Ben King on Veterans, Art & Wellness

On Thursday, November 14, join The Phillips Collection and the University of Maryland for “Artists of Conscience: Veterans, Art & Wellness,” a conversations about the impact that art and art therapies can have on the lives of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic-brain injury (TBI), and other combat-related psychological health conditions.

Ben King, Purple Heart Recipient and Founder of Armor Down, is one of the speakers. Armor Down creates products, programs, and techniques for forward-thinking warriors and transitioning veterans to cultivate resiliency and well-being when returning to the civilian theater. Through the use of methodologies such as strength training, breathing, and stretching, the goal of Armor Down is to ensure our warriors lead the most healthy and happy lives after returning home. In 2014, Armor Down inaugurated Mindful Memorial Day, an annual event at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the fallen in a mindful manner with the hanging of yellow ribbons and fallen warrior cards–one for each service member killed in-theater since September 11, 2001.

Ben shares with us how art and mindfulness can help heal. 

Mindful Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery

Do you think that art and the military only has a place in recovery, or could you see art therapy during active duty having benefits? Is this already a practice?
Yes, art therapy extends beyond recovery. Sand tables are spaces created by leadership to portray meaning and understanding that goes deeper than language. I don’t think a warrior would call it art therapy, but I bet there are some hard-chargers out there that would brag about their sand table making skills.

The incomplete circle above the rifle symbolizes Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing our fullest attention into the present moment. The rifle, helmet, boots and dog tags symbolize a service member who died in a combat theater. The two symbols together represent our sacred responsibility to honor the fallen in a mindful manner.

What does mindfulness mean to you? How does this relate to art therapy? 
Mindfulness creates space for what is happening in the present moment to be noticed without the head space taking over the moment by thinking or judgment. Because art can communicate and break through barriers that language, thinking, and storytelling can create, mindfulness is the perfect compliment to art therapy. Through mindfulness, the head story becomes more transparent. With less focus on the head story, the feelings of the trauma can be felt and appropriately expressed. Often what is expressed wasn’t recognized by the story. When the story and the expression collide there is often insight, healing, and post-traumatic growth.

What do you hope to accomplish at this forum? What message are you trying to get out there?
The head story is not the whole story. Mindfulness can help you manage the head story and art can help you express what been there all along.

What do you hope to see from the NEA Creative Forces initiative?
The old ways of managing trauma are dead.

Join us on November 14 to hear from Ben King and other veterans on the healing powers of art.

Zach Herrick on Veterans, Art & Wellness

On Thursday, November 14, join The Phillips Collection and the University of Maryland for “Artists of Conscience: Veterans, Art & Wellness,” a conversations about the impact that art and art therapies can have on the lives of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic-brain injury (TBI), and other combat-related psychological health conditions.

Army Sgt. Zach Herrick, Purple Heart Recipient and Founder of American Heroes HeART, is one of the speakers. He shares with us how art has helped him recover and heal from his trauma.

Photo of Zach Herrick with two pieces of artwork created through American Heroes HeART

Zach Herrick with art created through American Heroes HeART

Walk us through your thought process in starting American Heroes HeART.
It was simple: I wanted to give back to the veteran community that has helped me through my recovery. Through the creative arts, I wanted to encourage other veterans to try something out of their comfort zone. On June 25, 2011, I was shot in the face in Afghanistan. After getting injured, during my recovery at Walter Reed, art became a major factor in my rehabilitation. I soon discovered a new and unique form of art called Explosive Art or Infantry Art, created with paint cannons. This helped project mine and other’s emotions onto the canvas. The externalization of emotion, controlled distance creation and a visual trauma narrative enables us to take control: each painting is as unique as the story of the veteran who created it.

Two photos of people creating Explosive Art

Creating Explosive Art

During your rehabilitation, were you surprised that making art was a part of your recovery?
I was surprised that it worked for me. I wouldn’t say that I have any natural ability in the conventional sense—I think that I’m more of a wellness artist. However, I have gotten so much out of art and now understand that you need to have 360-degree awareness. I knew early on in my recovery that I couldn’t use the same tools that I did as a War-fighter in Afghanistan to help me heal (rucking, shooting, even combatives), as those don’t really translate as well as art, meditation, or yoga. Even just understanding that helped me recover.

What would you tell a veteran that is hesitant to the benefits of art therapy?
Just try it, you have nothing to lose and all to gain. I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone, just like any other therapy. I think it depends on what you’re seeking to get out of it and where you are in your recovery  process, that may play a big role. Also, don’t be afraid to try something new that could possibly benefit you—I think as combat-wounded veterans, we often get categorized or stereotyped as this gun happy, tobacco spitting, glasses wearing, angry bearded man, but we’re much more than just “America’s War-fighter.”

Creating Explosive Art

Why abstract art?
To me, abstract art is a way to express emotion without the limitations of reality. It can serve as a good way for someone to interpret what’s going on inside their soul without having to attempt to represent an accurate portrayal of visual reality; instead, we can use shapes and colors. I think it’s perfect for someone like me and the veterans I want to engage with. Also, there is something about abstract art that feels less threatening than having to draw a straight line.

Art created through American Heroes HeART

Art created through American Heroes HeART

What do you hope to accomplish at this forum? What message are you trying to get out there?
I want to get the word out about what we do, how we do it, and the importance of why we do it. Some say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; well, I want people to see how something that caused so much damage can be repurposed, that it can be flipped on its head and used for good and beauty. I want  people to rethink what art and exposure therapy is and what it means to them. I want to start a dialogue of what that therapy looks like in different settings with different people.

