White Paper and Framing a National Plan for Action.

Co-chaired by Americans for the Arts and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the National Initiative represents the first time the military has come together with a coalition of civilian public and private sector partners to ensure quality access to the arts for the health and well-being of service members, veterans, and their families in communities across the country. The White Paper chronicles the more than 2-year investigation and national conversation on how the arts help mitigate the challenges our military and veterans communities face. It provides a framework for how various stakeholders can work together to remove barriers and engage in greater cooperation and partnerships. It summarizes the extent of what we know about the National Initiative’s three critical areas of interest—research, practice, and policy—and provides an introduction to the kinds of programs and services currently taking place in the realm of arts and health in the military. The recommendations it contains are bold and inspirational. They are intended to stimulate further conversation and inspire action among all stakeholders, military and civilian. Read the rest of this entry »

Happiness Is The Arts

Posted by Stephanie Milling On August - 14 - 2013
Stephanie Milling

Stephanie Milling

The last couple of weeks, two interesting news stories that shared conflicting perspectives of the arts were reported on the NBC Nightly News. The first report told the story of a failing school in Boston that was turned around when the principal chose to eliminate the funding that customarily subsidized the security force and invest it in the arts. This move that some considered controversial at Orchard Gardens , a school in Roxbury, MA, resulted in one of the fastest student improvement rates statewide. The other anecdotal evidence that students, teachers, and the principal shared during the report reinforced evidence that arts advocates have always had statistics to support: students who study the arts in school perform better in the classroom and demonstrate more prosocial behavior. As an arts advocate, this feel good story tugged at my heart strings. I was satisfied that this principal’s quest to prove the value of the arts in education proved fruitful. As a former teacher in schools like Orchard Gardens, I was delighted to see a failing school turned around.

The second report featured the retailer, The Children’s Place, and the demands to stop selling a girls t-shirt after complaints that it portrayed a sexist stereotype. The shirt said “my best subjects,” and featured checkboxes next to shopping, music, dance, and math. The boxes next to shopping, music, and dance contained checks while the box next to math was empty. While the controversy surrounding the shirt was motivated by individuals who viewed the shirt as sexist—and I am not denying that it was sexist–I was also bothered by the fact that it trivialized dance and music as core subject areas. By selling such a product, The Children’s Place and the t-shirt designer communicated that young women are intellectually inferior to their male peers and that studying the arts is equivalent to shopping.

While the first news report portrayed the type of story that supports the work arts advocates do in this country, the second illustrates the need for continued dialogue with those who fail to understand the value of the arts in education—even if the faux pas was unintentional. While there are many ways to approach the dialogue of why students benefit from studying the arts with statistics and research to support this perspective, lately I have been thinking of a more straightforward point of entry into the conversation that might resonate with multiple audiences: engagement in the arts can lead to happiness. While approaching a conversation about the value of the arts in education with the idea that it makes us happy might sound facetious, I think it might help develop some common ground between those advocating on behalf of the arts and those who need to be more receptive to the idea that engagement in the arts leads to success in other academic subjects and life. Read the rest of this entry »

Wrapping up the Arts & Military Blog Salon

Posted by Joanna Chin On May - 17 - 2013
Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

Throughout this week the overriding question has been: why do we use the arts in this complex space where individual and community health, veterans, and the military intersect?

On day 1, the resounding answer was that the arts promote the health and wellness of our veterans and active duty members. Two experts in the creative arts therapy field, NICoE Healing Arts Program Coordinator Melissa Walker and Semper Sound Military Program Director Rebecca Vaudreuil, made science-based arguments for the place of art-making and music in opening up channels of communication and guiding service members down the path towards healing. Susan Rockefeller’s experience documenting Nell Bryden’s band as they played for troops serving in Iraq gave anecdotal evidence of the impact that music can have on those thousands of miles from home.

As part of a natural progression from individual health to community wellbeing, on day 2, bloggers spoke to the power of the arts to aid in community reintegration. Punctuated by beautiful writing from the Veterans Writing Project, blog posts by Combat Paper Project founder Drew Cameron and Executive Director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts John Schratwieser asserted the need for everyone and particularly, artists/arts administrators as bedrocks of their community, to engage in the work of re-connecting veterans to home.

