Soldiers Discover the Art of Triumphing Over Adversity

By Kim Ferraro, Directorate of Prevention, Resilience and ReadinessMay 2, 2024

Michelle Sterkowicz, Supervisory Arts Specialist, shows Spc. Kevin Taylor, how to use the pottery wheel during Resiliency through Art class at the Vicenza Family and MWR Arts and Crafts Center. (File photo)
Michelle Sterkowicz, Supervisory Arts Specialist, shows Spc. Kevin Taylor, how to use the pottery wheel during Resiliency through Art class at the Vicenza Family and MWR Arts and Crafts Center. (File photo) (Photo Credit: James Brooks) VIEW ORIGINAL

We all know the expression “A picture is worth a thousand words,” but Soldiers who participate in the Army’s Resiliency Through Art program truly understand the adage’s meaning. For they have experienced how expressing one’s emotions by creating something can be more effective than trying to find the words to describe the effects of traumatic life-changing events—be it the violence of war or that suffered from a toxic personal relationship.

That’s what makes Resiliency Through Art so potent and why it has flourished at Army bases since Michelle Sterkowicz, supervisory art specialist at Vicenza Arts & Crafts Center, USAG Italy, started it in 2016 as a healthy way for service members to deal with issues like persistent anxiety, rage and depression.

Among the installations with a robust program is Schofield Barracks/Fort Shafter, in Hawaii, where at the Schofield Barracks Arts & Crafts Center, supervisory art specialist Patti Honda and her colleagues provide Soldiers not only with materials to create with but also a welcoming, encouraging environment. As Honda explains, the program doesn’t provide instruction on art mediums or techniques, nor is it a source of professional therapy; rather, participants come to the center and use whatever supplies they choose to create something through which they can express their feelings and, in the process, gain relief from pent-up emotions.

“This is not instantaneous, nor is resiliency through art an immediate cure, but individuals will recognize the benefits over time,” Honda says. She has observed Soldiers who, upon first coming to the center, are skeptical about the program and tend to focus solely on what to create and getting a project done—and done with a level of technical proficiency. Gradually, though, she has witnessed a change in these same people as they experience the tranquility, the mental relief, that the process of making art provides, regardless of whether they have a flair for it.

To spur their creative mindset, Soldiers can select from a wide array of supplies—paints, colored and graphite pencils, sculpting clay, scrapbooking materials—as well as projects like wind chimes or wallets from craft kits that the organization Help Heal Veterans donates.

Many service members who join the program initially have difficulty with its lack of structure and the complete freedom it gives them— aspects they later find therapeutic. “Soldiers have such a regimented life that it takes time to gain their own selves back,” Honda says. “Always being directed to sleep, eat, rise and do assigned duties at designated times can create a lack of individual thoughts. This program has reintroduced them to their own thoughts and emotions as they work on their projects.” Soldiers who step outside their comfort zone and let themselves go with the artistic flow have experienced relief from symptoms linked to trauma and stressful jobs, everything from racing thoughts and inability to focus to chronic irritability, she notes. “At times, Soldiers who have insomnia have ended up snoring in our protected space provided for them. If this occurs, we have succeeded.”

A powerful testament to the effectiveness of Resiliency Through Art is the gratitude that spouses of emotionally troubled Soldiers have expressed, claiming that the program has “saved their Family.” By using art as an outlet, participants gain control over their emotions. “Experiencing difficulties in communicating their thoughts and desires can be a problem for those experiencing PTSD or brain-trauma symptoms,” Honda says. “The program has given them the option to secure themselves in a quiet environment and do art. It may produce a drawing with just black marks over the entire paper; however, the action of drawing or releasing their anxieties on paper has produced a calming effect. Upon exiting the quiet space, the Soldier can now communicate better and be in a positive demeanor.”

And thus, they can replace self-destructive habits with a passion for creation and discover the truth of what the 20th-century French painter Georges Braque said so well, “Art is a wound turned into light.”