Sergeants to sculptors | Women veterans commemorate experience and find therapy in art

By Kate Whittle

When Sam Powers sat down to paint a mask as part of an art activity for veterans at Olympic Community College in Bremerton, she wasn’t aiming for anything fancy. Powers, a diminutive 30-year-old who wears pink pearl jewelry, is also an Air Force veteran who recently finished a doctorate in higher education. She doesn’t consider herself an artist.

The end product, a black mask adorned with gold flowers on one half and gears and cogs on the other, represents the “duality of man and machine,” she said, something many veterans express – having to shut down their expressive, human sides to become goal-achieving automatons.

Women make up nearly 15 percent of active-duty U.S. military, and their involvement has been growing since the 1970s. The more and more that women come back from time in service collecting intense experiences, the more, it seems, they turn to arts to memorialize their experience.

Women’s art nationally

At the non-profit Swords to Plowshares office in San Francisco, women veteran coordinator Star Lara is curating the fourth annual Shout! women veteran’s art exhibit. Lara, an army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, said the Shout! art exhibit is one way women create a community.

“I definitely think the female veteran’s artist community is growing, as the number of women who’ve served grows,” she said.

The veterans’ art community creates bonds that cross coast to coast. Navy veteran Charlie Palumbo, another passionate veterans’ advocate that Lara knows, is based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The two met through Palumbo’s “Veteran Artist” Facebook page.

Today, Palumbo is an active volunteer and advocate in the veteran artist community.

But a few years ago, Palumbo felt isolated and confused after leaving the Navy.

“You get out and you’re like, ‘now what do I do? Nobody’s taking care of me and I don’t know who I relate with,’” Palumbo said.

Palumbo joined the Navy in 1998 after graduating high school. She was on a ship near Japan on Sept. 11, 2001. Everything changed, and she found the transition to loaded weapons and barbed wires and curfews abrupt.

The long working hours and 300-day stretches out to sea took its toll on her energy.

After getting out of the military in 2004, she felt lucky to have her husband, a navy man who she served with, but still needed an outlet.

One day sometime in 2008, she saw an ad on Craigslist for an expressive arts therapy group. She wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, but she’d been looking for some kind of community of women to join and it seemed interesting.

At first, the class seemed goofy. The teacher encouraged her to paint how she felt, and then dance with her painting to tell her story on a physical level.

“I was like, ‘okay, you’re crazy, I don’t know why anybody would dance with their painting,’” Palumbo said.

But as Palumbo painted, danced and learned how to meditate in the classes, she worked through lingering bitterness and anger and decided to be proud about her time in service.

In 2010, the poet Palumbo wrote “The Face of a Memory: Emerging from the Military through Poetic Voice,” a memoir of vignettes about people she served with, characters like “The Chef” and “The Texan.”

She took each story to the person it was about. “And each one was really willing to read it and go through the journey and allow me the space to heal,” she said.

Even finding a cover photo for “Face of a Memory” became emotional. She’d seen the photo of an Iraq war veteran on a photography site, felt drawn to the vibrant, intense face and messaged the photographer to ask to use it. It turned out the photo was of Sergeant Jared Savage, who died in an explosion in Mosul, Iraq in 2008.

Many works by veterans end up at the National Veteran’s Art Museum in Chicago, which showcases hundreds of works inspired by conflicts in recent U.S. history.

“We tend not to accept paintings of bunnies by veterans,” said Levi Moore, the museum’s executive director. “We like to have them hone in on their experience.”

In May 2012, the veterans art museum will wrap up a special exhibit, Overlooked/Looked Over, which featured eight women veteran artists.

“Overlooked/Looked Over,” was curated by Erica Slone, an Iraq veteran who uses art to remember her years of service in Qatar and Iraq.

Slone, a former Air Force staff sergeant, meant the title as a reference to the Mae West quote, “I’d rather be looked over than overlooked,” as a jab at the ways women are treated in the armed forces.

Slone graduated from an Ohio high school, got a car and an apartment and worked at a GM factory making car parts. One day, she realized she made the same amount of money as workers who’d been there 18 years. In 2002, she decided she’d have a better chance at escaping rural Ohio and finding a better living by joining the Air Force.

“It was no big ‘I wanna serve my country’ thing, I was a victim of the economic draft,” she said.

Her first station was in Ohio, ironically, but then she was deployed to locations in Qatar and Iraq. She spent part of 2006 in Mosul, Iraq. “We were constantly getting mortared and RPGed,” she said.

She was good at what she did, and was promoted to E5 Staff Sergeant, but started feeling misgivings about the value of war and her place in life. Serving under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as a gay woman became grating.

Slone was discharged in 2008, and decided to immediately enter Ohio State University to study art. She was scared because of the lousy economy, but also because she wasn’t sure if art was a selfish choice.

Transitioning from a staff sergeant to an art student wasn’t easy, starting from the first day of every class, when students introduce themselves. The moment she’d introduced herself as a veteran, she was met by blank faces.

Slone doesn’t think of her work as a deliberate comment on war or the military, but finds that writing and sculpting has become her way of remembering her experiences. She recalls very little of her military experiences until she starts making art and forming a narrative.

Since then, she’s developed a community of veterans and artists, leading up to being asked to curate the National Veteran’s Art Museum Overlooked/Looked Over exhibit.

“In general, art, like any other facet of our culture, women are less represented,” she said. She hopes that will change.

Of the 255 artists in permanent exhibits at the veteran’s art museum, director Moore said, only about five are women.

As more women veterans are dealing with combat trauma because of the changing nature of war, Moore expects to see more submissions.

It often takes a few years after a conflict’s end for veterans to start producing artwork. Moore expects to see more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans creating and submitting art between 2013 and 2017.

The U.S. Veteran’s Artist Alliance in Los Angeles provides a gallery space and loose-knit membership to connect veterans with therapy resources.

“People’s minds are changing toward how we can apply the arts as therapy,” said artistic director Keith Jeffreys.

“We’re really at the forefront, so there are not a lot of female veterans that are using art as therapy, but they are there,” he said.