A Creative Response to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

"Battle Worn" by Joe Fornelli, from the collection of the National Veterans Art Museum. Image courtesy of the Museum
Battle Worn by Joe Fornelli, from the collection of the National Veterans Art Museum.

Since its inception in 1981, the National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM) has been a space for military personnel, veterans, and civilians to open a dialogue over the real impact of war. With a permanent collection of more than 2,500 pieces of art created by veterans reflecting on their time in combat or on their reintegration to civilian life, the NVAM is well-equipped to contribute to this conversation. One of the central issues raised by the art in the collection and by visitors is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Joe Fornelli, a Vietnam veteran, artist, and co-founder of the museum said of the NVAM: “We have essentially been Ground Zero for using art therapy to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Recently, the dialogue has expanded to include other psychological responses to trauma, including Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

In order to understand Joe’s claim, a few words on the difference between art therapy, therapeutic art, and the healing arts might be helpful. Art therapy is a specific discipline or field with licensed professionals. Therapeutic art is a more general term encompassing the idea that art and “the arts” are therapeutic. The art in the NVAM’s collection includes work created in art therapy sessions, but the majority of the art in their collection has a therapeutic function (both for the artist and the viewer). The “healing arts” is a very generic term that encompasses multiple areas such as art therapy, music therapy, play therapy, and what medical doctors and all kinds of medical professionals do. The NVAM believes that all art created by veterans, on some level, serves as therapeutic for them and the community.

Specifically, the NVAM offers a form of expression and engagement unlike any other. Visitors to the museum — whether connected to the military or not — are offered an opportunity to engage with questions of trauma and representation in entirely new ways. Talking about and understanding PTSD is a notoriously difficult subject. And to make matters worse, the media and movies tend to portray PTSD in a very limited and negative light. But the possible responses to trauma are as diverse as survivors of trauma. As many of the pieces in the collection testify, potential responses to traumatic experience include resilience, growth, and even humor. Visitors to the museum engage directly with this variety of potential experiences, and their responses to the art range from empathy to identification to catharsis. Veteran visitors to the museum frequently report an unanticipated experience of unity and understanding: “I never knew anyone else felt the way that I did.”

However, the NVAM’s therapeutic art outreach does not stop on the gallery wall. In 2013, in response to increasing research demonstrating the ability of therapeutic art to improve the lives of traumatized individuals, the NVAM launched a Therapeutic Art Program with a series of bi-monthly therapeutic art workshops, all free and open to active-duty military, veterans, and their families. In addition, as of that time, the NVAM worked with the Jesse Brown and Hines VA hospitals in an integrative partnership to develop a satellite gallery of NVAM artwork and have that same space be the location for additional art therapy and therapeutic art programming. These VA hospitals and the NVAM would like to create and develop interactive programming around art from the NVAM’s collection that would allow the museum and these VA hospitals to reach a greater audience through art therapy. This partnership aimed to assist those service members suffering from PTSD and other mental health disorders.

In late 2013, the NVAM embraced an opportunity to put therapeutic art into service by opening a new exhibition entitled Esprit de Corps, an exhibition that highlights the spirit of creative resilience, curated by myself, Susan Zielinski, and Desiree Oitzinger. This show traced the process and roles of therapeutic art from the act of initial perception through expression of experience to an ultimate communal sharing and understanding of the real impact of war. For the viewer, this show was intended to enable understanding and better communication. By highlighting work in this show, we also aimed to facilitate the artist’s voice and creative talents.

When the NVAM exhibited Trauma and Metamorphosis in 2003, the artists noted: “We may never be able to put an end to war; we may never be able to put an end to the trauma of war. But we can learn how to redirect the pain and transform the trauma through the making of art.” And this creative resilience impacts artists and viewers, veterans and civilians, alike.

Co-authored with Susan Zielinski. A previous version was originally published on the National Endowment for the Arts’s Blue Star Museums blog.