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The art of healing

Drawing therapy for war veterans a growing trend, may help emotionally-wounded soldiers

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Posted: Tuesday, December 7, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 10:51 am, Fri Apr 5, 2013.

Inside the newly built Piquette Square homeless veterans’ structure, Ray Bakerjian drew an oval on a large slab of paper then lightly drew a cross pattern within the oval. He was teaching a handful of veterans how to draw the human face.

“For starting out, we might want to try and get used to doing this,” he told them.

Bakerjian, an Army veteran from 1974 to ’77 and Wayne State graduate student currently studying electric-drive vehicle engineering, launched the nonprofit organization Wounded Artist Project in 2009. He travels to military bases, hospitals and shelters around the country teaching veterans art.

The goal for the organization is two-fold: art as therapy or art as a possible profession like architecture or urban planning.

During his session at Piquette Square, Bakerjian ran through the basics of drawing an anatomically correct face and body. With a deep and friendly voice, he coached the veterans through the process – taking time to answer questions and to make rounds to check their progress. One female veteran covered her sketch in embarrassment. But a young, Iraq-war veteran’s work caught his eye.

“You’ve drawn before, haven’t you?” Bakerjian asked.

The young veteran nodded his head and admitted he had. “Things have been out of whack for a bit,” the veteran said.

In an interview before his Piquette Square lesson, Bakerjian held in his hand the reason for starting Wounded Artist Project, and the reason he has driven as far as San Antonio to hand out art kits and give lessons. He held a folded Detroit newspaper revealing a column on an critical upcoming game for the Pistons.

“How terrible would it be if we lost?” Bakerjian asked rhetorically and sarcastically.

Then he unfolded the paper and revealed a photo adjacent to the sports column of a young veteran missing both legs and his right arm. Without a word, his motivation was clear.

For combat veterans, life continues on while they are away. This often leaves them feeling isolated and unable to express their angst. For this, the Veterans Affairs has started turning to art therapy.

The technique, as a whole, has been practiced since at least the middle of the 20th century. But for Veterans Affairs, “It’s basically a baby,” Shelley Knoodle, art therapist at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit, said.

Knoodle said she was the first of her kind at the center and that was only six years ago.

“Last count, I’ve heard, there’s only 15 art therapists in the VA,” she said while sitting at a table with Wayne State interns Megan Schmidt and Lindsey Klingenberg. Both are receiving masters in counseling with a specialization in art therapy when they graduate in the spring.

The three currently work with veterans on the first floor of the medical center’s red section. The walls of the room in which they work are lined with their patient’s medical records – their art.

At the beginning of each art therapy session, they issue directives to the veterans. “What’s your wall? What do you put and build to keep others out or to keep yourself protected?” Schmidt said as an example of what they ask their patients. “Or we also had one with trace your hands, and on the outside, draw the stressors in your life that you cannot control. And on the inside, draw the stressors you can control.”

“We’ve done scribble drawings before,” Klingenberg added. “The nice thing about that is it takes out the idea ‘I can’t draw,’ which we hear a lot. But everyone can scribble.”

She said through the scribbles, often times images that need to be addressed will emerge. “It kind of has a bit of a projective quality.”

Knoodle reminisced on one patient, a Vietnam veteran, that used to joke “Oh, here she comes again,” whenever Knoodle checked on his work. She said the veteran just didn’t want to participate until, one day, he finally caught an image in his art. Knoodle said during an ink and string session, the veteran created a helicopter with people in rice dykes.

“(It was) something he had to (do) that was holding him up,” Knoodle said. “He needed to face those (post-traumatic stress disorder) issues, and he did in the art. It just made a world of difference in his recovery at that time.”

The three of them said they have begun to notice more and more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans joining their sessions.

“I would say a couple years ago, it was just Gulf War (veterans),” Knoodle said.

Despite both wars starting almost a decade ago, there is always a lag between veterans exiting and their seeking treatment.

“I think part of it’s the male code, part of it’s the military code. But it comes to the point, you need to have services.”

According to Knoodle, the VA has started a part-time post-traumatic stress disorder program. But for now, art therapy is not part of it.

“It is something that could really benefit greatly from our services,” she said. “But the way things are set up here, it hasn’t really moved in that direction with utilization of our resources.”

Since the Afghanistan war began in 2001, organizations around the country have sought veterans of both wars to use art as a tool of empowerment toward healing. In Chicago, the National Veterans Art Museum opened an exhibit entitled “Intrusive Thoughts” dedicated exclusively to veterans of the two current wars. In Vermont there is an organization taking in old combat-worn uniforms and converting them into paper on which veterans can paint wartime images or sculpt papier mache into kevlar helmets or rifles.

“The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms,” Drew Cameron, Iraq-war veteran and co-director of Combat Paper Project, said on the organization’s website. “The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reshaping that association of subordination, of warfare and service, into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.”

These programs require veterans to take that extra step while Bakerjian is trying to meet wounded soldiers where they are – the military hospitals. But, when it comes to dealing directly with the hospitals, he often runs into barriers and lip service. Through the Red Cross, he has found an avenue to reach wounded soldiers in Warrior Transition Units before they leave the military, like the one at Fort Bragg.

“I just sent a couple boxes full of stuff there,” he said. ”I want to start really branching out more. I’m trying to get to those kids in the beds – really badly burned up, blown to pieces. It’s not supposed to be the end all, but start drawing and you might find it helps.”

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