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Art provides saving grace for veterans

November 13, 2018

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — James “Jimbo” Fredrick’s hands moved quickly across the wet clay, smoothing and pinching it until the once flat slab took the shape of a rectangular box.

It was a Thursday afternoon in late October. And like every Thursday for the past five years, the 63-year-old had found himself with a small group of fellow veterans, trying his hand at yet another new art project.

The men in the group have all dealt with traumatic experiences since leaving the military. Like Fredrick, they’ve struggled with substance abuse, identified mental illnesses and even lived on the streets.

The men have been through therapy and counseling and rehabilitation. But they’ve all kept returning to the weekly art program, if for one main reason:

It gives them peace.

“It keeps me sober, I know that,” Fredrick said of the program, which is run by the Kentucky Center for the Arts. “It gives me something to do. It’s better than sitting around at home all day watching television.”

Since 2009, the Kentucky Center for the Arts has organized art programming for a number of Louisville health care facilities through its Arts in Healing initiative, which hires artists to lead classes for people in crisis.

The goal of the initiative is to inject creativity into the healing process — a practice that’s been proven to increase self-esteem, decrease patients’ need for pain medication and reduce the length of hospital stays, according to a report from Americans for the Arts.

Arts in Healing director Kristen Hughes said the initiative currently offers classes at 17 wide-ranging facilities, including Our Lady of Peace, Volunteers of America and the University of Louisville’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center.

But its largest client base comes from the Robley Rex VA Medical Center, 800 Zorn Ave., which has asked the Kentucky Center to incorporate art programming into as many of its divisions as possible.

“I think it’s because this VA, this staff started seeing the value,” Hughes said of the program. “It’s eight years of growing and nurturing and connecting with veterans.”

In 2013, Fredrick was five months sober and was working to secure permanent housing when he came across one of the arts program called Heroes Create!.

The program was created specifically for veterans who’d experienced homelessness, and it takes place every Thursday at the downtown Salvation Army campus.

When he first started attending the class, Fredrick was quiet, like many other veterans, and it took years for him to open up and share details of his upbringing, said lead art teacher Pat Sturtzel.

Now, Fredrick repeats his story easily, talking about the years he spent in an orphanage in Chicago and the decades he spent living on Louisville’s streets.

For two years in between, Fredrick served as a paratrooper in the army, from which he was honorably discharged in 1978.

Without a steady job, Fredrick spent years moving between cities before he settled in Louisville in 1986, sleeping most nights at the St. John Center for Homeless Men, 700 E. Muhammad Ali Blvd.

It was there that Fredrick met a social worker with the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, who helped him file for Social Security and enter a recovery program at the VA medical center.

Fredrick took mandatory art classes as part of the program, but he elected to continue them after graduating and finding permanent housing.

“I always kept up with doing some type of artwork,” said Fredrick, who even created an art studio in his one-bedroom apartment. “It don’t take a genius.”

But it does take skill, said Dennis Scott, a veteran who’s attended Heroes Create! for about a year.

“I’m a perfectionist; I’m too left-sided,” Scott said. “I look at stuff and all I see is a lump of clay or a blank sheet of paper. But I like working with my hands.”

Scott said he learned about the classes from VA peer support specialist James Taylor, who acts as something of a conversation starter during the sessions. He’s continued to attend because it prevents him from isolating himself from the community.

“I’m never satisfied with my work, but I enjoy the process,” Scott said. “Most of the stuff I make, I throw away.”

“When he told me that,” Taylor said, shaking his head without finishing his sentence.

But the feeling is something Taylor understands. When he first joined the art sessions as a VA employee, he was scared his artwork would be terrible, and he’d spend days working on projects that other veterans took a quarter of the time to complete.

“I was such a perfectionist,” said Taylor, an air force veteran. ”... Finally, they were like, ‘just let it flow. Don’t even think about it.’ I started doing that, and all of a sudden, I’m starting to make stuff.

“There’s no right or wrong here. That’s the opposite of everything I ever learned.”

Hughes, the director of Arts in Healing, said art invites veterans and others who are experiencing trauma to tap into their hearts and souls, to express feelings they might not be able to say verbally.

“I think it’s really important that we acknowledge the whole other side of ourselves,” Hughes said. “We see where being in our heads has gotten us.”

“It keeps me sober, I know that, it gives me something to do. It’s better than sitting around at home all day watching television.”

James “Jimbo” Fredrick veteran

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