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Returning to Art

Military Vets’ Artistic Endeavors



Drawing on the Past by Rod Whitehead.

Imagine returning from a Middle East war zone. How do you cope? For many veterans, art has been the answer. Painting, photography, music, dance, theater—a creative outlet can be healing. One organization that helps them explore that is the Veteran Artist Program, or VAP. 

Founded in 2009 by BR McDonald, an opera singer with his own military career, this non-profit organization promotes veterans and their work by networking, mentorship and collaborative productions. VAP is actively growing nationwide. 

Rod Frantz, who lives in Black Rock, is the program director of the Connecticut chapter. With a long history in the arts and philanthropy, his goal is to showcase these highly skilled individuals and get them connected. “These artists are not finger painters,” says Frantz. “We’re the only people working statewide in Connecticut and trying to achieve full reintegration through artistic abilities.”

In mid-November, VAP put on a show at the The Main Stage in New Haven with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club hosting the affair. VAP plans to tour the theater and dance troops with complimentary fine arts exhibits in 2016.

Ron Whitehead, who spent much of his Army career in Desert Storm in the early 90s, works with paint and photography focused on patriotic images. He found VAP through social media. “It’s really something special about being in a show with other vets,” he explains. “It’s a way to share with each other and it’s a great group that really supports vets.” (On left is his Broken Spirit art and his Drawing on the Past is above.)

Creating art can be satisfying but it often soothes a tortured soul. Artists like Edward Santos, an Army sergeant and team leader, came home from two tours in Iraq. He also returned with various bodily injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Santos described PTSD like being on a roller coaster. 

“The higher you get, the more anxiety. Your heart starts pounding,” he explains. “Your mind is traveling a hundred miles an hour. Totally depressed and angry one minute, calm the next. It’s like that all day, a continuous loop. Art is the only thing that helps me cope.”

Santos started with oil painting, but then he got hooked on what’s called “mobile photography.” Got an iPhone 6 Plus? So does he, and he takes phenomenal shots with it. After sending them to a California studio to be printed on metal, glass, or canvas, he then manipulates the images. (His images on the right and at the top.)

“With oil painting, I was isolated and inside my head,” he says. “Mobile photography gets me outside to meet and talk to people. Art is my happy place.”

While Santos became an artist after his service, Roman Baca was a dancer first. What began with jazz and tap lead to ballet. As the Artistic Director, he now runs Exit 12 Dance Company in New York City and the Ballet Theatre Company in West Hartford. Baca’s military service was a calling to help other people—like a hiccup in his dance career.

“There were times in the Marines that I saw dance as frivolous,” he remarks of his eight years as a machine gunner and fire team leader. “When I got back from Iraq, reality hit hard.”

Baca admitted his transition to civilian life was less than smooth. His wife told him he was anxious, angry, and sometimes mean. He knew something had to change. That was the birth of his dance company and he hasn’t looked back since. His veteran-based pieces are all aimed at advocacy and awareness. “You can say so much through movement without saying a word,” he says. 

Michelle Thomas, who spent 21 years in the National Air Guard and retired in 2010, has a slightly different view of art in her life. It’s not so much a happy place as a state of mind. “Art is the fabric of my being,” she shares. “I can’t go to sleep at night without working something out visually. It’s a part of how I think. It’s like breathing.” Thomas, who considers herself a mixed media artist, has been working with VAP for about two years. 

For Lynn Fisher, one of the first women enlisted in the Navy in the late 70s, her photography started in the military and continued after her service. She got connected with VAP three years ago after a show in Hartford. “Art-wise, everyone has a different flavor,” she says. “Some are angry, some working through painful experiences, and some are just doing art to create.”

To learn more, visit veteranartistprogram.org or contact Rod Frantz at rod@vapinct.org.

Additional Edward Santos Mobile Photography:

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