North Carolina exhibition showcases Creative Forces art program for veterans

By JANNETTE PIPPIN | The (Jacksonville, N.C.) Daily News | Published: September 29, 2019

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — The artistic skill of local veterans was showcased during an exhibition Saturday at the Jacksonville-Onslow Council for the Arts but it wasn’t the paintings, pottery, photography or sculpting that was most important.

For the artists behind each piece, the creative process is therapeutic and the Creative Forces Open Studio art sessions are just the place they need to relax and connect with other military servicemembers and families with shared experiences.

“It’s like a safe space for me, a place I can go and express myself,” said Army veteran Robert “Shrek” Harrell, who has served as a military and civilian firefighter.

Harrell said he has always had a talent for art and the creative process is of great benefit to him.

“It gives me time to be with myself in my mind, and gives me some peace and a way to heal,” Harrell said.

Creative Forces Open Studio gives him and other veterans and servicemembers a safe, creative environment to gather and to support each other, he said.

Harrell, who has been a part of the program since nearly the beginning, said he also has enjoyed teaching some workshops and seeing the artistic talent of the program’s members, no matter their skill level.

While his own paintings were on display at the exhibition, Harrell pointed to the largest oil painting hanging as one of his favorites. It is a tribute to the Beirut memorial and is a collaboration of the work of all the Creative Forces participants.

“Everyone has been working on this one over the past year,” Harrell said.

Creative Forces Open Studio provides free, weekly open art sessions for active-duty servicemembers, veterans and family members. No prior art experience is required and participants can bring their own artwork or just drop in to enjoy the arts in a relaxed, social and creative environment.

Each session is led by a local artist/mentor who has experience working with servicemembers.

Noah White, executive director of the Jacksonville-Onslow Council for the Arts, said participation in the Creative Forces Open Studio has grown since the arts council joined the national Creative Forces initiative in 2017, and the art sessions now have a dedicated space at the gallery since it was renovated after damage from Hurricane Florence.

“When we started the first year we had three people showing up, and now we’re running out of room,” White said.

Saturday night’s program was an exhibition of the artwork done by members of the program during the past year.

Alex Gutierrez served seven years as a Navy corpsman and when he left active duty in 2011, he carried with him the effects of those days of service: PTSD and depression.

A month after returning from a deployment in Iraq, an incident happened. It wasn’t combat-related, Gutierrez said, but it was a tipping point for him.

Creative Forces Open Studio has been a place for him to connect with other veterans.

“It got me out of the house and being around other people helped,” Gutierrez said. “To me, it was the camaraderie it offered that drew me in.”

He already had the photography skills.

Hanging on the walls was some of his work, including the faces of many fellow veterans. In other photographs, it wasn’t their faces but the messages they shared that featured most prominently.

Gutierrez said he approached Anna Pasquale, resident artist for Creative Forces Open Studio, one day about taking her photo. Pasquale didn’t want a photo of her face but they talked about other ways to share a message through his photography.

Gutierrez left it up to the subjects in front of the camera to share their messages.

“I told them, ‘This is your moment, do whatever you want; scream, write a message, whatever,’ ” he said.

The result in one of the photographs, a veteran holding up her forearms with the words “Pain” written on one arm and “Healing” on the other.

Pasquale said Creative Forces Open Studio is about offering that safe place for healing through the creative process.

“We create art in each session but more importantly, we create community,” Pasquale said.

Jacksonville-Onslow Council for the Arts is part of the Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network. The National Endowment for the Arts initiative is a partnership with the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs as well as state and local agencies.

Carolyn Bartley with Americans for the Arts, which provides administrative support for the program, was among representatives from Washington who attended the event.

Bartley said Jacksonville, which also has a clinical art therapy program at Camp Lejeune, is one of 11 Creative Forces sites across the country and they are currently gathering information at each site to see how they can be connected better.

“We’re collecting information at each site on the programs and lessons learned so hopefully next year, Creative Forces can have a national resource center,” Bartley said.

What has worked in Jacksonville could work somewhere else and vice versa, she said.

For more information about Creative Forces Open Studio or how you can be a sponsor or support the program, visit jaxarts.com or call 910-455-9840.

©2019 The Daily News (Jacksonville, N.C.)
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