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.

Fellow Spotlight: Traka Lopez

In this series, we profile our 2019-20 Sherman Fairchild Fellows. As part of our institutional values and commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, the Sherman Fairchild Fellowship is a comprehensive, yearlong paid program that includes hands-on experience, mentoring, and professional development. Over the summer, fellows gain experience in all facets of the museum, then in the fall and spring semesters, the fellows focus on projects of their interests.

Traka Lopez is currently pursuing an MA in Museum Studies and Historical Preservation at Morgan State University in Baltimore and earned her BFA from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Traka’s passion includes sustainability, advocacy, museums, and art-based communities, leading her to work with the HBCU Alliance of Museums and Art Galleries and the Morgan State Graduate Student Association. In 2018, Traka became Membership and Outreach volunteer for the Association of African American Museums (AAAM), where she was eventually hired as AAAM’s inaugural HBCU Special Projects Intern. In addition, Traka works as a museum graduate assistant at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art.

Why are you interested in working at a museum?
My interest in museums started with the arts. My mother is an artist, and she would take me to galleries and museums as a young child. During my undergraduate years, I started as an art educator. After realizing that I wanted to connect the classroom art-making activities to art history/art dialogue, I began my career path in museums, as a gallery docent.

What brought you to The Phillips Collection?
As a student pursuing Museum Studies, I started looking for opportunities for professional development. Along with my research, I started volunteering for local museum conferences, art programs and applied for any field related cohorts. During this process, I was in the Arts Administrators of Color mentoring cohort. There, I found a mentor, Makeba Clay, Chief Diversity Officer at The Phillips. Ms. Clay suggested that I apply to the Phillips Collection, which I did, and it’s been a wonderful experience ever since!

Please tell us about your work at the Phillips over the summer.
Leaning about DEAI has been an eye-opening experience for me. As a person of color, I learned how to advocate, create and implement diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in cultural institutions. This “deep dive” in DEAI is impactful and gave me an introspective lens of diversifying narratives.

What is your fall project and how did you choose it?
My fall project is in the Curatorial Department and I will be working with Senior Curator Elsa Smithgall and others on the exhibitions for the museum’s centennial. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to be part of the curatorial team; since art historical movements are correlated and inspired by social movements, it is in alignment with my academic area of study.

What is your favorite space/painting/artist here?
The Phillips Collection is a beautiful museum. I don’t have a favorite space. I rather explore the space and in my free time, I enjoy walking throughout the museum, especially the house, because of the amazing woodwork and its eye-catching ceiling.

If you were to describe the Phillips in one word, what would that word be?

What is a fun fact about you?
I used to be a welder.