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Veteran Artist Program seeks to propel veterans into mainstream arts community

BALTIMORE — When bad luck struck, John Mann was all but certain that he'd have to abandon his dreams.

In 2005, Mann was a 28-year-old film school graduate who was just starting to make inroads in the difficult East Coast television industry. He hoped to one day move to Los Angeles and direct movies. And then, his wife fell ill while she was pregnant with their son.

"Even though things had been starting to go our way, we were getting paid almost nothing," says Mann, 35, of Crownsville.

"It really became a situation where we needed really good health insurance and we needed it right now. A choice had to be made, so I joined the Army. My college classmates were pursuing their dreams and getting ahead while I worried that a career in film might no longer be an option for me. It was a fear that never went away."

Mann's wife recovered her health and the couple had a second child, a daughter. In 2008, Mann, now a sergeant, returned to the U.S. after serving 15 months in Afghanistan. Some time later, he heard about a fledgling organization that helped assuage his career worries — a group that develops opportunities for members of the armed forces to express themselves creatively. It was the Veteran Artist Program, based in Baltimore.

Mann began work on a one-hour documentary called "Souls of Valor" about three recipients of the Medal of Honor that later was broadcast on the Pentagon Channel. In 2011, the man who doubted that he'd ever work in film again picked up a 2011 Emmy Award from the Chesapeake Bay chapter of the Nation Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

"It's pretty daunting to have to put your dreams on hold while you serve your country," Mann says. "The Veteran Artist Program shows people that there's still an outlet where they can do what they loved before they enlisted."

The organization (known colloquially as "VAP") will be showcased Wednesday in Annapolis at the 2013 Maryland Arts Day celebration. The daylong seminar is an opportunity for members of the arts advocacy group Maryland Citizens for the Arts to meet with the state legislators who will decide this spring whether to approve an extra $2 million in funding for the arts for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The budget contains the first increase after four years of flat funding, so organizers thought long and hard before selecting an arts agency to highlight that they thought could most persuasively make their case.

"We think that in three or four or five years, VAP is going to become a huge national organization," says Doug Mann, chairman of the board for Maryland Citizens for the Arts. "This is a group with enormous potential. When anyone hears about VAP, their ears perk up. They see what's been done already and how much more could be done in the future, and they want to get involved."

The group was formed in the fall of 2009 by Brian McDonald, a trained Arabic linguist and classical singer and musical theater performer who studied opera in college. McDonald, who prefers to be called "BR," spent several years as a child in Taiwan and also is fluent in Mandarin.

"When I got out of the Army in 2008, I realized that there was a need for an organization that could propel veterans into the mainstream arts community," he says.

"Most people think that being a member of the military and being an artist are opposites. They think that to enlist, you need only hard, physical skills, like shooting a gun or jumping out of a plane. They think that you have to conform and can't think creatively.

"But behind every soldier's hard skills are soft skills that require them to think out of the box and to communicate with one another. Ironically, my background of living overseas and my experience as a performer are what helped me succeed in the Army."

The Veteran Artist Program, which had a budget in 2012 of $220,000, sees itself as a multidisciplinary arts group. Though all its members have served in the armed forces, not every project that the program sponsors has a military theme or a healing focus. As McDonald puts it: "We're not an art therapy group."

Thus, Vets on Sets, a branch that seeks to bring more veterans into the filmmaking industry, has in the past two years made two short documentaries, and a third, full-length film is in post-production.

A visual arts program coordinates group exhibits including a coming show at the Pentagon that will include landscapes alongside still-life portraits of combat boots. The juried exhibit will display the work of 49 veteran artists nationwide who were winnowed from a pool of 435 applicants. The show opens in July and will run for a year.

In the past three years, the group has sponsored 30 community art events. It's one of the lead organizations involved in Operation: Oliver, a long-term project aimed at beautifying the blighted Baltimore neighborhood where the acclaimed HBO cable television series "The Wire" was shot. So far, two blocks near the intersection of Bethel and Oliver streets have been spruced up with a renovated park and gardens and two large, colorful murals.

The organization aims to coordinate two arts and public performance workshops each year in cities throughout the U.S. that are similar to the weeklong seminar on "Arts, Military+ Healing" that the group hosted last May at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. The Veteran Artist Program will run an arts festival for veterans in San Francisco in June and another in New York in November.

Finally, the veterans group has mounted three live productions in Maryland to date. In 2011, it became the seventh U.S. city to produce a local version of "The Telling Project," an innovative effort devised by Austin, Texas, playwright Jonathan Wei in which veterans and their family members re-enact their lives for an audience of strangers.

Erin Byers, a medic with the Army who served in Iraq for 15 months in 2006 and 2007, says that participating in the production was more therapeutic for her than the counseling that she received during her military service.

"As a combat medic, there are things you see that other people don't want to hear you talk about," says Byers, a 35-year-old resident of Frederick.

"Art is a way that veterans can communicate their experiences. I talk about some of the obstacles and challenges I faced, such as seeing small children killed or badly hurt and being unable to save them. I talk about my buddies being killed and then having to recover their remains.

"I also talk about the more lighthearted things the two other female medics and I did to pass the time and make some part of our deployment seem normal. We'd give each other facials and manicures, even though we wore gloves all day and no one could see our nails."

Initially, Byers says, the stage seemed as hostile and foreign a territory to her as any battlefront.

"Standing up on a stage in front of 700 strangers was really hard at first because I had never told my story to anybody before, other than the people who had experienced it with me in Iraq," Byers says.

"But it was extremely rewarding, because it forced me to relive the experiences over and over while the emotions were still raw. In rehearsal sometimes, you have to stop right in the middle of a scene and go back and do it again. Even when you're on stage and performing, what you say is a little different each time you say it. Over time, it gave me a fresh perspective. I began to understand different aspects of my own story."

The Veteran Artist Program doesn't help only veterans, organizers say. It also assists the rest of us by bridging a comprehension gap that's wider than at any time previously in U.S. history.

Since 2001, less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has served in the armed services during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In contrast, 9 percent of Americans were in uniform during World War II.

That's why it was so lucky that John Schratwieser, executive director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, was in the audience of the Annapolis performance of The Telling Project on Jan. 21, 2012. He still remembers vividly the stories that he heard:

"There was a husband-and-wife team," he recalled.

"The wife was a devoted Catholic. But while the husband was in service he began to wonder whether there was a God. They talked about how difficult it was to sort that out, but how their marriage became stronger because of their struggle.

"I came home from the play to the news that my cousin, who was a 25-year veteran of the Air Force, had just taken his own life. There's no way I could have prepared for that news any better than by spending the 90 minutes hearing veterans tell their stories.

"I credit that production with helping me to survive that part of my life."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com
 

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