The following is a guest blog post co-authored by veteran artists Cyrus Quadland and Jara Fatout Lang. This is the last in a four-part guest series featuring military veteran artists who are members of Uniting US, a veteran-focused nonprofit arts organization. In recognition of June as Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) Awareness month, Uniting US is collaborating with the Veterans History Project (VHP) for “From Conflict to Creativity: Veteran Artists Showcase,” June 28-30, 2022 at the Library of Congress and online. Watch it here.
Click on the following links to read previous articles in the From Conflict to Creativity series:
- Part 1: The Journeys of AnnMarie Halterman and Ehren Tool
- Part 2: The Journeys of Matthew Gill and Teresa K. Howes
- Part 3: The Journeys of Alicia Christy and Miguel Chavez
My first 10 years were filled with traumatic events, which I escaped through my love of nature and art.
I was born in New York City in May 1947, but moved to a country farmhouse 44 miles north in 1950. There was an art tradition in my family, and their images were always on the walls, and in my mind. My parents were a difficult pairing during my early years. My mother was mentally ill and periodically institutionalized for as long as two years. My father was a businessman who commuted into the city, and traveled around the country frequently. Occasionally, he brought me and my brother along, but we always seemed to pale in comparison to his career achievements, which he recited often. Both parents, at times, offered welcomed guidance; my mother was a good cook and loved animals, and my father loved outdoor activities like fishing and planting.
As my brother and I grew older, my parents decided we should be sent miles away to a New England boarding school, far from our country elementary school and childhood friends. For me, a small, immature country kid, it was a very traumatic experience. The hazing, bullying and arrogance of many other students was terrifying. It only added to my earlier traumas, which I began to see as an inevitable, continuing chain of catastrophes.
Fortunately, while away at school, I escaped into artwork under the guidance of the head of the art department, Richard Grosvenor. He was a wonderful, inspiring mentor who reveled in the natural world, and brought us on frequent class outings to the rocky New England coast in all kinds of weather. I was, and am, my own worst critic, but he was my advocate, even bringing my artwork to New England art shows without my knowledge. In one instance, I was voted second-best prep school artist in New England…news to me!
After boarding school, I went down south to college, but the head of the art department was always critical and self-absorbed, and all my best work was done in the woods in secret. I adore trees, and there were lots of beauties in the campus woodlands.
Just before graduation, I won a very different contest, the draft, with number 31. I thought I might be overlooked, but on returning from a summer job, there was a letter waiting for me: Congratulations from Uncle Sam!
I reported for basic in September 1970, and assumed I’d become an infantryman like everyone else, but out of nowhere, I was shipped to “Uncle Ben’s Rest Home,” Army Finance School at Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis.
After that, they flew me to Bien Hoa for my Vietnam assignment. At the time, there were rumors that planes flying to Quang Tri Combat Base were coming under enemy fire.
‘I won’t be sent there,’ I told everybody, ‘I’m in finance,’ but when my name was called that’s exactly where I was assigned.
As we were getting off the plane in Quang Tri, there was a rocket attack, and it turned out to be a wild place. The air was filled with fighter jets and helicopters as far as the eye could see, and during my stay, the base was a target for rockets and sappers, and unfortunately, finance didn’t exempt me from pulling guard on the main perimeter. Our bunker faced Dong Ha to the north, which was under constant enemy fire. Major events included a sapper attack on the huge Quang Tri ammo dump, which ignited explosions that lasted for six or seven hours. There was also a threatened enemy attack on our (and neighboring) guard positions that was repulsed after five hours of intense mortar, rifle and machine gun fire.
As if that wasn’t enough, I lived through two major typhoons. One caused massive damage to the structures and aircraft at Chu Lai, savaged by 150 mph winds, while another, on the South China Sea, slammed our freighter (we were standing down to DaNang) with mountainous waves that towered over the ship.
There was one catastrophe after another. When I left the Army and returned home, I got a full-time job that was marred the first year by a severe anxiety attack that required my employer to call a doctor who administered a sedative injection.
