Art for Veterans Creates Comrades-in-Art

Art for Veterans, a non-profit serving military veterans, offers an open studio, free materials, guidance, and a safe space to create art at McDowell Arts Center by the Community Center in Matthews. Classes and studio time are offered September to June on Wednesdays from noon to 3 PM and Fridays from 1 to 4 PM .

On 9/11, the tragic time struck artist Eileen Schwartz particularly hard. Living in San Diego, she was “so upset by the events of the day” that she felt the need to immediately do something. “There was patriotism all around, flags everywhere, cars painted with flags, faces painted with flags,” she said. Schwartz wanted to capture the images of the moment.

With the work and help of others, her intentions and photographs turned into what became approximately 400 snapshots and the basis of an art gallery show. Creating a nonprofit organization called “Flags Across the Nation,” which also added the display of children’s pictures and then quilts soon followed. The work forever linked her to vets and their families across the country. To date, she’s curated/created 65 shows or events from San Diego to Charlotte; she continues to receive letters from military personnel across the country, currently or previously deployed.

Five years ago (now living in Charlotte), she and her nonprofit group wanted to branch out in other directions - the art class for military personnel, “Art for Veterans,” was born. Offered weekly from September to June, anyone who has served in the military can come to the McDowell Arts Center in Matthews for (up to) three hours each Wednesday (noon to 3 p.m.). The classes and materials are free. At least 10-20 men and women (currently ages 25-94) come to quietly work on (a variety of) artwork and paintings.

“I wanted to make a safe space for veterans who wanted to come to paint,” said Schwartz, explaining that some people need to de-stress, some people are there to learn techniques and some people want to be around other veterans. “Everyone is here for a different reason,” she said.

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“I wanted to be directly involved with veterans and give them the opportunity to explore art,” said Schwartz. “I’m a supporter for individuals for what they want in their life. I give them the opportunities to explore.”

We have a lot in common with those who are in the different branches of the military. The lessons are a way to meet new people, make a connection and express ourselves through our art.
— Felicia LaGrant

To Diana Rahe, 58, US Army/NC National Guard/Desert Storm/former Gastonia police officer – driving one hour each week to attend the class has been the best thing she could hope for. After years in the military, suffering from severe PTSD and chronic ongoing and significant nightmares, her therapist urged her to “find a purpose.” An online search for Veterans Art Therapy led her to the class and the mistaken idea that she would be asked to only express her military experiences through art. “I never had a hobby before,” she said, adding that she couldn’t paint until she tried the class. “It’s so much fun to paint - it’s a great experience and (is) such a (great) experience to sit with veterans….who have served in all sorts of conflicts.”

“We have a lot in common with those who are in the different branches of the military,” said Felicia LaGrant, 59, US Army – one of the newest members of the group. “The lessons are a way to meet new people, make a connection and express ourselves through our art.”

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Dom Spedicato, 86, US Army/Korean War, said the class has helped “reveal (your) inner self and feelings,” adding that the experience has helped him ”feel what others” in the class have experienced - both physical and emotional pain. “I feel compassion for (many of) them,” he said.

“It’s a good time to spend with comrades-in-arms,” said John Prestbo, 77, US Air Force/Vietnam. “and lets me pursue my art,” said John Prestbo. “It’s a good, comfortable time. I look forward to coming here each week.”

While many classes often involve a revolving group of participants, many of the students in this class have stuck with the program, finding comfort, joy, and fulfillment in a safe space. “This is a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of for as long as I can,” said Rahe. “It’s just enjoyable to learn different techniques – it’s relaxing… It’s helped me heal. Sometimes you see things or experience things you don’t have words for and you don’t want to explore. We’re lucky to have this class. I wish more (veterans) would do this.”