Art by military members and their families is focus of upcoming Hygienic exhibition

An eagle medicine stick made by Bill Donehey, a member of the Mohegan Tribe who served in the Army during the Vietnam War. Donehey's work will be on display as part of an upcoming exhibit at the Hygienic that will feature artwork mostly from veterans and current service members. (Courtesy of the Hygienic Art Center)
An eagle medicine stick made by Bill Donehey, a member of the Mohegan Tribe who served in the Army during the Vietnam War. Donehey's work will be on display as part of an upcoming exhibit at the Hygienic that will feature artwork mostly from veterans and current service members. (Courtesy of the Hygienic Art Center)

New London — It was the best pill that Edward Santos could have received from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Through a therapy group for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder at the VA hospital in Newington, the retired Army sergeant who did two tours in Afghanistan, found out about a Vietnam War vet who was teaching other vets how to paint.

It conjured up the image of watching landscape artist Bob Ross' public television show "The Joy of Painting," when he was growing up.

After realizing what he could do in a single, 30-minute lesson, Santos went out and spent part of his VA disability payments on art supplies.

"This is the best pill the VA could've ever introduced me to," Santos, 44, of Westerly, R.I., said. "Before art, when I felt depressed, I turned to a pill."

While he loved painting, and his work was well received, Santos found it could be isolating.

"I was the type of painter who was up at three in the morning and didn't realize the time," Santos said.

A fellow artist suggested he try mobile photography, a thriving industry as the quality of phone cameras continues to get better. So Santos switched to taking pictures with his phone, which got him out of the house more.

Some of Santos' photography, all shot and edited with his iPhone, will be on display as part of "Journeys Onward," a new exhibition opening Saturday at Hygienic Art.

More than 100 pieces of art, mostly by veterans and active service members, but also their family members, will be showcased at the exhibition, which is being curated by Rhode Island-based photographer Paul Murray. The exhibition evolved out of a similar show, featuring many of the same artists whose work will be featured at the Hygienic, which took place in Providence last year.

Art is a way for veterans and their families to tell their stories, Murray said, and is a way to bridge gaps between communities. The artwork will include artists' reflections that will help viewers understand that, for example, "what looks like an abstract painting is actually about Agent Orange and how it destroyed a family," Murray said.

When Santos first started exhibiting his work, he often wouldn't attend the shows, or he would stand in the background, not wanting to be around people. That was until his mother, who is his caregiver, encouraged him to take on a more active role and talk about his work. The experience "threw" him out of the isolation and "quiet state" he was in. He slowly became more comfortable talking with people.

Now, "if you even glance at my work, I have my arm around you and I'm telling you how great my art would look on your wall," said Santos, who is vice president of the Veterans Art Foundation based in Hartford.

Santos emphasized the importance of the general public supporting veteran artists.

"We know our family, our friends, our loved ones are going to come out to show regardless. When you have a vet like I was in 2013, crying, afraid, isolated, stuck in the background, when you have that type of veteran artists' work in a show, and he sees somebody outside of his inner circle fascinated with his work and asking him about it, it's a different level of motivation," Santos said. "It breaks down that barrier."

When Bill Donehey got out of the Army at the rank of corporal at age 20, after serving in Vietnam during the war and then spending two years stationed in Germany, he threw a box of his belongings inside his 1969 Chevy van and took off. He spent the next 30-plus years on the West Coast.

When Donehey, 61, a member of the Mohegan Tribe, returned to the reservation, he brought "all of his problems" with him. Connecting with other tribal vets and partaking in Native American rituals such as cleansing ceremonies and talking circles helped, but he realized he needed to find more outlets.

He started finding more peace in art, which helped him work through his anxiety, depression and hypervigilance. In Vietnam he spent four months "sitting in a hole," constantly on guard, ready to defend against the threat of Chinese fighters heading to Saigon.

Through his art, Donehey, expresses how The Red Road, a healing journey for Native Americans involving several ceremonies each with a distinct purpose of bringing the soldier home mentally, has grounded him.

"It's so easy to find darkness. It's so easy to isolate," Donehey said. "It takes a lot of work to be able to reconnect. You have to ground yourself. Art has really grounded me."

Donehey will have several pieces in the Hygienic exhibition, the most powerful of which, he said, is an eagle medicine stick, made out of cedar from Fort Shantok Mohegan Burial Grounds.

The exhibition will run from Saturday through May 27. There will be an opening reception from 7  to 10 p.m. on Saturday.

A photograph by retired Army Sgt. Edward Santos titled 'Breaking Free.' Santos' work will be on display as part of an upcoming exhibit at the Hygienic that will feature artwork mostly from veterans and current service members. (Courtesy of the Hygienic Art Center)
A photograph by retired Army Sgt. Edward Santos titled "Breaking Free." Santos' work will be on display as part of an upcoming exhibit at the Hygienic that will feature artwork mostly from veterans and current service members. (Courtesy of the Hygienic Art Center)

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