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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 rotating basis.

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.)



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