Saturday, September 23, 2023

Veterans Gather in Ukiah to Share Their Art and How It Mends the Wounds of Military Service

Navy veteran Reginald Green displayed masks and other artwork, much of it depicting historical figures from the African diaspora.

Thirteen military veterans participated in a pop-up art show in Alex Thomas Plaza in Ukiah  on Saturday, as part of an initiative to use art to promote what they call “mental wealth.” The Veterans Art Project, or VetArt, is based in Vista, a city in San Diego, and is funded by the state Mental Health Services and Oversight Commission. Seven of the artists at this weekend’s event are from Lake and Mendocino Counties, while others traveled from across the state to participate. 

Tonya Savice, Director of Advocacy for the Veterans Art Project, stands with her art.

Tonya Savice is the organization’s Director of Advocacy. She speaks at Behavioral Health and Board of Supervisors meetings in San Diego, where she now lives, to advocate for art instead of drugs and prescriptions, “as a modality for mental wealth.” As a female veteran, Savice is particularly committed to speaking up on behalf of women who have served, getting the services they need. “Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t get some of the same services that men get,” she noted, even though there has been a great deal of improvement in the thirty years since she retired. “But we still have a long way to go,” she added. “Because I’m also a military sexual trauma survivor. So being able to speak about that, and uplift the other women to let them know, we are not victims. And we are not just survivors. We are overcoming so we can thrive and live a better life.”

Mark Rothrock with the “art car,” a 1970 Mustang he built with his son and painted with blackboard paint. “It runs beautifully, faster than you want to go.”

Art has been a huge help for Darron DeVillez, a disabled veteran whose PTSD led him down a dark path after he got out of the Navy. He recalled that, “In 2008, I was a homeless veteran holding a sign,” after three stints in prison. “They told me, Mr. DeVillez, you have PTSD. In my mind, I said, PT: that must mean Physical Training. And SD, that must mean San Diego. Oh, great, I’m a little out of shape. But I knew it was something actually worse.” He turned down medications, fearing that, as an addict, he would abuse them and sell them and end up back in prison. His therapist suggested artwork as an alternative. “And she literally brought out a box of crayons and a piece of construction paper, and it was November, so you know what I did? I outlined my hand and did my little Thanksgiving turkey. But I decorated it. I had some focus. And creating that made me smile.”

Ivan Sam, Cultural Ambassador for the Veterans Art Project, displays his work.

Ivan Sam is a Gulf War veteran whose grandfather Sam Billison was a Navajo “Code Talker” in World War II. For him, traditional practices, including making art, have been key to his well-being. He serves as Cultural Ambassador for the Veterans Art Project as well as working as a professional artist with a long wait list for commissioned pieces. He reflected on his purpose, as the Steve Forbes band crooned a sad country drinking song from the plaza stage.

“We have to be able to preserve our culture and share our stories,” he said. “We have to be able to have our children have a place on this earth, too. So when we get caught up in these situations, how do we really find that peace for them? Sometimes it has to take for us to join the military to be able to represent that. To have a sense of hope and a sense of place in this country where we’re at today…There are so many tribal veterans out there who come from a background where their culture was taken through colonization. So for me to be able to be raised by my grandparents, I carry a lot of that wisdom, and a lot of the teachings, and even my language. How can I utilize that as a tool of a healing modality?” In his workshops, like the one on making medicine bags, he focuses on building a foundation of appreciation for the natural world and the meaning of the materials.

Maria Ysela Galvan with her oversized rosary with beads that incorporate the flowers from her mother’s funeral.

Maria Ysela Galvan is a retired Army Major who says making art in the veterans community is “like a prescription.” At the beginning of the pandemic, she was recovering from a heart attack when she was invited to make art with VetArt. “They were great,” she recalled. The organization provided clay and materials that participants could pick up and take home to work on. “Then, little by little, we started coming in, with our masks, of course, and we continued with that.” On Saturday, she displayed an oversized rosary with clay beads that incorporate the flowers from her mother’s funeral. 

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Robert Permenter from Brooktrails

Robert Permenter, from Brooktrails, uses art to cope with another condition of life. He was painting from a black and white photograph of his stepfather amidst a display of portraits with elements of surrealism. One is a large oil painting that he calls, “The Artist as Himself Or Epilepsy: A View From Within.” An image of Permenter’s current self stands in the midst of a swirling cosmos, wearing a red shirt and holding a handful of paintbrushes. He is surrounded by images of himself at earlier points in his life: as a sad little boy with cracks in his face; as an older, happier child; and as a young man in camouflage with a Kevlar helmet. He says that having a seizure is like being “out in space. Someone walks up to me and says, you just had a seizure. And I had no idea…It is a horrible experience for me, but I make a practice of trying to see positivity in everything. If you let yourself, you can get caught up in depression. And depression is only a losing street. We have to work against the things that are fighting us…I allow art to expand me. I don’t allow epilepsy a quarter. I don’t allow him a fraction, I don’t allow him an inch.”

Tonya Savice, the Director of Advocacy, says there will be four more pop-up shows around the state this year, with veteran artists telling their stories and sharing their work. In October, all the artists who participated in all the events will be invited to take part in a final show in Sacramento, to “Advocate, advocate, advocate…To let them know how much art helps our mental wealth.”

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  1. I wish the photographer or author would have included more pictures of the art itself so we could see the art better.

  2. Probably all the art they had. Small community.
    Small paper.
    Or Google this
    pop-up art show in Alex Thomas Plaza in Ukiah 2023 maybe you’ll find some more

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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