A new pilot project by the Oklahoma Arts Council and the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs is offering Oklahoma veterans a chance to take part in a variety of art instruction classes.
About 15 veterans from the Norman Veterans Center filled a room at the Oklahoma State Capitol to share their experiences recently. They were part of the first pilot of veterans to take part in the program. Visual art and creative writing hung outside on the walls.
“As you know, the arts are a robust tool for meeting vital needs in education, community development, health and wellness,” said Amber Sharples, executive director of the Oklahoma Arts Council.
The initiative started in 2015, and the pilot project was launched in 2016. It involves 10-week college-level courses focusing on visual art, photography, creative writing. The second pilot project is taking place at the Lawton/Fort Sill Veterans Center.
“The veterans who undertook this process with us in Norman chose to get out of their comfort zones as they engaged the process,” Sharples said at the event.
An exhibition catalog will help expand the program by presenting the best lessons learned, Sharples said. A researcher from the University of Oklahoma’s Knee Center for Strong Families prepared the tool kit and guide.
Col. Doug Elliott, deputy director of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, said there was a lot of dismissing of the project at first due to budget constraints. “But it didn’t take long to basically see the benefits that derive from this program,” he said. “People who are basically in a shell, who didn’t want to be around anybody else, who just wanted a routine day suddenly began to interact—to be part of the program, part of the center. If nothing else is a win, that is. To have people basically break out of that shell.”
Martha Higgins was one of the veterans who took part in the Norman pilot project. The 86-year-old served in the Air Force from 1951 to 1954. During the pilot project, she wrote a hymn.
She had started the hymn and saw the opportunity to finish it during the creative writing class, she said. The instructor taught how to write a beginning, let the thoughts come through and finish with a climax.
“He made it interesting,” she said. “He made you want to come back for the 10 weeks. He kept you in suspense.”
She said taking part in the classes reminded her a little of high school because it was reminiscent of learning how to write essays and outlines.
The military community makes up nearly 10 percent of Oklahoma’s population, according to the Arts Council. Native Americans and Alaska Natives have one of the highest representations in the armed forces, according to the Department of Defense.
Albert Gray Eagle is one of the instructors for the Lawton/Fort Sill Veterans Center pilot project. He teaches students how to make flutes and play them.
As a veteran himself from the Army during the Vietnam era, he said he knows the impact the arts can have on someone.
“The arts for me have been the greatest way to express the pain,” he said. “I know what these guys are going through.”
He said the arts have been healing for him, and he’s bringing that healing to his lifelong family.
“Their expression is coming from their soul and no one else,” he said of learning to play the flute.