Soldiers' inner battles spill onto canvases

March 1, 2011
photo - Isaac Torres stands with one of the paintings he completed in an art therapy class. Photo by HUGH DAVIS/SpringsMilitaryLife
Isaac Torres stands with one of the paintings he completed in an art therapy class. Photo by HUGH DAVIS/SpringsMilitaryLife 

It is difficult for Isaac Torres to be in a crowd. Walking into Walmart is emotionally excruciating. The fear of being in a group of unknown people gripped Torres during a deployment in Iraq.

“Being on the border of Jordan and Iraq, I was surrounded by Jordanians and Iraqis daily,” Torres said. “I had a paranoid feeling because I didn’t know if I had a suicide bomber next to me, or if I would suddenly be attacked. In a crowd, I felt totally alone.”

During the past year, Torres has captured that feeling on canvas.

On the wall behind him was a painting entitled, “Alone in the Crowd.” There at the bottom, unmistakably, was Torres’ face.

The painting was part of an exhibit by soldiers/artists in the Military Creative Expressions Program, the brainchild of Vic Tise of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center board.  

“When I became the education committee chair for the Fine Arts Center, I realized that there was not much of a relationship between the center and the military,” Tise said. So he approached Aspen Pointe (formerly Pikes Peak Mental Health) about doing a cooperative project.

“It was one of those things where we just knew we were going to do it,” Tise said.   

In January 2010, he went to a town hall meeting with the Fort Carson’s Warriors Transition Unit and suggested using art therapy to help soldiers deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Fifteen soldiers signed up, and six showed up for the first class, held within days of the meeting. About 35 soldiers went through the program in its first year.

The 15-week creative expressions program is designed by Kim Nguyen, who suffered significant trauma as a survivor of wartime Vietnam.

“The main purpose of military creative expressions is not about painting pretty pictures, but teaching them skills so they can express themselves,” Nguyen said.

“With PTSD, the soldiers tend to be paranoid, anxious and hyper vigilant. So, we give them the media and they gain a sense of control.  After a while, they begin to surrender to the media,” Nguyen explains.   

During the process, Nguyen demonstrates artistic techniques.

“The process of painting takes those intangible feelings and makes them tangible,” Torres said.  

At the end of class the soldiers process what they have painted, gaining insights into their thoughts, feelings and  memories.

Barbara Tise, a licensed professional counselor, assists during the classes.   

The soldiers donate some paintings to be auctioned to raise money to help the soldiers pay for additional art classes, Nguyen said. Later this month, she expects to start an intermediate class.

The paintings have been displayed at the Hillside Community Center and the Colorado Springs Airport.

Torres is a strong advocate of the program.  

“This program helped me slow down from the adrenaline rush of deployment,” he said. “It helped bring me back to civilization where everything is moving at a steady pace.  I learned patience.

“The images I paint are not from my deployment; they are from inside, they are my emotions.”

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