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VA Art Festival Highlights Effectiveness Of Art Therapy

The auditorium at the Sheridan VA Health Care System is a space for veterans to come, shoot pool, play board games, or just hang out.

But on Tuesday, March 3, it was serving as an art gallery. The VA is hosting its annual Creative Arts Festival that allows veterans from across the state to submit a wide range of artistic creations.

The tables around the room show a full buffet of art. There are the classic paintings of wildlife on easels, pottery, and model cars and planes. But there's also other surprising submissions like a crocheted cartoon turkey with football stitching on its stomach and a werewolf sculpture with blood dripping from its mouth and pooling at its feet.

Many of the pieces on display are made by veterans who are in treatment at the VA.

Recreation therapist Lindsey Snyder said art making is part of the VA's recreation therapy program. Sometimes they use activities like card games, sports and crafts to help patients, heal both mentally and physically.

"So we want to make sure when we do activities that they are enjoying [it], and they understand there is a benefit to doing them, not just to have fun but it also benefits their health," she said.

Snyder said art is just one of the forms of recreational therapy, but it can have big benefits.

"We get a lot of different paintings and different things in from individuals coming to us, saying how much doing this art has benefited their health, whether it reduces their stress, it's a coping mechanism and just takes their mind off of things they might be dealing with," she said.

That's the case for David Youmans, a Navy Veteran who served during the Iraq War.

"I carve wood, I paint, I draw, I make jewelry. And what all of those things have done for me, is it kind of helps me ground myself into the present moment. And not only that, it also helps me express and process different feelings and emotions that i struggle with, so mainly for me is depression and anxiety," he said.

He's also a peer support specialist at the VA, who works with a group in the mental health recovery program where veterans can work on self-expression and collaboration.

"It helps people who suffer from serious mental illness regain a lot of tools that they may have lost, learn new tools, find their foundation. And it's kind of just a safe place to heal and grow," he said.

The collaborations help build social skills and connections between veterans, as well as working on mindfulness and being present in the moment.

"We have a collaboration of different clay sculptures that are attached to an old Dodge Hubcap. And then we have a big poster board that took four different weeks of collaborating with our veterans, painting, decoupaging, drawing, origami and coloring," Youmans said.

He said it was his first time showing his art publicly and was nervous. He even considered pulling it, but realized it was a chance to get out of his comfort zone. Youmans walked away with a first prize in the jewelry category.

"It was an awesome opportunity to see I'm not the lonely artist in Sheridan, Wyoming. That's a veteran. There's hundreds of others," he said.

One of those hundreds is Air Force veteran Tom Warnke. He served in the 1950s as an aircraft mechanic. Warnke submitted a large wood carving of the Betatakin cliff dwelling from the Navajo National Monument in northern Arizona.

"It's the toughest one I've done yet. Because of the extreme wood carving. It's all made out of that. That's what it looks like when I start," Warnke said.

Warnke picked up a chuck of cottonwood bark that's about 200 to 300 years old. The old wood is carved so that it resembles the smooth rock on the real thing. He's carved out each brick and window on every building. And it's complete with gravel, rocks, and greenery and the dwelling's miniscule hand painted people about the size of ants. Warnke has been doing wood carvings for years, but it's his first time submitting to the VA's art show. He also won first place in the carving category.

"I couldn't have hired a shrink to handle me like this did for the last year, these three that I just finished. It's just something about it. Your mind is controlling these guys and this is the end result. It's all worth it," Warnke said.

The Creative Arts Festival is part of a larger celebration of art put on by the federal VA system and sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary. Winners from the local festival who are enrolled with the VA will move on to the national competition later this year.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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