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California artist teaches art to veterans and youths for 'self-expression and healing'

COMBAT ARTS SAN DIEGO/FACEBOOK

By LISA DEADERICK | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: March 9, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Elizabeth Washburn didn't plan on starting an arts nonprofit, but it couldn't really be helped. After reading about military casualties in Iraq in 2007, she wanted to help, and started offering free art classes by volunteering at the Naval Medical Center San Diego (Balboa Hospital). Later, she turned that series of classes into her nonprofit, Combat Arts San Diego.

"The purpose of the art classes is to reduce stress and anxiety, giving service members a tool they can utilize independently, to express themselves and communicate thoughts and feelings that are hard to put into words," she says. "Making and viewing art is scientifically proven to improve mental health and cognitive processing."

Washburn, 46, is an artist herself who is also contracted to teach art in the education department at the Timken Museum of Art, and lives in North Park. She took some time to talk about her nonprofit work with combat veterans and youth in juvenile detention, and the Creative Arts Pop-Up Café for active-duty military members, veterans and their families she's organized for Sunday.

Q: Tell us about Combat Arts San Diego.

A: Combat Arts began in 2007 when after reading about more Marine casualties in Iraq, I decided to call the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) and offer free art classes to wounded warriors as a way to do my part. I ended up becoming a volunteer at the Balboa Naval Hospital (Naval Medical Center San Diego), providing a weekly mural class.

In 2010, a Navy psychiatrist who was in charge of opening an inpatient, post-traumatic stress disorder clinic (Overcoming Adversity Stress Injury Support) on the Point Loma submarine base, had heard about me and asked if I would offer my art classes in his program. I happily joined in and have been running a weekly art class that is part of the patients weekly schedule at OASIS ever since. In 2010, in order to pay for art supplies, which I had previously been doing by holding fundraising events where I auctioned off my own artwork and artwork of other local artists, I applied for Combat Arts to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so that I could be eligible for grant funding and donations.

Q: How did your program function when you first began?

A: Initially, at the Balboa Naval Hospital, I ran the art class in a meeting room. Anyone receiving treatment at the hospital was welcome to join the class. However, attendance was a little all over the place because my class wasn't integrated into the patients' schedules. Once I went to OASIS, however, and my class was part of the patients' calendar, it became easier to go more in depth with the art making and get to know the service members in treatment. In addition, because I have the same people from week to week at OASIS and treatment is eight weeks, I am better able to build their knowledge and teach more skills.

Q: How has the program evolved? What were some of the needs/desires that changed?

A: Initially, the art class I ran was all about each group creating a mural and we painted murals on the walls of the clinic. However, once I saw how powerful the murals were, I decided we needed to be painting on large canvases so that the murals could be taken out of the clinic and exhibited in public. In 2012, we had our first art exhibition in the civilian world at Space 4 Art.

In 2015, five years after beginning Combat Arts San Diego, I decided to broaden the scope to include incarcerated youth. In my professional life, where I work for the education department at Timken Museum of Art, I had already been teaching art in juvenile detention facilities. I realized that the teens I had been working with for several years face some of the similar challenges that the combat veterans do, whether it is mental health issues, traumatic exposure to extreme violence, or not feeling heard. Art is a very under-utilized and transformative tool that really helps all people, so I increased the amount of people Combat Arts serves.

Q: Why did you decide to focus specifically on combat veterans and youth in juvenile detention?

A: I have been an artist my whole life, and I have been teaching art for nearly 20 years. In all of those years, I have found that combat veterans and at-risk teens are two groups who don't normally have access to the arts and don't consider art a choice for themselves, but these two groups are also the most in need of arts programming. I also find these two groups of people to the most interesting and fulfilling to work with.

Q: What has the response been to Combat Arts San Diego, from the combat veterans and youth you've been working with?

A: The response for our arts programming is overwhelmingly positive. Combat veterans report reductions in stress and anxiety, improved community engagement, and a renewed sense of purpose. The teens respond well, too. Many comment that they thought they weren't an artist, but realize that maybe they are better than they think. For the most part, the art classes help get them to calm down and focus on something positive.

Q: Tell us about your pop-up art event on Sunday.

A: The "Creative Arts Pop-up Cafe" we are hosting is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. this Sunday at Space 4 Art in San Diego. It's a military and veteran family art festival for military service members, veterans and their families. Military folks who show up can expect arts activities, live music, a drum circle, face painting, veteran service provider information booths and a food truck. Everything is free, except for the food truck.

This event is part a bigger project that is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and Americans for the Arts. Three other arts organizations (Vet Arts, So Say We All, and Resounding Joy), along with Combat Arts San Diego, are collaborating to host pop-up art cafes throughout San Diego to inform veterans about arts programming they can access out in the community...This project will serve as a model that can be replicated throughout the country by other community arts providers in other states, to give opportunities for veterans to continue engaging with expressive arts therapies once they leave the military.

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