Visual Arts » Crafts

Inspired Veterans

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The storefront of Veteran's Antiquities is an impressive space to explore, loaded with surprises at every turn. Walking through the aisles and showrooms, you see not only dozens of the well-known birdhouses, but paintings, dolls, jewelry, furniture, shadowboxes, carvings, wine racks and statues, all made from recycled and upcycled materials. At any given time, an artist or a volunteer seems ready to graciously welcome you in, tell you their story and the story of the organization. It feels like home. And the Veterans there make that feeling even deeper.

Upcycled birdhouses are a well-known product from Veteran Antiquities. - EMILY TAYLOR
  • Emily Taylor
  • Upcycled birdhouses are a well-known product from Veteran Antiquities.

This particular day, there was a man in the corner carving an intricate wood box.  He was a clean-cut military man, looking very unassuming in his graphic t-shirt and khaki cargo shorts. When the door chimed, he instantly cast aside what he was doing, introduced himself with a firm handshake and a "ma'am," and offered a tour of the place. This man was Jerry Savage, a 30-year US Army vet who retired in 2012 as a Lieutenant Colonel. Jerry shared his story as he proudly displayed his wooden wall hangings, jewelry boxes and other commissioned wood-carved objects--a skill he picked up from a local woodcarver while on deployment to Soto Cano, Honduras. He is now shipping his art all over the world and it is made right here in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Earl Jeffries, a Vietnam War veteran, was also in the shop. In his Indianapolis 500 t-shirt, with sleeves just short enough to expose an old "Never Again" tattoo on his right arm, Earl told the story of Veteran's Antiquities in full detail and with great pride, not only in the work of the artists, but of their dedication to their country. Earl had joined the Army in 1968, at the young age of twenty, because it was "instilled in him" that it was his responsibility as a citizen to serve in the military. After returning home he began working at Ford, a career that lasted 40 years, culminating in his retirement just a few years ago. Not being one to sit idly by, he began working with Jeff Piper, co-founder of Veteran's Antiquities, shortly thereafter.

Earl walked down the aisles, around the corners and in every nook, showing off everything--from the types of wood used to make a piece of furniture, to the name of the organization that donated the table saw. Art and obscurities are everywhere. One wall is filled with detailed paintings of NFL players and next to it is a wall of hand-carved miniature rifles. Next to that is a case with earrings made of computer chips, a chair reupholstered with a burlap sack and even a camo-mosaic mannequin sitting on a bench.

Earl Jeffries, a Vietnam vet, can tell you everything about Veteran Antiquities. - EMILY TAYLOR
  • Emily Taylor
  • Earl Jeffries, a Vietnam vet, can tell you everything about Veteran Antiquities.

Earl's tour told a lot of the organization, but a lot more about him as a person and why he needed a place like Veteran's Antiquities to help him get through his day. Earl suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder he picked up during combat many years ago. Prior to finding Veteran's Antiquities, Earl had a hard time feeling like he was contributing to anything and was looking for a place where he felt he could make a difference.

"You can sit at home and feel sorry for yourself, but that's not living, is it?" says Earl.

There are veterans in the Veteran Antiquities community who are severely disabled, in rehab, and several others with post-traumatic stress disorder. They come from all walks of life, ages and demographics. There are veterans here whose battle experiences range from the Vietnam era to those who have recently returned home.  But, what Earl keeps stressing is that Veteran's Antiquities is the best place for them all to be. Together. He points out that veterans typically gravitate to one another, but that Veteran's Antiquities brings a deeper sense of camaraderie.

"We understand one another without having to be told," explains Earl. "No offense to anybody else, but Jeff understands me better than any guy on the street."

Jeff , co-founder of the shop, is also a disabled vet. Having entered into the Army National Guard at the age of 17, his lower body was crushed under a falling M60a1 tank track after serving for just two years. Because his treatment required him to spend so much time in and out of VA hospitals, it gave him a great appreciation for fellow veterans who have been harmed in combat for their country. Jeff, like Earl and many others, has suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome for years. These things combined inspired Jeff to start OV'R There Industries in 2007 to provide employment and therapy for physically disabled vets. Seeing how creativity and action provided meaningful rehabilitation, not just physically, but mentally too, Jeff partnered with two other disabled veterans--Chuck Mack and Tim Hildebrandt--to combine practical activities and art and create business opportunities for military veterans. Their vision was realized when, this past February, Veteran's Antiquities opened its doors.

"It works because it's supposed to work," Jeff says. "Even if it's one guy at a time, we can't control it all at once. Not one of us could put this together by ourselves. We depend on one another to make this sustainable and we depend on one another for moral support, too."

When he is not in the shop Jeff Piper spends time taking inner city children fishing. - EMILY TAYLOR
  • Emily Taylor
  • When he is not in the shop Jeff Piper spends time taking inner city children fishing.

