Veterans find solace, new camaraderie in CreatiVets arts program in Chicago

Seven U.S. military combat veterans are participating in the program in partnership with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Carlos Espinosaroldon works on a metal installation for an upcoming gallery exhibit at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in partnership with CreatiVets.

Carlos Espinosaroldon works on a metal installation for an upcoming show at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in partnership with CreatiVets.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

It’s a nightmare that Gulf War veteran Bart Crowe couldn’t escape from.

“I would find myself in a big pit of sand and no matter what, my feet just kept sliding back behind me,” Crowe recalls during a recent interview. “All of these body parts just kept pulling me back down.”

It’s this haunting image that tragically found a permanent home in the memory of Crowe following his time fighting in Operation Desert Storm, memories that would greet him each time he would close his eyes.

“They called it the highway of death,” the Army veteran recalls of the six-lane highway situated between Kuwait and Iraq. “We just annihilated thousands. It was like shooting ducks in a gallery. We then would have to drive through all of this destruction. In a sense, we left the bodies there.”

And in a sense, they didn’t.

These awful recollections came home with Crowe, leading him down unhealthy roads that included binge drinking and family squabbles and thoughts of suicide. But since participating in the Nashville-based nonprofit CreatiVets visual arts/music/creative writing program, Crowe says that nightmare only happens “a few times a year” now.

Bart Crowe, a volunteer instructor and a former CreatiVets participant, is photographed earlier this month outside the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s 280 Building in the Loop.

Bart Crowe, a volunteer instructor and a former CreatiVets participant, is photographed earlier this month outside the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s 280 Building in the Loop.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“After the military, I just never could find a purpose in my life,” says Crowe, who attended his first CreatiVets program in 2017 and now helps mentor and teach in their visual arts programs. “I always felt like whatever I was doing, it didn’t matter. It felt meaningless. But CreatiVets healed me. I get to hear their story, which helps me with my story.”

A military uniform that is used as a cast was made by CreatiVets participant Megan Browning, a veteran from Kansas who served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The work will be featured in a gallery exhibit on Friday at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

A military uniform that is used as a cast was made by CreatiVets participant Megan Browning, a veteran from Kansas who served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The work will be featured in a gallery exhibit on Friday at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Empowering people to explore, identify and understand their thoughts and feelings and experiences through the lens of the arts has been the mission of CreatiVets since itsinception in 2013. Utilizing everything from songwriting, visual arts, music and creative writing, veterans from across the country come together to create something inspired by the thoughts they hold deep inside.

“We don’t call it therapy,” explains Kyle Yepsen, deputy director of CreatiVets, which kicked off its latest visual arts program recently at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). “While it provides a lot of therapeutic benefits, what we really are seeking to do is help tell a story or convey an emotion that otherwise would have been repressed. These veterans bottle up these stories and that’s what creates this mental health problem that we have. It’s a way to express their feelings without having to say a word.”

Over the past few weeks, seven combat veterans have been in Chicago doing just that, working alongside one another as part of a CreatiVets fully accredited art class to complete their own individual projects that can offer some level of solace within their constantly swirling worlds.

“I really have been drawn to ceramics, because the clay is really soothing in your hands,” says CreatiVets participant Megan Browning, an Army retired first sergeant from Kansas who has long had an interest in all things art. “The fact that you get to transform an inanimate object into something tangible is just something really good for me.”

Having joined the Army in 2000, Browning served for 20 years, finding herself in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia.

“The things that we encounter are just hard things to deal with,” Browning says. “You lose friends, and you lose family, and you see just horrendous acts of violence. I think the Army does a really good job at teaching you how to compartmentalize, but what they don’t do a good job at is teaching you how to unpack it.”

“I think [CreatiVets] is teaching us a new language to be able to communicate some of that stuff that we don’t have the words for,” says Army veteran Megan Browning.

“I think [CreatiVets] is teaching us a new language to be able to communicate some of that stuff that we don’t have the words for,” says Army veteran Megan Browning.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

She draws in a deep breath.

“I think [CreatiVets] is teaching us a new language to be able to communicate some of that stuff that we don’t have the words for,” says Browning, whose experience with CreatiVets has inspired her to consider becoming an art therapist for the United States Department of Veteran Affairs in the future.

“You got to live a little and suffer a little to express a little,” explains Carlos Espinosaroldon, a CreatiVets classmate of Browning in Chicago, who came to the states from South America when he was 15 years old, and soon after joined the Marines. “My PTSD kind of went away when I picked up photography.”

CreatiVets participant Carlos Espinosaroldon, a veteran who lives in Texas, stands outside the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he’s finishing up one of his metalworks for an exhibition on Thursday. 

CreatiVets participant Carlos Espinosaroldon, a veteran who lives in Texas, stands outside the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he’s finishing up one of his metalworks for an exhibition on Thursday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In the SAIC class, Espinosaroldon says he is trying to broaden his horizons a bit, prepping some metal work he has been working on for the private exhibit event at the school on Thursday.

“I’m willing to get dirty to show how I feel,” says Espinosaroldon, who spent 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I don’t want to be labeled as a disabled veteran. I want to be labeled as an artist, as a photographer, as a person. I’m alive again because of art. Art helps me express culture, beauty, and color. I want to be labeled as a lover of art. I have been healed by the power of art.”

For information on CreatiVets programs and opportunities, visit creativets.org. Interested in checking out the artwork in person? Email communications@saic.edu.

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