Vets pursue creative horizons in free Studio School class
Everyone needs a place to belong. Oklahoma Contemporary’s Veterans Initiative aims to give the 10 percent of Oklahomans who’ve served in the military just that — a chance to form a comfortable, creative community.
Study after study show that arts improve wellbeing and reduce stress, and we saw that play out in uncountable ways over the last 30 years at our original location at State Fair Park. In 2016, we launched free arts classes for veterans with the intent to expand those offerings when we opened our new campus.
2020 had other plans. Following the advent of the pandemic, we reimagined our traditional offerings for veterans to take place online, via Zoom. This week, our first cohort of 15 Creative Foundations students wrapped up a 10-week exploration of drawing, painting and ceramics with their instructor, Jenny. We asked three students to share their experience in the class and what motivated them to pursue new creative horizons.
An Air Force veteran and former human resources director, Jennifer was at first hesitant to take an arts class. She didn’t consider herself an artist, but eventually decided to apply for the Creative Foundations course because, as she emphatically put it, “I’m retired, and … it’s my time to get centered.”
Despite doubt about her creative abilities, Jennifer found herself working late into the night on class projects when her house was quiet and her mind was clear. One particularly late night produced what she considered her most successful work, an oil pastel representation of a parrot. “My classmates asked, ‘did you really do that?’” she laughed.
Jennifer said she found the course a way to connect with other veterans during a time when we’re staying socially distant. “I never met any of my fellow veterans (in person), but when we hung up (after the last class), I wanted to cry.”
Following his retirement from a computer-sciences career with the Air Force, Brian promised himself he’d find new hobbies — anything, he said, other than technology. He grew up in a family of professional artists and taught himself to draw, paint with acrylic and use his camera lens to depict the natural world around him.
He was attracted to the Creative Foundations course as a way to try out new artmaking methods. “Some I liked, other things I didn’t,” said Brian, who was happy to move away from one technique – messy splatterpainting — to another, creating finished paintings with watercolor.
Like many veterans, Brian experiences depression and has found that creative practice helps improve his wellbeing. All types of artmaking, even those that aren’t his favorites, lend him a sense of peace of mind.
“I don’t know how people who don’t craft survived the last year,” laughs Karen, the background of her Zoom call filled with arts materials and projects.
Since leaving the Air Force, Karen has pursued a variety of creative professions, including her own business, making greeting cards. Already comfortable with most artmaking, Karen joined the Creative Foundations group as a way to meet new friends and pick up a few new skills. As the course got under way, she served a bit as a peer mentor, providing encouragement to less-experienced classmates. She also drew joy from watching others discover and activate their own creativity.
Like many veterans, Karen experiences depression as a result of her service. But she knows one way healing can be found. “(Art) calms me down, gives me energy, makes me happy and keeps the dark places and thoughts at bay.”
Editor's note: Applications for the spring Creative Foundations class are open through Sunday, April 4. Veterans: Apply for the free course here. Not a vet? We’d love for you to share the application with others.
Image: Brian, Marshland, 2021. Alex Jones, Unsplash.
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