Looking at the intersection of the arts and the military from a global perspective, day 3 explored how culture plays a significant role in the success of missions and military communities abroad. From David Diamond’s observations of theater on military bases to two posts by General Nolen Bivens and American University Professor Dr. Robert Albro, we saw a shared acknowledgment of art and culture’s importance to the military (both in protecting cultural assets and, also, as a tool for creating and maintaining social and political stability), as well as diverse viewpoints on the challenges associated with this work. Read the rest of this entry »

A Collective Representation of the American Experience of War

Posted by Matt Mitchell On May - 17 - 2013
Matt Mitchell

Matt Mitchell

Since the spring of 2005 I have been working on a project entitled “100 Faces of War Experience: Portraits and Words of Americans Who Served in Iraq and Afghanistan”. In some ways this work can be seen as a memorial, yet it differs from a traditional memorial in a key aspect. Most, if not all, American war memorials are built around an official representation of the American experience of war or a vision of that experience decided upon beforehand by an artist. The 100 Faces project is, instead, an experiment in self representation by people who gone from America into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When complete the 100 Faces project will consist of one hundred painted portraits of, and statements by, Americans who have gone to the theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The paintings are done in a traditional portrait style and show the person’s head and shoulders at life size. Each painting is started from life in a meeting between the artist and the person pictured.

The statements that accompany each portrait are the place where self representation enters the picture. These statements are chosen by the person pictured and are not edited or censored. Every effort is made to make sure that the participants in the project know they have complete freedom of speech. The only restrictions on these statements are that they be no more than 250 words and that each person must make their statement in some way different from all of those that have come before them.  In this way the project becomes more than a series of individual accounts, it becomes a complex collective narrative of the American experience of these wars. Even though all of the portraits and statements look independent when hanging on the wall, the entire group is meant to be kept together as a single unit in order to preserve this narrative.

You can see the on line exhibition by clicking here. Read the rest of this entry »

Public Art and the Military

Posted by Ann Wykell On May - 17 - 2013
Ann Wykell

Ann Wykell

As art consultant to The Patterson Foundation (TPF) in Sarasota, FL, I manage the commissions of public art for the assembly space in Sarasota National Cemetery.  The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery Administration, builds and administers 131 national cemeteries in the US. TPF an endowed charitable foundation and is fully funding the design and construction of the ceremonial amphitheater called Patriot Plaza, as a gift to the VA to honor the military ties of the family whose fortune endowed the Foundation. The theme of Patriot Plaza is Honor Veterans, Inspire Patriotism, and Embrace Freedom.

To select artists we followed best-practices for public art process, as defined by the Public Art Network of Americans for the Arts. However working within a military space has implications that are not typically encountered when placing art in public spaces. It is impossible to make meaningful art about the military without encountering the historical, political, art-historical and personal context. Typical questions for a public art project took on nuances and complexities: Who is our audience? What is this space used for? A national cemetery is a place where active duty military killed in the line of duty are buried, and where men and women whose honorable service took place decades earlier choose to be interred. It also provides burial space for eligible family members of veterans. Read the rest of this entry »

Who’s the Voice of Guantánamo?

Posted by Liz Sevcenko On May - 17 - 2013
Liz Sevcenko

Liz Sevcenko

“I just hope that because of the pain we are suffering, the eyes of the world will once again look to Guantánamo before it is too late,” wrote hunger striker Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel in his 11th year of detention. Our eyes have looked away before:  twenty years ago this month, another group staged a hunger strike to bring attention to their indefinite detention at GTMO. They were Haitian refugees seeking asylum in the United States, first rescued at sea and then held in makeshift tent cities behind barbed wire while their cases were considered. In 1993, the hunger strike drew international attention.  After an intense legal battle supported by a strong social movement, in June a US district court judge “closed Guantánamo.” So why is it still open?

