SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- The paintings and sculptures hanging in the Southwestern University art gallery this month evoke immediate and powerful emotions from visitors -- awe, anger, horror, sadness -- even though the artists who created them would never have seen themselves picking up a paint brush, until now.
The pieces showcased in this exhibit were created by combat veterans who never imagined being artists, in a program founded by an artist who never imagined working with combat Veterans.
"I grew up in a household that did not include any military service," said professional artist Elizabeth Washburn, the founder of Combat Arts San Diego. "Pretty much until 9/11 and the ensuing wars, I had never given much thought about the military and had a very stereotypical view of those in the service. I didn't think they were very smart, were rigid, conservative and not anyone I would be overly interested in knowing."
That changed in 2007, when Washburn read one too many articles about service member deaths in Iraq. She decided she wanted to do something, anything, so she contacted the Balboa Naval Hospital and asked if they would be interested in free art classes for Veterans. That led to her involvement with a new treatment facility on the Point Loma Submarine Base called Overcoming Adversity and Stress Injury Support.
"At OASIS I initially had one cohort (group) of between three and eight service members every ten weeks. We did large-scale murals. The theme of the murals generally revolved around the concepts of past, present and future. I would ask them to think about where they have been, where they are now and where do they want to go in the future."
The program caught on quickly, particularly among Veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress, and the finished pieces of art were so powerful that Washburn decided to dedicate a good portion of her life to it. She named it Combat Arts San Diego, with the founding principal that making art is inherently therapeutic.
"Eventually, we started having two cohorts running simultaneously. In addition, I began introducing a new project utilizing mask-making, so now the Veterans can choose to do collaborative artwork, a personal artwork, or a sculptural mask. With the masks I ask participants to think internally how they feel about themselves, and externally, how they think they are perceived."
"The 'not-so-smart' stereotype I had has been proven wrong," she said. "The vets in my art classes prove to be very intelligent, actually some of the quickest to learn compared with the other civilian students I teach."
She added that giving battle-hardened warriors the opportunity to express themselves through art has had surprising consequences, for them and for her.
"The biggest impact these guys have had on me comes from listening to their stories and observing their vulnerability while in treatment. They are these big, strong guys who are not used to feeling weak or expressing a lot of emotions, and I end up totally loving them for it."
Former Marine Sgt. Aaron Raher, who became involved in Combat Arts San Diego after having difficulty acclimating back into society after returning from war, spoke about the positive changes the program has made in his life.
"I would say that art has really helped me in a way that it is easier for me to express my feelings," he said. "Until [the Combat Art program] came to OASIS I had no idea I could do art. I am really into it, and it has really helped me express myself as well as get some of the bad out of me."
Marine Staff Sgt. Evan Ahlin, a former field artillery cannon crewman who was injured in Afghanistan in 2010, and who participated in a recent CASD cohort, said that art was the last thing he thought of as therapy until he picked up a paintbrush.
"In the spring of 2012 my PTSD greatly affected me and I had a breakdown," he said. "I needed to find a way to express the pain. I realized talking to a mental health provider can only do so much. I finally built up the courage and started painting, and that's when the magic started. I realized I was painting about my injury and painting about things that I had no idea bothered me."
"I feel that the military community needs to start recognizing alternate forms of healing besides going to a hospital and taking medication," said Ahlin. "[Painting] has made such an impact on my life I hope to become an art therapist to share this amazing way of healing with others."
Washburn said the rewards of building the CASD program have been profound, and her opinion of those who serve has changed dramatically.
"I don't see the military as a homogenous, faceless group of people, but instead as individuals. Their decisions to serve are varied, and the decision to serve is not made only because of a socio-economic reality. I realize that many have a true sense of wanting to serve their country. To be honest, I had always been a skeptic of that concept because of my mistrust of our leaders, but I truly respect their decision and know that the fact they feel that way, and follow through with their service, is why our military is as strong as it is."
"When I paint I get into this safety bubble on a cloud," said Ahlin. "Amazingly enough all my worries and chronic pain seem to get blocked when I have a brush in my hand. It has helped me greatly in my recovery process."
Washburn's passion for her project has only grown as she's come to know more and more Veterans. She has curated several combat art shows, and has expanded the program to include tours of local museums, free tickets to the theater, and concerts.
"My next goal is to create a Veteran mural project whereby the collaborative artworks and masks they make are photographed, enlarged to mural size and printed, so that I can display them in public," she said, adding that she is also working on an interactive website for conversations, videos and profiles of the combat artists and the artwork they make.
Washburn said founding a program that facilitates the unlikely combination of art and war has been a transformative experience for a lot of people, especially her.
"I figure I have worked with more than 300 Veterans over the years," she said. "In the end, I just have a lot of compassion for these guys, and a great passion for art. Art is transformative, and war is an unfortunate reality."