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Teaching Painting to Heroes
A painting teacher helps injured Army vets
recuperate from Iraq and past wars.
by Phil Metzger (December 18, 2006)
(Note: Phil teaches painting classes to veterans
recuperating at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC. Phil is
the author of a number of painting books published by North Light
Books, a division of F+W Publications. This is a note he sent to
donors of art/craft supplies.)
This is for all you generous donors to the vets at Walter Reed
Army Hospital in Washington, DC. You donated a ton of art stuff
several months ago for use in art classes for the vets and I
promised to let you know how things are going. Here's the scoop.
There are many hundreds of injured vets, mostly from the Iraq
war, some from Afghanistan, and some from older wars. I'm going to
resist editorializing, but I must tell you that a walk through the
hospital corridors or a visit to the Occupational Therapy ward
(where I teach) is enough to make you really think hard about the
war we're in.
The classes (drawing and watercolor painting) are nothing like
what I'm accustomed to. In my usual classes I face twenty or so
people who are there every week, all working in the same direction,
same subjects, and so on. I'm in complete control. Ahhhh! But in the
vets' classes, everything is different. I had thought originally the
classes would be a great way to make time pass more quickly as the
vets recuperate. To my surprise, most of them are so busy, they
don't have a lot of free time all week long. They are constantly
involved with physical rehab, psychological sessions, appointments
with nurses, therapists, doctors . . . they are VERY busy guys (and
gals). Most of them are being fitted with artificial limbs, and that
takes a great deal of time-adapting a limb to a specific injury,
learning to use it, etc. I see many vets with two artificial legs,
moving with amazing efficiency, and I see others having a hard time
accepting these limbs (one young man, who looks like he belongs in
high school, wryly comes into the OT sometimes with his artificial
arm sticking up out of his tote bag).
The vets I've met have every type of injury you can imagine:
Missing one or both arms, one or both legs, an eye, some fingers.
One has lost his left arm and shoulder, another has lost the side of
his skull. Most of these guys are upbeat-I don't know how they do
it. We never talk about the war, so I don't know most of their
feelings about it, but there are a couple who are clearly angry and
uncertain about what they now face in life. The people who work
here, including the head of OT, Captain Katie Yancosek (a lovely,
cheerful, competent ball of energy) do a marvelous job working with
the vets. They are truly wonderful people.
The OT room is full of contraptions for helping a vet exercise
and learn to manipulate damaged limbs. At one table, you see a guy
learning (using an artificial hand) to place pegs into holes; next
to him is someone using a dumbbell to build arm muscle; nearby, a
volunteer (himself an older vet) is helping a vet play putt-putt
golf (trying to build muscle coordination and eye-hand dexterity);
there's even a big TV screen where vets play video games, such as
car chases, to practice coordination. The ward has all kinds of
visitors, from basketball star Scotty Pippin to movie/TV star Ed
Asner. I'm told Cher comes around a lot, but so far I've missed her.
Another artist, Caren Garner, works for Help Hospitalized Vets and
is at the OT during the week helping vets with assembling craft kits
and helping some with paintings.
Well, what about the art classes and the need for more supplies.
The good news is, I'm not asking for a thing. We have all we need
for some time to come. The supplies on hand will last a long while
because Captain Katie decided early-on that the supplies would stay
at the OT, for the most part, rather than give a set to each vet.
When they come to class, the supplies are there for them. That turns
out to have been a good decision-most of these guys have little time
or energy to draw or paint outside of class. When one does request
that he be allowed to take supplies with him, we certainly oblige.
A typical class session (we meet each Wednesday morning) may
involve as many as a dozen "students", but more often,
just four or five, sometimes only two or three. A couple are
regulars who don't often miss a Wednesday, and others are in and
out. Fairly often, I won't see a particular vet for a week or two
because he or she is off on some sort of trip arranged by the
hospital or some other group (one time, a few of them were off on a
rafting trip in Colorado!).
On any given Wednesday, one or two vets will be working on a
drawing and another couple on a painting. Sometimes each person is
working on something different from the others'. I make up
step-by-step demonstration sheets to guide them and I also
demonstrate on the spot. They all pay good attention and, although
most have zero art experience, the results have been terrific. The
important thing is, THEY are happy with the results! I cut mats and
backings and bring plastic sleeves for the finished pieces, and the
guys are so proud of what they've done, it's enough to make you cry
(I do that fairly often!). We'll soon have a corkboard in place
where we can display the finished drawings and paintings on a
On the Walter Reed grounds are two residences for vets and their
families-Fisher House and Malone House. Families stay there
(rent-free) while their sons/daughters/ husbands/wives recuperate.
Several of the vets who come to class (in wheelchairs) are always
accompanied by a parent or spouse. In 2007 we'll look into
conducting a class at one of the living facilities if there is an
appropriate space. You've probably heard about Fisher House – more
are being built at other veterans' facilities and they are in
constant need of cash donations. If you're in the habit of buying
Christmas stuff for kids or grandkids who (like mine) don't really
need all that stuff, consider donating the cash to Fisher House in
the kids' names. We've done that for several years and it's quite a
hit. Try www.fisherhouse.org.
Well, I didn't expect to go on for so long, but I really want you
to know that your donations are so very welcome and much
appreciated. If all goes well, sometime in 2007 I'll be back looking
for more of some of the supplies, but for now, we're in great shape.
Thank you again, from Captain Yancosek and the vets for all your
help. Sometime next year I'll send another (shorter!) update. Have a
Happy Holiday and a great New Year!
(Note: When Phil or Captain Yancosek needs more art and/or
craft supplies, CLN will announce it. Phil's books include Perspective
Without Pain, Enliven Your Paintings with Light, The
North Light Artist's Guide to Materials and Techniques, Realistic
Collage Art, Perspective Secrets, The Artist's
Illustrated Encyclopedia: Techniques, Materials and Terms,
Pencil Magic: Landscape Drawing Techniques, and coming in June, The
Art of Perspective.)