ARLINGTON, Va. – What do famed painter Vincent Van Gogh and a Soldier in Georgia have in common? They’ve both completed a painting named “The Starry Night.” Van Gogh is responsible for the original artwork while Chief Warrant Officer 4 Efrain Hernandez Torres completed his version more recently. He finished it while participating in the Fort Stewart Soldier Recovery Unit’s art program last year.
Hernandez Torres painted before he was assigned to the SRU where he currently attends virtual art instruction. He explained that during the weekly classes, the Soldiers follow along with the instructor to create art.
Lt. Col. Edward Ziembinski, commander of the Fort Stewart SRU, said that the virtual art program has become an essential part of the adaptive reconditioning program and is “exceptionally beneficial for recovering Soldiers” in myriad ways.
“Each virtual art session fosters creativity, social interaction, and deliberate focus in our Soldiers,” he said. “They cultivate their fine motor skills and engage their imaginations through a relaxing and exceedingly pleasant activity.”
One of the paintings that Hernandez Torres completed with the art program was modeled after a landscape by Georgia O’Keeffe. In addition, he has painted landscapes, castles and an old colonial town from his homeland of Puerto Rico. He loves all of his artwork, but said that his painting of the Golden Gate Bridge was the most challenging to complete.
It can take up to three hourlong classes to finish a painting, but it depends on its level of complexity, Hernandez Torres said. The first class is for drafting, the second is for painting and last is for completing the artwork. They practice a number of COVID-19 precautionary measures, to include spacing easels six feet apart, providing Soldiers with their own tools, cleaning surfaces before and after instruction and wearing masks, said Dr. Yvonne Larochelle, physical therapist at the Fort Stewart SRU.
Hernandez Torres said that painting is one of the most relaxing things he can do and it’s helped him change his mindset and cope with feelings of anger. When he returned from deployment, he sought an activity that would help him relax, and he found painting. He described painting a landscape with a mountain, valley or river and feeling like he’d transported himself to the place he was creating. When he feels depressed, he will spend time painting without interruption and it brings him happiness.
After he transitions from the SRU, Hernandez Torres wants to grow his skills and continue painting. He plans to look into art school to learn more about mixing paint, and oil or watercolor painting.
The Fort Stewart SRU’s art program also includes crafts. Soldiers make wallets, birdhouses, clocks or magazine racks. On Fridays, they discuss how working on the projects made them feel, Larochelle said. There are plans to expand the program with more offerings in 2021, she added.
Hernandez Torres tried one project in which Soldiers built wagons. It was his first craft and he’s completed several more since then. He said that he enjoyed assembling the wagons because they had to be put together piece-by-piece.
“I loved that one too,” he said.
Larochelle said that the art program offers quite a few benefits, such as creating opportunities to practice fine motor skills or to adapt a workstation to focus on endurance or balance. In this way, art becomes more physical and functional, she said. It also provides a way for Soldiers to express their feelings using color and brushstrokes on paper, she said.
Soldiers have told Larochelle that the art program was calming and provided peace and purpose during the week. Those who stayed with the program have created beautiful artwork, she said.
Ziembinksi said that once Soldiers attend a virtual art session, they want to return because it’s fun and the instructor is engaging. It’s also a therapeutic and accessible addition to their schedules that helps them learn a skill, he said.
The Army Warrior Care and Transition Program is now the Army Recovery Care Program. Although the name has changed, the mission remains the same: to provide quality complex case management to the Army's wounded, ill and injured Soldiers.