GTMO has over a century of history before 9-11. It’s been used and reused to contain a whole variety of perceived threats, from communism to communicable disease. While the Haitian camps were closed in 1993, the government’s right to hold people at GTMO indefinitely was ultimately upheld – allowing “Gitmo” as we know it to open just a few years later.

But for many military families, GTMO has never been forgotten. “My most vivid memories of Guantánamo was everything just being free down there,” says Anita Lewis Isom, whose father was stationed there in the early 1960s. “I would give anything to be able to go back.”

How can Guantánamo represent both freedom and confinement? What can we learn from this contradiction? Read the rest of this entry »

Writing Plays about the Military

Posted by Tammy Ryan On May - 16 - 2013
Tammy Ryan

Tammy Ryan

“Every artist worth a damn in this country was terribly opposed to that war….We formed sort of a laser beam of protest.  Every painter, every writer, every stand-up comedian, every composer, every novelist, every poet aimed in the same direction. Afterwards, the power of this incredible new weapon dissipated. Now it’s like a banana cream pie three feet in diameter dropped from a stepladder four feet high…”     

-  Kurt Vonnegut http://progressive.org/mag_intv0603

It’s been over forty years since the Vietnam War, the time of protests in the streets underscored by the visceral antiwar response that erupted from artists in the 60s and 70s. Now at the end of a decade of war, critics have complained about the dearth of new American plays about Iraq and Afghanistan, but it isn’t because they aren’t being written. Many American playwrights have been taking this subject on since the first Gulf War and while war stories still feel very much part of the male mythology grab bag, women playwrights, such as Naomi Wallace, Karen Malpede, Arlene Hutton, E. M. Lewis,  Andrea Stolowitz, Jami Brandli, Caridad Svich, and many others are writing plays that dig into this grab bag in personal and political ways.

Given the climate for politically minded plays in this country, I asked myself as I was about to write a play about rape in the military: why would I do it? Plays take a long time to research, write and get produced.  I was looking at a commitment of three to five years maybe longer and I had a number of roadblocks, not the least of which was the fact that I knew next to nothing about what it was like to be a woman in the military. What do I have to say – and maybe more importantly what good does it do? Given the coterie nature of the theater in this country, we often feel like we’re preaching to the choir.  Read the rest of this entry »

Jaeson Parsons

Jaeson Parsons

The cultural chasm separating the civilian and the warfighter has never been wider. Most of the conflicts in 20th Century American history have relied on conscription, better known as the draft, to fill the ranks of our armed forces. The Global War on Terror of the 21st Century has been and continues to be fought by an all-volunteer force and because of this, the gap continues to grow as more and more professional soldiers shoulder the weight of a decade of conflict.

The typical soldier joins the military right out of high school, most have never lived outside of the town they grew up in and even fewer have visited another country. These men and women are just out of childhood when they join the military and many of them have fired a weapon in combat multiple times before their first drink in a bar at age 21. The military culture is all they know of adult life and once they are separated from this family of sorts, the civilian world is as alien to them as the sands of Iraq were when their boots first hit the ground. After multiple years in combat, witnessing man’s inhumanity to man, they are forever changed and trying to relate to their generational civilian counterparts is almost mission impossible. This is the divide, the cultural gap that separates those who have witnessed the horrors of combat firsthand and those who have simply watched the events unfold on CNN. We, as a nation, must construct a bridge over this divide to bring together this fractured generation and not let yet another war separate so many of our military heroes from their civilian brothers and sisters. Art, in its many forms, can be that bridge we so desperately need and art is what inspired our project, the Graffiti of War, which aims to bridge the divide and join our nation together like never before. Read the rest of this entry »

Tragedies Help Communities Heal from Timeless Wounds

Posted by Bryan Doerries On May - 16 - 2013
Bryan Doerries

Bryan Doerries

One of the first people to speak after a Theater of War performance was a perfectly kempt military spouse with blonde hair, striking blue eyes, and a soft, unassuming voice. She leaned into the microphone, took in the crowd of nearly 400 Marines and their spouses seated shoulder-to-shoulder in a dimly lit Hyatt Regency Ballroom in San Diego, cleared her throat, and said: “I am the proud mother of a Marine, and the wife of a Navy Seal. My husband went away four times to war, and each time—like Ajax—he came back dragging invisible bodies into our house. The war came home with him. And to quote from the play, ‘Our home is a slaughterhouse.’”

