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Workshop brings out expressive power of painting

The War Experience Project gives vets, family members outlet

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Desiree McKinney slowly began to paint a yellow sun with orange rays in the middle of a quilting square.

"I came mainly for her," said her mother, Bernita McKinney, an Army veteran.  But after watching her daughter work for a while, McKinney began to paint on an old camouflage jacket. "This is sort of like a confirmation that I am done with my service," she said as she painted a red heart on the left pocket.

On July 30, the McKinneys visited the Tacoma Vet Center to participate in a painting workshop called The War Experience Project. Begun two years ago by Rick Lawson, the project uses painting as a way for veterans, servicemembers and family members to find confirmation for their service.

Lawson served as a laboratory technician with the Washington Army National Guard's 81st Brigade and deployed to Iraq in 2004-2005.

"When I returned from Iraq, people would ask me things like, ‘What did you do?' and ‘Did you kill anyone?'" wrote Lawson in an e-mail.

Going on to say that anecdotal answers did not work for him, Lawson began to look for answers in art.

While taking an art class at Western Washington University, he was asked to create art expressing his own thoughts on the war.

"I was the only vet in the class," continued Lawson, "and I thought, ‘You don't know what you're asking.  It's not that easy.'"

It was then he realized the expressive power of painting with other veterans.

"We thought it would be great to integrate the project into what we do here, which is holistic," commented the Vet Center's outreach coordinator, Elena McSwain.

After Lawson and program coordinator Valery Tolle explained the basics of painting, McKinney spread a square piece of canvas in front of her daughter. Soon, the sun appeared. In short order, McKinney picked out an old desert camouflage uniform blouse.  After spreading it out on a table, she put on latex gloves, rubbed black acrylic paint on, and then began to put handprints on the right sleeve of the blouse.

Lawson and Tolle offered some advice but were careful to keep out of the way.

"We don't teach as much as we create space for people to do this," said Lawson as he mixed some blue paint. "And we always go on, even if only one person shows up."

The project hopes to exhibit the artwork created by participants in Tacoma's storefront art project, Spaceworks.

"Service is honored here," said Lawson.  "We recognize the extraordinary experiences some of these veterans and family members have gone through."

The War Experience Project is in need of monetary donations and used uniforms.  For more information, visit

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