In the past, art therapy researchers have found correlations between the level of trauma a veteran reports and the subject of what they create (through the medium of masks). What trends do you see in the art veterans create with you and their trauma?
As someone who made one of those masks I think most veterans express a lot of pain, darkness, and sometimes hopelessness—the mask could be their true face. Similar to when we create Explosive Art, people tend to pick dark colors: black, dark red, orange, grey, sometimes a splash of white for hope  mixed in the gunpowder. The colors let you see and hear their raw emotions. Trauma is trauma and I think there is a misconception that we put some veterans over others, but everybody carries their own form of demons. Ranking it is not good and a healthier prospective outlook might show a better balance.

Join us on November 14 to hear from Zach Herrick and other veterans on the healing powers of art.

The Beethoven Effect

Ahead of pianist Jonathan Biss’s first Sunday Concert (November 3) in a three-concert series exploring the Piano Sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven during the 250th anniversary of the composers birth, The Phillips Collection’s Director of Music Jeremy Ney reflects on Beethoven’s legacy at this milestone year of celebration.

The 2019/20 season marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, the most well-known and most admired Classical composer in the history of Western music. Beethoven’s status within culture is something akin to ubiquity; not only is his music performed more than that of any other composer but some of his works have made unusual symbolic leaps into broader cultural, political, and social spheres. Beethoven is the composer we turn to in moments of national crisis (as with the performances of the Ninth Symphony after the September 11 attacks), and the composer of unity, hope, and humanitarianism (the Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony is the anthem of the European Union, and as recently as October 25 this year, the Ode was sang in Arabic by Lebanese protesters in Beirut). Indeed, the “Beethoven effect” can be traced in all manner of seemingly disparate fields of activity across time, from 18th-century philosophy to 21st-century film and pop culture, which says much about the adaptability of the Beethovian image and the enduring power of his music.

Illustration by Kathryn Zaremba

Yet the monumentalizing of Beethoven’s genius is not new; it began in his own lifetime, and his trajectory from earthly musician to transcendent musical prophet closely paralleled a shift in the perceptions of music itself. In the years after 1800, music as a practice both in performance and composition became less dependent on court appointments or church practices. The proliferation of public concert halls in the early 18th century democratized the experience of musical performance, whilst the philosophy and aesthetics of enlightenment thinkers such as Kant or Schlegel raised music’s status to that of the highest art, capable of speaking a truth beyond words, reason and concepts. Musicologist Mark Evan Bonds has observed that at the dawn of the Romantic era, the composer became “an oracle who speaks in tones that cannot be translated into words: rhetoric gives way to revelation.” In this context, Beethoven became the paradigm of the “liberated composer,” his music imbued with a metaphysical transcendence that was beyond the vagaries of the mundane world. As a means to interpret and understand this new revelatory power of music, new modes of poetic and descriptive written criticism proliferated. The influential writings of E.T.A Hoffman (which were published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung) made Beethoven’s putative claim to the sublime clear: In his 1810 review of the Fifth Symphony, he writes that Beethoven’s music “opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro.” Within Beethoven’s chamber music, some of his piano sonatas gained nicknames such as “Moonlight” and “Pathétique” (added by critics and publishers), which lent opaque, suggestive, and poetic visions to the music. The practice of bestowing music with extra-musical allusion would have a long history after Beethoven but it began with his example. Long after his death, these fragments of history and biography stick to the mythology around Beethoven, both enriching and complicating our relationship to his music.

Assessing Beethoven’s legacy does not necessarily mean stripping back the excesses of Romantic-era thought, or returning an earthly, mortal image to this most immortal of composers. The 250th anniversary represents an opportunity to view the composer in his totality, celebrating the scope of his achievement in music, and his singularity as a figure in the history of art. He was one of those rare characters who both seized the spirit of their own epoch and left a body of artistic work that has only grown in popularity since his death. As the conductor Andris Nelsons has observed, Beethoven’s music is “for our time and all time.”

The Piano Sonatas

Within the many musical forms that Beethoven revolutionized, his achievement within the 32 piano sonatas represents something completely unique in his output. Generally split into three distinct periods, they exemplify the shift into early Romanticism, as Beethoven developed from the relative simplicity of the classical style in the first few sonatas, to the greater harmonic innovations and emotional complexity of the monumental final three sonatas of Op. 109, Op. 110, and Op. 111.

For any pianist, recording the 32 piano sonatas is akin to summiting a (crowded) musical Mt. Everest. Yet it is an Everest that demands maturity, patience, and vision, as much as youth and ambition. In recent years, the acclaimed American pianist Jonathan Biss has brought such a balanced approach to his recording of the complete cycle, a process that began in 2011, and will conclude in 2020 with the release of the full box set. During Biss’s nine-year odyssey into recording the music of Beethoven, he has published an e-book about his experiences called Beethoven’s Shadow, and launched an online course exploring all 32 Piano Sonatas in collaboration with the Curtis Institute of Music. In the 2019/20 season, Biss performs full cycles of the sonatas worldwide, including performances at The Phillips Collection on November 3, December 1, and March 22 to explore sonatas from Beethoven’s middle and late periods respectively.

-Jeremy Ney, Director of Music