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At the VA, Arts Programs Offer Engagement and Release to Veterans

Art & The Veteran

Situated on the 10th floor of the Veteran’s Hospital is a room with café-style chairs bolted to the floor. Here on Monday and Tuesday evenings, 6-8pm, an organized art activity is normally held. An art specialist props open the door while six or eight ward residents in various combinations of pajamas, T-shirts, and cutoffs gradually move to the activity tables. Chaired by activity specialist Ralph Sirianni, a long-standing VA employee, these occasions often become barracks bull sessions interspersed with drawing. That’s the idea; to get people out of their rooms and off the chairs in front of the TV and into discussions and an exchange of ideas. This helps to keep institutionalized people energized and challenged while intending to account for creative interventions as a measurable outcome of organized participation.

Sirianni, a Vietnam combat marine veteran, came to the VA for counseling after his service release and never left, moving from the laundry, to food service, to counseling, to recreation therapy, and finally introducing art as a therapeutic activity for veterans. He has in his 34-plus years become legendary at the VA, working with in-patient/out-patient programs on and off the grounds, running day trips and on-site events such as picnics, parties, benefits, art exhibitions, and, of course, karaoke night.

Karaoke, the disco of the shut-in crowd, has long been the staple of the harried Japanese businessmen crooning sake-slurred lines read from a teleprompter. Now karaoke is seen as a strong interactive event for therapeutic recovery.

Residents on ward who may suffer in silent resignation, medically enervated from the day-to-day routine, come alive when given a microphone and words to familiar songs. Motown classics and gospel hymns find voice in patients who want their turn at the mic, revealing rhythm, style, and boundless confidence. Even the ward staff is encouraged to participate, which is always a sign of a popular past time. Residents comprise all ages and dates of service—even prior service dependants are often in and out of the VA healthcare system

The 10th floor ward is a locked unit for patients with psychotic disorders, behavioral issues, and severe depression. Often the art activities program is the oasis in the middle of a clinically predictable routine of daily shuffling about from the TV lounge to the medicine queue to the bedroom. Residents look forward to the weekly art activity and the karaoke night, even if they don’t participate directly. The energy that builds in an open mic setting is strong, everyone present lowering defenses to sing or clap hands together. Differences, fears, and anxieties are allayed a while as everyone joins in on the chorus of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” or “How Great Thou Art.”

In Freedom Hall at the VA Hospital on Bailey Avenue, an art show is assembled from work by vets. Arranged on lightweight folding tables and wooden easles, the work ranges from framed jigsaw puzzles to a large popsicle-stick house. Between 11am and 2pm, in-house employees and patients stroll through the displays while being entertained by Tony DeCorse, playing traditional Italian and Irish tunes on the Honer Oreanetto.

A former marine’s artwork in painted model craft plastic displayed a replica of the Hood, a British battleship sunk with one shell from the German super battleship Bismarck in 1941. It is painted with restraint and an eye for the effect of a weathered hardwood deck. All the details prove the mastery of minute brushstrokes.

“The tremors keep me from working on them regularly,” the artist said, indicating a display of a model German Panzer tank at a roadblock confronting a squad of World War II GI’s. “My wife has to work around my models, which I construct on the kitchen table.

“I didn’t use a magnifying glass. It’s all by hand and eye. Even down to the iron cross on the tank commander.”

Each little figure—the tank, the tank traps—is researched and worked to the full. “Sometimes I’m working three months at a time off and on,” he said.

Prominently featured are large jigsaw puzzles, completed and glued together. The frames are accented with fabric backgrounds and reflect the subject matter—lions, tigers, harem women. There are also puzzles with Native American themes, all of them eyecatching to the passing lunch crowd. The art specialists highlight the third-place-winning artwork from a national show of veterans’ art held this past March. The piece is a small, paint-on-glass etching with its winning ribbon and medal attached to its standing easel.

A corner of the large hall displayed miniature metal sculptures composed of nuts, bolts, and pennies in figurative poses. Karaoke was a part of the event, starting slowly with a few vets with only coffee to bolster their resolve. There were full-sized plexiglass cut-outs of guitars and fiddles to fill out the sense of ornament. Gradually more song stylists stepped up to the mic. Billy Joel’s “Goodbye Saigon” brought everyone in the room to attention, and as the last helicopter sound effect died away the show came to a close.

The event was staffed by veteran volunteers and hosted by the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary, who provided donuts and coffee for two interesting hours in Freedom Hall.

j. tim raymond

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