Experience & Expression: A Sacred Place

Experience & Expression: A Sacred Place

by Lauren Peck-Weisenfels and Heather Slater

Oklahoma Arts Council assisted Firehouse Art Center and Veterans Center make the connection between U.S. veterans and the need for artistic expression

An eagle in flight with his voluminous wings stretched toward the sky perches in the middle of the room.  The walls are lined with untitled paintings of various subjects, a handful of photography examples including The Perch and Wrestling I, and sprinkled with creative writing on any subject from the war to dancing.  The Firehouse Art Center has housed the works of art created by local disabled veterans since June 10 in the exhibit Veterans: Experience and Expression.  The works reflect a series of nine-week courses on creative writing, photography, sculpture, and other visual arts done through the Healing Studio, an extension of the Firehouse Art Center which “provides an outlet for the creative expressions of individuals with varying degrees of cognitive, physical, and learning disabilities.”  

Untitled Work by Mike Varnell
Untitled Work by Mike Varnell, U.S. Navy

When Douglas Shaw Elder, executive director of the Firehouse Art Center, was approached by the Oklahoma Arts Council to offer art classes for local disabled veterans, he knew that this was a project he could handle.  “I joined the military [after high school],” said Elder.  Working with Elder were other instructors Jane Lawson, Sarah Engle-Barnett, and Jason Poudrier (another veteran).  The Council approached the studio about designing a pilot program for veterans to have an outlet for creative expression as part of their Arts and the Military Initiative. The Council had previously recognized the Healing Studio program as a Program of Excellence.  The Healing Studio, while not technically a therapeutic art studio, aids individuals with varying degrees of cognitive, physical, and learning disabilities. Many veterans deal with those exact issues due to strokes, alzheimer’s disease, and more. Residents of the Norman Veterans Center need connection to others in the community so that they can share their experience and current lives. This program was the exact opportunity to make that connection.

That aforementioned eagle is a styrofoam sculpture done by artist and veteran Mike Varnell, U.S. Navy.  Mike, Elder says, is a character.  He and his twin brother, Rick Varnell, both participated in the program and have work on display.  Mike’s sculpture is an impressive piece with delicate care put into each intricate detail of the wings.  Elder explains to us that this accomplishment is even more of a feat: Mike, who had suffered a severe stroke in the past, only had the use of one hand.  “We helped him cut some of the bigger shapes, but the majority of that is done with a hot knife and one hand,” Elder clarified.

Untitled Painting by T. Jefferson Daniel, U.S. Navy
Untitled Painting by T. Jefferson Daniel, U.S. Navy

Another noteworthy character from the Veterans Center is T. (Thomas) Jefferson Daniel, U.S. Navy, a 92-yr-old budding artist. His enthusiasm for the program was evident with his comment that he was glad this was not just another “hobby class.” He was excited to be part of a valid art course. He contributed an untitled painting with beautiful and vibrant blues, yellows, and white brushstrokes that brightens the room and draws the eye to explore his work in detail.

 Daniel was one of six veterans who already felt confident in their basic artistic ability and enrolled in the advanced visual arts course taught by Douglas Shaw Elder. Approximately 36 veterans  contributed works to the overall exhibition, consisting of at least 38 pieces on display until July 23, 2016. Although not all participating veterans were able to complete the program in its entirety, four out of five were able to produce a final work for display.  

A Creative Writing Exhibit
A Creative Writing Exhibit

If patrons are hoping to find works entirely devoted to an expression the the veterans’ experience in war, they will find something very different.  The courses offered the participants an outlet for creativity, not so much for reflection.  Jason Poudrier, who led the creative writing sessions did encourage the veterans to write about their experiences, to look deep in those experiences for meaning, but much of the work on display has little to no connection to the wartime efforts.  “Most of these guys don’t talk about their experience,” Elder said.  The writing samples do, for the most part, reflect military exploits, but Elder points out that they do not enjoy talking about the war, nor do they want to do so.  Instead he offers that “they wanted to talk about the rest of their lives.”  Elder, like his cohorts, discovered that these individuals were really just looking for human companionship.  Living in a veteran housing facility, Elder said, “can lead to devastating loneliness.”

Since the opening of the exhibit, Firehouse Art Center has hosted two receptions.  Veterans, friends, and community members have gathered to view and discuss the work.  When one of the veterans, a general, was asked how he felt about the exhibit, he called it a “sacred place.”  This was a phrase that threw Elder at first.  He had never thought of an exhibit being that before–a haven for expression, sure, but a sacred place? ”I believe what he was saying was,” Elder stated.  “He was establishing the value of that program and what it means to have something here and even if this one thing in his life this year made an impact… […]”  Elder trails off here, obviously pleased and moved by what the experience has accomplished.  “They [the veterans] have already shown that some of them are less aggressive.  Many are more talkative, and some have just completely changed.”  Another notch in The Healing Studio’s record of success.

The Oklahoma Arts Council and Firehouse Art Center will document and publish this experience with the plan to model this pilot program in other areas of the state.  An Oklahoma Healthcare Authority Endowed Professor of Health and Public Health Professor of Social Work from OU, David P. Moxley will be brought in to write a report on the collaboration.  Other groups are getting in on the discussion, but Douglas Shaw Elder wants to stress that the people who teach the classes should be educators or those who understand how to manage a classroom and get the most out of individuals.  By using teachers and healing guides, they feel that they can pull out the expressive natures of these veterans.  “We need to provide the highest level of education.”

Before Douglas Shaw Elder finishes discussing the exhibit and the power this kind of project has had on the veterans, he implores anyone to get involved in the lives of veterans.  He says that people should volunteer with local Disabled Veterans associations or at long-term care facilities for veterans.  “If you ever find yourself being bored, go volunteer,” Elder says.  “Because you can really make a difference.”

The Veterans: Experience and Expression exhibit will be on display until Friday July 23.  The Firehouse Art Center, located at 444 South Flood Avenue in Norman, is open Monday thru Friday from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm and Saturdays from 10:00 am to 4 pm.  

For more information on the Norman Veterans Center, visit their Facebook page.


For more information on the Oklahoma Arts Council, visit their website.


For more information on Firehouse Art Center, visit their website.


A special thank you to Kristyn Brigance, Executive Assistant at Firehouse Art Center, for the invitation to view this exhibition.



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