The Army never issued Staff Sgt. Bobby Mathis a paintbrush — and before entering the Military Creative Expressions art-therapy program, he wouldn’t have been caught dead with one.
A lot can change in a year and a half. As the two-tour combat veteran paced the Imagination Space gallery recently, surveying his paintings and more than 100 others created by fellow wounded troops for the program’s summer exhibit, he was glad he’d made peace with a paintbrush — and with himself.
“It’s allowed me to start seeing the positives,” said Mathis who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and is a member of Fort Carson’s Warrior Transition Unit, where troops with medical and mental health issues are sent to recover.
“After so many deployments, I seemed to focus on the negatives. Now I’ve gotten to the point where if something bad happens, I step back and look at it and go, ‘Well, it kind of stinks, but there’s a silver lining in there somewhere.’”
Mathis’ recovery is one of many witnessed by program instructor Kim Nguyen, an art therapist who developed PTSD as a child in war-torn Vietnam.
“They have hope, they see life more positively, and they see a purpose in life — a future,” she said of her students. “They don’t just define themselves as someone who came back with PTSD.”
After receiving the backing of her employer, AspenPointe, two years ago, Nguyen developed two tracks of art-therapy curriculum for wounded warriors: one for those predominantly struggling with PTSD, the other for those predominantly struggling with traumatic brain injury.
Thanks to a partnership with the Bemis School of Art and approval from the military’s medical insurance plan, TriCare, the program was made available to Warrior Transition Unit soldiers in January 2010 and has been offered in 12-week sessions ever since.
Participants meet for two hours each week, tackling a variety of themes like “conflict” and “a safe place” with pencil, acrylic and other art supplies.
The last 45 minutes of each session is devoted to talking: Students are allowed to present their artwork before receiving interpretation from Nguyen and fellow classmates.
“From there they can decide who they are and make decisions about themselves — their direction in life,” said Nguyen, adding that Mathis rediscovered his love for the forest when he realized that most of his paintings were set in one — a desolate hill when he was feeling stressed, young plants surrounded by mountains when he was feeling serene.
Thanks to the epiphany, Mathis is training for a career with the U.S. Forest Service, whom he worked for before entering the Army and where he hopes to go back when his enlistment is up.
“I see going into mapping and aerial photography as a tremendous opportunity, something I can get into,” he said.
He’s even been able to find a silver lining in his PTSD, which he says has become more bearable.
“Now when I do have an episode, I’m like, ‘Okay, maybe this is the last one of 10’ — and I don’t tend to kid myself,” he said. “You suffer with PTSD for the rest of your life, but you learn how to deal with it better.
“Art has given me the tools I need to deal with these episodes.”
ART THERAPY ON DISPLAY
The Military Creative Expressions summer exhibit runs through July 16 at the Imagination Space gallery in The Citadel mall.
Proceeds from artwork sold will fund scholarships for veterans to participate in the program and for program participants to take other art classes offered by Bemis.
For more information on the program, contact AspenPointe at 572-6450.