Behind the Brush: Portraits of Patriotism

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– After traveling the world in service to our country, local veterans find solace in art therapy.

In spite of the morning heat, Stan Strickland was up early with his painting tools ready. Strickland, Strickland, an 81-year-old artist and former Air Force air traffic controller, was overseeing a portraiture workshop for veterans with disabilities at the Georgia War Veterans Home (GWVH) in Milledgeville, Georgia.

The workshop came about as a collaboration between Strickland and Allied Arts, a non-profit arts center. It involves veterans at the GWVH painting portraits of students at the Georgia Military College (GMC), who provided photos of themselves.

As the veterans filed in, almost all of them in wheelchairs, Strickland paced around to view the progress each of the veterans had made on their portraits. A partially drawn portrait stood at the front of the room, Strickland’s example to the veterans.

“I love them. They’re great guys,” Strickland says.

Part of why Strickland teaches the class is that he feels connected to the veterans.

“I can communicate with them, talk about old times,” he says. “For them, it helps them pass their day. Hell, I may end up out here myself someday,” he jokes.

Another part of it is that Strickland wanted to keep himself busy after the death of his dog of 12 years, Knight. Strickland “lived as a bit of a recluse” before then, and decided that he should go out again.

“I was lonesome and wanted to get out and get involved with people again,” he says.

As for the veterans, each of them was there for different reasons. The art helps some deal with their disabilities. For others, they love to paint and try to do so despite their disabilities.

Progress on the paintings varied. Some veterans had not yet started their pencil outlines. Others were already moving on to painting the faces of their subjects. Some were painting outlines, but all of them were focused on their art.

Melvin Stroud, a Coast Guard veteran, picked up art while he was at the veteran’s home. While he is originally right-handed, he suffered a stroke that affected his right side.

Stroud now uses his left hand for daily tasks and art, and he enjoys drawing cats. He sits at the back of the room, adding to his portrait of a young man who attends GMC.

“I like to draw,” he says. “I don’t know how good I am, but I like to try anyway.”

Michael Webb, a Vietnam War Army veteran, the art is a way to pass time. He never painted before coming to the home. Webb also had a stroke, but said that the art “helps sometimes.”  

As the workshop went on, volunteers came to see how the veterans were doing. Caretakers and aides helped the veterans paint, or took them outside when they got tired or needed to take medication.

Tamara Green, a life enrichment aide at the GWVH, enjoys doing what she can to help the veterans. The veterans affectionately call her “Tammy,” and they appreciate the energy she brings to the classes.

Green has a master’s degree in art therapy and finds her work to be “very rewarding.”

 “It’s amazing how you go to school and read how art affects people, but reading and seeing it is different,” Green said.

The artwork the veterans produce has been sent to art shows across the state according to Dennis Mize, the executive director of the GWVH. Mize stopped by to see how the class was coming along, talking to Strickland and some of the veterans before heading out. Their efforts also help bring the community together, he says.

“The reason we’re so successful is because of the community involvement that we have,” Mize said. “We have so many wonderful groups that volunteer and come out and help with our veterans.”

The veterans’ artwork will be on display as an exhibit at Marlor House in Milledgeville from August to September. Allied Arts director Brian Renko will judge the art as part of a local competition.

But for the veterans, it is simpler than competing and winning showcases. There’s solace to be found on each canvas, behind every stroke of the brush.

Story and photos by Sidhartha Wakade

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