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Art for vets' sake
Veteran's Affairs Clinic helps alter perspectives with art
Cedric Orange

Most of us have heard about the therapeutic benefits of creating art, but it can go much deeper than just therapy. For some people, it helps them overcome serious mental states — the likes of which many of us will never experience.

At the local Veteran's Affairs Clinic, Kenneth Martin instructs an art class to help with the fundamentals of artistic technique that will spark creativity in the class. He begins by talking about his roots in the arts.

"I'm from Detroit, and I worked as a welder, on Mustangs, in the '60s. So, coming home one night, long story short, there's an oil spill on the freeway, exiting the freeway, my car skid and I ended up with a spinal cord injury so I couldn't go back to work," he recalls.

"So they said, 'Kenneth, you know, take art classes to help.' And art wasn't on my radar then. So, I took some art classes, and got a real job and went back to school. The rest is history."

The history being that Martin has been oil painting for over 40 years.

Martin shares that in 2011, his initial agreement was to teach art to "veterans for six weeks. And I had no clue. We started with six weeks and it just evolved. And at that program level I saw the impact on all of them. You know, these guys were not artists, they had not painted at all. And they didn't just get to paint, they began to express a lot of experiences that had affected them. And I was like, Whoaaaa. I wouldn't call it art therapy. We have fun. So one week went to two weeks went to a month and now I'm on my second year."

In 2011, their first year, the class was already showing at the annual Jepson Center "I Have Marks to Make" exhibition.

Martin is a proud instructor of these veterans, even though he hadn't served in the military himself. "I'm just a volunteer. I'm not a veteran at all. I just have a passion. And I see how they reach short change compared to what they do in comparison to what they get out of it, you know what I'm saying, something's wrong. It's a major discrepancy. People in society in general and the government as a whole for some reason allowed this imbalance. Talking to the guys, these guys are Vietnam veterans, POW, Desert Storm and everything in between," said Martin.

While there may be a discrepancy, it's people like Martin that are trying to tip the balance.

When it comes to Martin's artistic inspiration, without hesitation he says, "the guys — how it affects them. Once I heard, and this is their words, saying, 'Kenneth, I went to drug rehab, I've been divorced several times, and this experience, this art, has allowed me to find myself.' And I said, 'Whoaaa.' As an artist, I'm more like 'art for me'. But I see the impact and how this is affecting them and what they sacrificed and they get so much joy and pleasure out of it, there's no way I can stop."

Cedric Orange, one of the students who has been there since the beginning of the VA program, admitted that before the class, he had no in art.

"None. Never, I just never had no interest in it," says Orange. "But my therapist there suggested that I start attending art classes because it calmed me down. And it helps bring out whatever is bothering me. Whether it's an anger management issue or any emotional issue."

After being in the army for 21 years, and suffering from PTSD from the first Gulf War, Orange needed an outlet. So he gave art a try.

"And now I do it every day. And if I don't, now I feel like there is something missing in my life."

Lawrence Brown, who served in the Army and International Guard, shared that to him, "it's like a therapy. A lot of the time I'll be sitting around the house, thinking about the war and stuff. And because of all of that I mostly keep to the house. So when I get in a mood I'll get out my paintbrush. And then my mind is totally on the painting and I won't think too much. It's been a great help to me."

Creativity is a part of all of us, Martin agrees, adding that "once you explore that and it crosses the psychological, it crosses the emotional, the creativity will take off."