Dolly Monteiro used a piece of textured linoleum to stamp a wood grain pattern into her slab of clay. She shaped the sections into a rough cross and added barbed wire, to represent pain and suffering.“And then I’ll have a rose that will represent something more delicate,” the U.S. Air Force veteran said.
Monteiro worked on her project March 5 at the Outside the Lines art class for veterans of all ages at the Nicolaysen Art Museum. The new class is designed to help veterans adjust to civilian life and encourage them to explore their creativity, said the museum’s curator of education Zhanna Gallegos and executive director Ann Ruble. The free class is taught by Casper College art instructors and is a partnership with the Casper Vet Center, which provides counseling to veterans.
It’s the first of its kind in Wyoming, but many major veterans centers around the country offer therapeutic art, Ruble said.
“And what they have seen is lower levels of conflict, less stress, less anxiety,” Ruble said. “There’s empirical evidence out there to show that these are things you can see.”
Counselors at the Casper Vet Center came up with the class title. In the military, doing exactly what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it can be a matter of life or death, Casper Vet Center Director Danielle Smith said.
“Like most everything in the military, it’s either right or wrong, black or white. It’s kind of you stay in these parameters,” she said. “Especially with art, when you’re outside of those lines, it can be kind of uncomfortable because we’re so used to doing things a certain way and seeing them a certain way.”
But with art, “you get kind of lost in the process and are just kind of able to let some of that go and create,” she said.
Outside the lines
Monteiro attends the class with others in a group for female veterans at the Casper Vet Center, she said.
“It’s good, because it’s therapeutic, just so therapeutic,” she said. “Whatever is inside, you can express yourself.”
The two-hour sessions take place every two weeks, and participants learn about a new medium every four months. Casper College ceramics instructor and artist Mike Olson has been teaching the veterans hand-building techniques to create their own projects. Next they’ll learn photography with Casper College instructor Chuck Kimmerle.
Both of those mediums were chosen to start with because they’re approachable for beginners, Ruble said.
“They’re both things that you really can’t make a mistake,” she added. “And if you do — you crush your clay and you start over, or you delete your picture and you start over. And it’s OK to make a mistake and to learn.”
Working with a tactile material like clay also can help relieve stress and anxiety, Gallegos said.
“I would say it’s therapeutic,” she added.
Casper Vet Center counselors also participate in the class. Smith affixed tusks to an elephant wall hanging that she will add to her collection of decorative elephants she started while traveling in the U.S. Army. The class offers a chance to break away from everything else and allow the mind to imagine, she said. All she has to think about while she’s there is her clay and the photograph of an elephant she worked from, she said.
As a counselor, she sees benefits for veterans in the sessions.
“In the military, I think the majority of the time you’re so involved in everything military that you don’t have a lot of time to explore either where you are or what you like to do,” she said. “I think when we get out, a lot of times we don’t really know what we enjoy doing. So this is a good opportunity to try some different things and be able to express ourselves. And art is just fun.”
The social side of the class also is important, as the students mingle among those with similar interests and backgrounds, she said. They often talk as they work and over snacks provided toward the end of class.
The organizers of the class were surprised to see the variety of ages interested in Outside the Lines, Ruble said. They range from their 30s to Korean War veterans.
“Every generation has its own military experiences and how each generation has dealt with it is different,” Ruble said. “But they can all learn from one another.”
Olson made rounds through the room to admire and help with projects during the most recent session. He’d started the first day with some basics about clay and techniques. He also talked with them about deciding what they want to create. He was pleased to see all the students returned with ideas, research and images to use for ambitious projects, he said.
“If you were trying to make something that you’re not invested in, you’re going to fail,” Olson said. “If you want to make something, you will figure out a way to make it work.”
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Sherry Johnson held a clay heart in her hands and ripped it into two pieces. She placed it back on the table, where she began hollowing out the two forms and adding blood vessels and torn tissue.
Her sculpture expressed how she felt about having to put down three of her dogs, she said. It was her first day in the class and she’d never sculpted. But the two hours of class passed quickly as she worked, fingers coated in clay.
“It’s really peaceful,” she said.
Later, Olson helped her merge the bottom of the two halves. They scored the edges with serrated metal tools and then pressed them together.
“It’s like we’re heart surgeons here,” Olson said as they worked.
Olson taught U.S. Air Force veteran Lesley Swanson to cut feather outlines into the clay wings of her sculpture of Archangel Michael’s saber. She followed his directions and sliced the overlapping feathers at a slight angle to give them a shadowy effect.
If she made a mistake, she could fill it back in with clay, wait 15 minutes for it to dry a bit and carve it again, he said.
Swanson studied art in high school and college before joining the military, she said. Her favorite medium is ink, though clay is a close second, she’s decided.
The life-sized sabre sat across the room wrapped in plastic, and later she’d add the winged hilt and a shield with a cross. The piece has personal meaning to her, she said.
“He’s a warrior, just kind of one of God’s top dogs,” she added.
The sessions are designed for participants to create their own projects that aren’t from a formula and don’t have to look like anyone else’s, Gallegos said. Art is a great outlet for everyone to express themselves.
“Often it’s so hard to put emotions into words, and sometimes it’s subconscious,” she said. “They might not know what they want to get out or express, and it just comes forth.”