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Creativity & Camaraderie for Vets

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Jeff Thomas, the son of a Vietnam vet who told a few stories about boot camp but never talked much about the war, was drawn to big guns.

So when he followed his taciturn father and older brother into the U.S. Army after high school, on the second try, after they told him he was too young to enlist, Thomas wedded himself to one of the biggest guns you could wield in the Army at the time -- the TOW, which is short for Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided missile. There won’t be a quiz. Basically, it’s a big 60mm rocket launcher that was used to blow up tanks.

Thomas trucked around the massive antitank missile during the 1980s and 1990s until he had two young sons and a wife who persuaded him to put family first and not reenlist around the time of the Gulf War. He agreed, and left the military.

But civilian life left a big void.

Jeff Thomas is a veteran and an Indianapolis Art Center staff member. - INDIANAPOLIS ART CENTER
  • Indianapolis Art Center
  • Jeff Thomas is a veteran and an Indianapolis Art Center staff member.

The now-groundskeeper of the Indianapolis Art Center, who’s responsible for taking care of the ArtsPark that overlooks the White River, went years without finding any work that felt meaningful, or any workplace that had anywhere the same amount of camaraderie as the Army.

That changed when he got hired on at the Art Center after years of volunteering and got into the glassblowing classes, which required a level of teamwork that Thomas hadn’t experienced since he was in the Army. People have to work together to turn molten glass that’s superheated to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit into paperweights, flowers or other shapes.

“The class is fun, and it brings out creativity,” Thomas says. “But the camaraderie reminded me of the military, and sucked me in. Even to get one piece made, you have to be a team player to get all the tasks completed.”

Thomas volunteered as an instructor for the Art Center’s inaugural Veterans Art Day last year. They celebrated Veterans Day by offering former and active-duty military from any branch free art-making workshops. This year, veterans can participate in no-cost workshops in glassblowing, ceramics and painting at the center.

At the 2013 Veterans Art Day, instructors from the Indianapolis Art Center demonstrated and led veterans through glass art creation. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • At the 2013 Veterans Art Day, instructors from the Indianapolis Art Center demonstrated and led veterans through glass art creation.

Director of Communications Ben Shine, himself the son of a disabled veteran, says the program is aimed at helping these men and women find community, new skills and passion. Scholarships are available if they’re inspired by the class and choose to continue their creative pursuits.

“People go off to fight in wars, and we ask them to go through such things on our behalf,” Shine says. “It’s also our responsibility to help them when they come back.”

Studies have shown that art can have a healing effect on veterans and help them adjust to life after service. In fact, efforts have sprung up around the country to offer them free classes in visual arts, dance, theater, film and writing so they can engage in therapeutic creativity. A new nonprofit organization in Chicago, for instance, sends veterans down to Nashville, Tennessee, where they work with professional songwriters to express themselves in song.

Many of the veterans who participated in Veterans Art Day in Broad Ripple last year fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but hailed from as far back as the Korean War.

“They might have post-traumatic stress disorder, but doing art, whether painting, clay or working with glass gives you passion and makes you forget,” Thomas says. “Creativity, finding that spark in each individual, puts you in your own little world.”

The Indianapolis Art Center expanded its 2014 Veterans Art Day offerings to include more seats in workshops on glassblowing, ceramics and painting. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • The Indianapolis Art Center expanded its 2014 Veterans Art Day offerings to include more seats in workshops on glassblowing, ceramics and painting.

Thomas added that because veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars put their lives on the line, they deserve to get something back. Since leaving the military, he’s expressed himself through a variety of media. He has worked with glass, clay, stone, wood, steel, canvas and wood, and he has found escapism in every form of art that he’s tried.

“It’s a place where I can let my creativity come out and let the stress fade away,” says Thomas. “It takes me to a different level of life … It gives you piece of mind. It reminds you of those monks who sit and meditate and forget everything they’ve ever known. When I’m working with glass, all I can remember is what I’m making today, what I’m making with the glass.”

To register, call (317) 255-2464x0.

Cover photo credit: Mike Potter

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