Since then, I’ve had many ups and downs, but art has always given me hope. If nothing else, it has offered a future avenue for recognition, camaraderie with fellow artists and even potential revenue.
Becoming immersed in creative work offers an escape from fears and anxiety, and deflects my worry about potential catastrophes. I’ve survived a lot so far, even cancer from Agent Orange, but art has been a vocation that has kept me going through it all.
A fascinating aspect of art is that it opens unsuspected avenues in your brain. You never know exactly what the final result will be, or what direction it will take. Like a Rorschach test, your mind steers you in unforeseen directions based on the evolving shapes, colors and composition.
I remain an anxious person, but without art, I’d probably be in a much darker place on this journey from conflict to creativity.
I might not be as widely traveled as other veterans, but my story is important, because it is my story, it is my family’s story and precious to them. It is the story of my community, and my story is part of our history.
My journey from conflict to creativity started in Odessa, Texas. The “wild ride of life” in the military took me from there to San Marcos, Texas; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Lancaster, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; back to C-Springs; a quick stop in Croatia; on to Dayton, Ohio; Montgomery, Alabama; and Washington, D.C.; for a final (so far!) stop in Fort Worth, Texas.
All said and done, my 21-year military career was a fantastic experience, one that brought great joy through work, affirmation and connecting with lifelong friends. It was also a 21-year-long stint of high stress. My last 12 years were spent working, moving frequently and being a single mom. Upon retirement, I never looked in the rear-view mirror.
I tried the corporate world for one year before seeking the escape I needed to pursue a career as an artist. I left behind the stress-induced lifestyle of our “material” society–to live within the boundaries of what I can afford as I “do what I love.” I’ve always loved crafting but drawing and painting are new to me.
I find peace in creating things I think are beautiful or fantastic. Rather than a direct representation of any stress or trauma in my life, I prefer to create things that represent finding that peace amid the chaos—the chaos in our daily lives, the world around us or even the chaos in our minds caused by PTS, Military Sexual Trauma (MST) or other life-changing events.
An important point here: stress takes many different forms, and is unique to each of us. No one person who feels depression, sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness or worse has a more or less valid reason than the next person for those feelings. I am the perfect example of a life lived without any outwardly obvious signs of trauma.
But my feeling that I absolutely had to leave the corporate climb (where people were willing to step on anyone to get to the next rung on the proverbial ladder) was adjacent to panic, so I traded corporate stress for a different variety. Now I struggle daily to learn the business practices to survive as an artist. I “make” because I truly love it, but I also need the “affirmation” provided by gallery representation or by someone purchasing my art. Learning the right business skills to survive is a journey in a new world – one that I am gladly embarking upon.
Somewhere along the way I met AnnMarie Halterman and became affiliated with Uniting US. This relationship encouraged me to finally look in that rear-view mirror and think about how my Air Force experiences, both positive and negative, have shaped my life and my new career as an artist. I have learned that I am a pro at covering, or burying, my stresses and traumas, and looking only forward. Perhaps that is why my art focuses more on what I see now rather than a reflection of past hurts or emotional highs and lows. And that is enough for me. For now.
So, my next stop on this journey from conflict to creativity is here in Washington D.C. at the Library of Congress. What will the future bring? Who knows! Check back in several years for an intriguing new chapter in my video/archive for the Veterans History Project!
As we close out this four-part guest blog series, thanks for reading along with us, the veteran artists of Uniting US. It takes a great deal of courage to share personal stories, especially regarding the vulnerabilities associated with PTS and MST. We hope you have been enlightened, and that you were able to glean something, either from our words or our art, that will help you along your own journey. No matter what, keep moving ever forward.
VHP and Uniting US invite you to use the arts to find inspiration. Consider writing a book or a song, taking a painting class or going dancing! Subscribe to Folklife Today to read future posts about folklife and veterans. Learn more about Uniting US, or sign-up as a veteran artist or family member at unitingus.org. Go here to find out how to share a veteran’s story with VHP.
Uniting US opened my eyes to how the immersive practice of art can make the road forward more rewarding.