The Marines all held their breath, as if kicked in the gut with a steel-toed boot. In the back, a small group congregated around a cash bar, nursing Budweisers, staring at the floor and waiting out the silence. In the far back, there was even a dinner buffet, though no one seemed in the mood for eating.

Those Marines who had elected to attend the reading of scenes from Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes, or as one Marine called it, our “little skit,” had been attending a conference in August of 2008 on Combat Operational Stress Control, the Marine Corps’ way of referring to post-traumatic stress without pathologizing it. They had freely chosen ancient Greek dinner theater over tickets to a San Diego Padres game, and many of them had brought their spouses and girlfriends to the performance. The bar and buffet certainly helped draw the crowd, as did the presence of several well known actors, including Jesse Eisenberg and David Strathairn, but no one who showed up that night had any idea of what was about to happen.

Many of the Marines came expecting to see a fully staged reenactment of the 300 Spartans bravely standing down the Persian Army at the Battle of Thermopylae, featuring hack-and-slash swordplay and pyrotechnics. But when they discovered four actors in their street clothes sitting at a long table in front of microphones, wielding scripts instead of battle-axes or spears, many of them were visibly disappointed. Read the rest of this entry »

Soldiers on Stage

Posted by David Diamond On May - 15 - 2013
David Diamond

David Diamond

First of all, who knew that there were theatre companies on US Army bases? Who knew they had annual one-act play and full-length play competitions? Who knew that working as a mentor to the directors of those plays existed as a job?

My supervisor, Jim Sohre, recently retired as Chief, Entertainment (Music and Theatre) Program, U.S. Army Europe, created the Mentoring Program in 1995: I started the concept when we got actor, director (and personality!) Charles Nelson Reilly here to judge our Army Europe One Act Play Festival in Heidelberg.  He not only critiqued, he got right up on stage and re-worked scenes with the groups.  So it was more a working Masters Class.

I began working as a Mentor Director for the same Festival. This involved traveling from base-to-base throughout Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey and Northern Italy. There are about 20 bases that participate in the annual competition; I visited 14 of them. As Jim explains, Well, first, by bringing in mentors/judges from the US we are able to get top notch industry professionals who can provide contemporary input and training that is not available here in the English language.”

Each base I visited has a theatre company that regularly presents plays and musicals for the residents of the base. These companies include not only soldiers, but their families, other military personnel, non-military base workers, etc. Since the funding for the theatre companies and their facilities is at the discretion of the base commander, they operate under wildly different conditions. In Stuttgart, you have an entire performing arts complex with theatres, rehearsal spaces, everything state-of-the-art; in Grafenwoehr, plays are presented in a corner of a former basketball court using only clip lights and a boom box for tech. Still, it is remarkable what they are able to produce. Read the rest of this entry »

The French Lieutenant’s iPod (excerpt)

Posted by admin On May - 14 - 2013

…And now, just now, there is something about the way the light hits the glass or the smell of the dust in the air or the shudder of the helicopter as it turns, something, and I know that this is my last field mission. I’m done. I’ve seen enough.

So the French Lieutenant and I sit side by side in the aircraft flying back to Abeche, both settling into the recesses of our iPods. I choose “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones; he chooses “Civil War” by Guns ‘N Roses. I’m sure this means something, but I’ll have to wait to think about it. This place is complex enough without trying to draw some great metaphorical significance out of the music two westerners choose to listen to while we fly away from the problem.

-excerpt from Ron Capps’ “The French Lieutenant’s iPod”

ARTSblog holds week-long Blog Salons, a series of posts by guest bloggers, that focus on an overarching theme within a core area of Americans for the Arts' work. Here are links to the most recent Salons:

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Art in Rural Communities

Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.