Remembering war through art

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Therapeutic art exhibit preserves veterans’ memories

Megan Narsing
Contributor

There’s a different type of feeling when you walk into the Fifth Parallel Gallery this week. The air is thick with voices. Not literal voices, but it’s almost as if you can hear something echoing off the walls. It’s the voices of our veterans: the men and women that fought for our country and freedom all those decades ago.

A group of World War II veterans at the Wascana Rehabilitation Centre Veterans’ Unit Craft Room have decided to share their knowledge and wisdom with the future of tomorrow in Remember As We Forget, an art exhibit curated by Sandy  McKenzie, co-ordinator of the Veteran Arts Program at the centre.

“If the kids could step back in time and just picture what it would be like [for our veterans] to make those huge decisions,” McKenzie said.

“[Their] concerns [are] different than the [veterans’] concerns were. [Their concerns were], ‘I hope I can get across the field safely,’ or ‘I hope there will be food tonight.’

“Craft program is a place to stimulate the fellas, for them to hang out and get out of their room, sit down, and have a coffee and do some painting or art work of sorts. It’s there for them to talk and socialize. It brightens up their days instead of being in their rooms all day. It’s a positive outlet for them.”

But the craft room at Wascana Rehab isn’t just a space for veterans to reminisce about the war, but to engage in “art therapy” to help the veterans work through their trauma.

Art therapy is a type of psychotherapy that uses art to assist patients. The participants in this type of therapy have usually gone through some sort of trauma. You don’t need to be artistic or have a previous background in the art form. At Wascana Rehab, they use art therapy to express their feelings and thoughts and sort through the memories and feelings that are inside them.

Through this creation of art and by reflecting on the process, art therapy can help with awareness of yourself and others who are coping with similar illness, trauma or physical disability. It also helps them to talk through their experiences, not just in the war but life after the war.

“Art therapy [is] very natural, very pleasing. Everyone has a creative outlook at some point,” McKenzie said. “Creative can be demonstrated by what you do with your hands –art – or by how you think – poetry, writing – how you speak – politics… The opportunity to do something [like] that makes them happy.”

From the ceiling in the gallery hang quotes from veterans from when they would have been young adults. They had dreams of becoming teachers, scientists, artists, and more, just like the dreams we have as students. To abandon these dreams to go to war is a life–changing decision. These men and women took up that challenge, and with this exhibit they tell us what they remember.

The dried leaves on the floor represent what McKenzie called the  “fall of their lives.” Just like the seasons in a year, they’re nearing their rest, or “winter”. Life is slowing down for them and their cycle is ending. They want to pass on the information while they can before they reach that time.

The exhibit is meant to explain to others that veterans are not just veterans of war ¬– they are also people with unique personalities. 

“That’s something I had to learn joining the craft room, is that there are different personalities,” McKenzie said. “Not just that of a World War vet. Some are deep and profound, others are light and goofy. They are all different in personality.”

Their artworks show us day-by-day that even after having been through something as major as a war, they’re able to go on living life to their best ability.

“In some of the work they produce they have trouble holding a brush, they have trouble seeing what they’re doing,” McKenzie said. “They have all sorts of challenges that they’re dealing with, but still this urge to produce and create is strong. And it’s therapeutic, [so] it’s good. So we encourage all of them, help them, and enable them to produce something they feel good about. We also can do touch ups with their permission so that they can feel like every work is a success to them.”

They hope that students can take away some of the life that was brought into this gallery. Some of the veterans since doing the pieces have passed on, but that doesn’t stop their story from staying alive.

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