Upon introduction, Jeff removed his hat, and, with a genuinely warm smile, extended his hand and began to explain that he was just returning from an appeal for a veteran friend, successfully helping him save his apartment. He proclaimed that it was his third victory of the week, the other two being that he secured jobs for two struggling vets who had responded to an ad in the paper.

"I'm lucky that the ad doesn't run every week or we would be out of space here. We are taking in new veterans regularly, almost as quickly as the country is producing them. Sometimes we will lose one or two, unfortunately, but we will immediately gain another," he says.

Jeff doesn't just run an organization, he runs an entire community. Going above and beyond, he has been known to give a few dollars for groceries here and there, provide at least one meal a day for everyone and even buy a track phone with a few minutes if someone needs one. "It's just easier to spend the $50 sometimes and not have to worry about it," he says. "Hungry or cold? Forget that! There is a lot of opportunity to help people around here and I am blessed with the ability to be able to provide that help."

With startup funding from the Veterans Action Project, Veteran's Antiquities is a nonprofit that has recruited and trained a multitude of physically and mentally disabled veterans, and taught them skills that often lead to employment. The organization connects the artists with buyers by giving them both a physical location to bring friends and family to, as well as an online store to showcase their work. Most of the recycled materials come from donations and what Veteran's Antiquities does not have use for, gets donated on to another organization.

"If someone comes through those doors to donate something that says made in China, we tell them we don't want it," Jeff told me. "We focus on American-made, repurposed materials and find new, creative uses for them."

"We take stuff and we make stuff out of it," Earl explains.

Every product in the place is handcrafted and created by veterans, many who just desired something to do besides sit around and watch television all day and wanted a way to make a contribution again. The community around Veteran's Antiquities helped them to realize that they possessed creative talents they didn't even know they had and provides a supportive network of friends. The proceeds go to support VA programs that impact and improve the community. Every tag on an item is signed by the artist, too, and comes with a story or two to tell.  

These wood-burned portraits serve as puzzles for children. - EMILY TAYLOR
  • Emily Taylor
  • These wood-burned portraits serve as puzzles for children.

Veteran's Antiquities gives vets a place and a chance to express themselves. It aims at trickle-down mentoring, where every new person who comes in the doors will eventually be given the chance to be a mentor for someone else and help aim them in the right direction.

At any given time, there are roughly ten artists selling their work, but that number is fluid and growing. The veterans come from all over, many see that ad in the paper, are recruited or referred by a friend or just walk in off the street. Because they pay special attention to the needs of the disabled, Veteran's Antiquities' workshop is easily accessible to the wheelchair- bound. This includes plenty of space to maneuver and work benches at the right heights. By removing some of the obstacles, they ensure that they can be of service to the most people possible. 

Every time a new military veteran comes in, they are offered a chance to learn and be trained, to do something and be productive. A lot of times they will show up because they just need out of the house, do not have jobs, are injured, retired or feeling worthless, and they seek a sense of productivity. "Most of the time I sit at home bugging my wife, so I am glad I can come here and piddle around," Earl says.

"A lot of the vets come here from alcohol and drug rehab, having a tough time transitioning from combat military to civilian life," Jeff says. It was his vision to create a place to ease the transition and to pay it forward. He realized he knew a lot of creative people and also had an interest in community initiatives and Veteran's Antiquities pays off on both levels. "I have little talent, but needed to surround myself with it, so this vision is two-fold. I can now touch my vision. Not many people can say that."

Jeff is concerned about the real lack of current programs and job initiatives for vets in the area. A vet confined to a wheelchair, looking for housing, is sent to five different places around Indy and put on a waitlist at each one--sometimes for six months to a year. "That just doesn't work for me," he says. "I'm going to do anything I can to help these guys. I have a soft spot for those who went to combat. We're going to do stuff; we are already doing stuff."

"Standing in the shop is standing in my dream," explains Jeff Piper. - EMILY TAYLOR
  • Emily Taylor
  • "Standing in the shop is standing in my dream," explains Jeff Piper.

"We have a special compassion for new people coming in because we know what they are going through and where they are coming from," Earl adds.

The veteran artists at Veteran's Antiquities have found a place in the city to heal and a community of people who understand the need for it. The vibe of the place is welcoming as soon as you enter and the success stories of the people who have come through those welcoming doors is justification for the pride that everyone has for the place. Jeff even wants to begin extending invites to outside art instructors who have interest in teaching their skills to veterans at the facility and hopes that the connections made there will benefit them all.

"We embrace everyone," he says.

Jeff plans to keep the doors open and the vision growing as long as there is a need for it. He stays busy with the organization, but still finds the time to take the emergency phone call, drop everything and show up to help a fellow veteran in need.

"I don't even have time for PTSD anymore," he says.

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