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Vets get creative

VA Puget Sound Creative Arts Festival provides healing outlet to veterans

Several acrylic paintings were front and center and on display at the VA Puget Sound Creative Arts Festival. Photo credit: Andrew Fickes

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Hundreds of veterans leave the military emotionally, mentally, and physically scarred, but many of those same veterans discover therapeutic healing and purpose through artistic expression.

Through Saturday, March 4, the VA Puget Sound Health Care System will host its annual Creative Arts Festival at American Lake. The auditorium will be filled with approximately 120 entries by artistic veterans from across the Puget Sound and statewide, representing 55 visual art categories, comprising fine arts like acrylic, oil, watercolor and photography; applied arts like woodworking, collage, metalwork and glasswork; and craft kits like paint-by-numbers, wood building, model building and leather.

"The purpose of the festival provides veterans to be acknowledged for artistic talent and skills," said Jeanne Hopkins, a recreational therapist at American Lake. "VA system recreational therapists work with veterans on creativity and finding outlets. Probably many years ago a recreational therapist started this program."

On the national level, the program started in 1989. It is presented by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and the American Legion Auxiliary. Hopkins has been a recreational therapist at American Lake since 2013, and has facilitated the program at VA Puget Sound for five years.

Hopkins said much appreciation is given to the generosity of the American Legion Auxiliary, which fully funds the program and provides volunteering staffing.

"The American Legion Auxiliary raised $2,000 this year and that will go toward art supplies and helping veterans to frame their art," Hopkins said. "The auxiliary is the number one funder for this event. They're the way we can do this."

Hopkins said the opportunity the national program provides the thousands of veterans that participate and the impact it has on their lives is profound.

"Many veterans that have participated have stated that art has saved their lives," Hopkins said. "It helps them to cope with depression. With schizophrenia, it helps them to stay focused and stay mindful. Art has replaced their drug and alcohol addiction, and it has gotten them out of homeless. It gives them hope and healing through the creative art. It gives them voice. They can share what they're feeling without having to speak about it, and they can show it through their art."

Hopkins said the program also creates comradery among veterans and long-lasting friendships. But of course, there is also the opportunity for competition.

"It can get intense," Hopkins said. "They're so excited. It's a fun competition."

Veterans qualify to participate as long as they are active outpatients or inpatients of VA Puget Sound. Veterans can submit one entry per category up to three categories. Five judges select a first, second, and third place in each category. First place winners are eligible (if the nationals selects them) to go onto the 2017 nationals, which will be in October in Buffalo, New York. The auxiliary selects a Best in Show across all categories

VA Puget Sound Creative Arts Festival, March 2-3 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., March 4 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Building 9, American Lake, 9600 Veterans Drive SW, Lakewood

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