As the Artworks Director at VSA Texas for 16 years, I have seen and been an integral part of helping artists with disabilities explore their hobbies, start careers, and navigate the world of the arts. It is a fulfilling job that fuels my own creativity, and getting to know each artist we work with is a reward in itself.
VSA Texas works with people with disabilities as they access the arts. This can be as a patron of the arts or as an artist. Through our Artworks: Creative Industries program, we meet artists where they are in their hobby or career and act as a resource to move them to where they want to be in that hobby or career. This can include recommending community connections as well as providing specific opportunities, such as our calls for art, our open mic, our dance classes and intensives, and more.
My challenge is to find out what the barriers are for our artists and find ways for each of them to work through those barriers to reach their personal goals. In 2009, we noticed a barrier for Veteran artists within our own services. Veterans in our community were not identifying as artists with disabilities, so they were not entering our art exhibitions or attending our workshops and events.
Rather than trying to change their viewpoints, we adapted ours and started programming specifically for Veterans. We began with an art show. It was a success and so amazing to see Veterans from all age ranges and branches of service come together around the arts. From there we gained their trust and incorporated them into our other programs at VSA Texas.
Our Distinguished Artist Veterans program has been slowly and steadily growing. We have expanded our list of Veteran artists and we are planning our 9th Annual art show for this year. Each year the exhibit is held at a different gallery across the state of Texas to bring more awareness to veteran art and to give the artists an opportunity to highlight their communities, from Laredo and San Antonio, to Irving and El Paso. This year the exhibition will be in Temple, Texas.
In 2015 we added writing classes to our program and are currently working on our third publication called The Re-Integration Project. These publications feature the works of the veterans who attend our writing classes. This includes poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction and screenplays.
After writing, the next pursuit is public speaking and performing. Many of our Veteran writers, and also musicians and singers, have started attending our monthly Open Mic. The friendly, inclusive environment of this event—held at a small bookstore—is perfect for those just starting out or giving their first public reading. From there, we invite acts to perform at a quarterly event in partnership with our local library—VSA Texas at Library Live. In fact, our most recent concert focused on our Veteran musicians.
Throughout this entire endeavor to reach out to Veteran artists, it has been our partnerships that have made the program successful. To gain an understanding of military culture, we reached out to Bring Everyone in the Zone, a peer mentoring group that does trainings on military cultural competency. This was an important first step!
Our next step was to meet Veterans. We reached out to the few we knew already, and invited them to a planning meeting to tell us how they envisioned our program evolving. We also joined our local coalition of Veteran service organizations. This was invaluable for helping us connect to veterans. In Texas, we have an amazing resource, TexVet. The TexVet team works hard to keep their website current and up to date with all things Veteran related around the state.
After nine years of dedicating much of my work to this program, the Veterans are seeking us out as an organization that can provide them the tools and opportunities they need to excel in the arts. This was exactly what we hoped would happen!
My advice to any arts organization interested in starting a program for Veterans is to go out and meet the Veterans in your community. Even if you don’t feel like you speak their language, try speaking art! The art is what ties us all together. You will find a dedicated group of men and women with a unique perspective on life that you can learn from.
VSA Texas Distinguished Artist Veterans is listed in the National Initiative Directory. Visit the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military at Americans for the Arts for more information about state and local arts programming for active duty service members, Veterans, their families, and caregivers.