A program within a larger initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, called Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, MAC was developed and is overseen by the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, in partnership with Colorado Creative Industries. MAC provides an online resource that opens up a whole range of local arts enrichment experiences to area active service military members, veterans and their families. Funding for the program comes from organizations like Colorado Springs Health Foundation, and, as Cultural Office Executive Director Andy Vick says, “fuels the program to allow military populations to have these experiences at no cost.”
How does it work?
The University of Colorado Colorado Springs Veterans Health and Trauma Clinic is contracted by the Cultural Office to train local artists of any creative media to be facilitators of art “experiences.” The facilitators set their own fees, and determine their own offerings and schedule. These experiences, which range from poetry and voice lessons to clay hand-building and night-sky photography, are listed on the MAC website. Local military and veteran service organizations visit the website to see what is available, and work with the military community member who is their client to determine the best fit. The service organization orders the experience via the web, and then the participant and the facilitator are connected to coordinate the specifics.
Vick says the Cultural Office gives each service organization a certain number of electronic credits and it’s up to them to use the credits as they see fit. “It’s like giving them a checkbook and saying, ‘You spend this in the way that is going to be the most beneficial to the people you’ve worked with.’ We’re not going to tell you you’re right or wrong.”
After the experience has taken place, the Cultural Office pulls out its (electronic) checkbook and pays the facilitator for services rendered. And the process begins again.
Local photographer Mike Pach was one of the first individuals to sign up to be trained as an artist facilitator for the program.
“I thought it was a great way to connect with that portion of our community and I was actually quite
honored that Andy [Vick] asked me to participate as the first photography instructor involved with the program,” Pach says. “I’ve been able to connect with people on a level that I normally would not be able to during a regular classroom. … People have confided in me some things that I can relate to because of the mental health issues that I deal with.”
Some folks might assume this program is based in art therapy — and while many of the military members do need healing help in a clinical way, that’s not the work of MAC. This program is in the business of connection, Vick says, and he believes “that the fact that we’re in the connectedness space is every bit as valid as being in the healing space.”
Erin Fowler, clinical therapist and strategic training and relations liaison with the UCCS Veterans Health and Trauma Clinic, agrees. She tells the story of one of her agency’s clients whose therapist sent her through one of the experiences.
“Now keep in mind, we have trained and trained and trained that these are not therapy,” says Fowler. “They can be therapeutic, but they’re not therapy. Just do your thing — teacher magic.”
And that’s what the facilitator did. Fowler says afterward “this person’s prescriber, this person’s therapist and this person all reported that this has been a life-changing experience for her because she now has something she enjoys and looks forward to.”
“She said, ‘It’s just that for the first time in years I have something I enjoy. I found a happy feeling.’ And this was someone who was in imminent danger for suicide, like as close as you can be without being in the hospital,” says Fowler. “And so while that’s a pretty extreme situation, every time I get frustrated with the process, I go back to that. This wasn’t therapy. This was just giving someone something in their life.”
Fowler says she’s a strong believer in arts as healing, that engagement in creativity is its own therapy and that making art helps lower the stress hormone, but, she adds, it can be much more basic than that.
“When we’re able to give people the skill that allows creative expression, that allows them to again learn something new and learn how to do it well, we teach them that they can learn again, or that they can find interest and there’s no pressure and there’s not competitiveness and there’s not all that stuff that we’ve got in the military. It just allows people to reengage in a sense of belongingness and a sense of inclusion.”
From its inception in 2018 through the end of 2020, MAC trained and registered more than 25 military and veteran service organizations and trained nearly 70 artist facilitators. Typically, 40-70 experiences are available on the website for selection, and military members have participated in 343 of them.
Of course, COVID-19 has impacted progress and growth. “COVID really has — no surprise and like everywhere else in the world — given us a bit of a gut punch,” Vick says, “but the program is managing to hang in there and we still continue to do work. I’m hopeful that we can pick up the pace a bit in the coming months and hopefully by the end of the year.”
What has been interesting to see is that while some of the artists’ experiences weren’t able to translate well to a virtual setting, and so they’ve put things on hold, others, Vick says, made the transition almost seamlessly.
“One of our ceramic artists, Mark Wong, actually decided that he could physically drive blocks of clay to people’s homes and leave it out front for them. They would take the clay in, and then he had some videos that he made in addition to making himself available on the phone to instruct people on how to have that clay experience in their own space,” says Vick.
“He even went so far once or twice to bring a pottery wheel out to someone’s home and allowed them to play with that. He really embraced this notion of how do you create a virtual or remote experience amidst COVID? And I think he really hit it out of the park.”