My connection to the military community is almost entirely through experience and choice. The military was always something that I was aware of in some vague sense and, like all “good Americans,” my family was patriotic and offered a grateful handshake to Veterans on the Fourth of July. This was all that I knew or thought was expected of me.
Then I moved from Texas to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, and that experience and perception began to change. The people who serve our country became real, with families and lives that they were putting in harm’s way for me and for our country. I became friends with them. We shared meals and stories, and I painted murals in their kids’ rooms. I began to understand that I owe them more than a handshake on the Fourth of July. I owe them as much as any other American citizen who lives, works, sleeps, eats, raises children and shares common dreams of the future.
I owe these brave men and women everything. We all do. It took a total change in the way that I lived my life, as well as moving halfway across the country, to realize my debt to them; and now, the decision is whether to pay up or continue in blissful ignorance. I have chosen to recognize my debt and honor my friends and those I do not even know who have given up so much for me.
I pay it back with the only thing that I have to offer in return: my artistic ability. So why does art – of all things – make any difference to the military? What does art even have to do with the armed forces? The connection is not an obvious one, unless you think of the power that art has to inspire and teach. Art has an ability to tell stories and inspire emotions. It can lift you to new heights and show you things you never expected.
We have all watched movies about the military and heard war stories about great heroes and terrible loss. But movies end after two hours and those stories become vague concepts that live in our imaginations. I believe art stays in place in a way that other tributes cannot. Mural art, in particular, brings to life what movies, photos and memories can’t convey. Art, and the process of creating it, is eternal – just like the brave men and women who have served in the armed forces. I take that concept and create the art on such a scale that people couldn’t ignore it if they tried. I tell the story with images so large and so lasting that nothing can keep it down.
The walls I paint are the best way I know to give back, because the subjects I paint deserve to be seen and honored.
Virginia Beach-based mural artist Sam Welty is the creative force behind Patriots in Paint, a Warrior Gateway Initiative. The large-scale murals honor the service and sacrifice of our nation’s military community while serving as an awareness campaign and point of collaboration for nonprofits in the communities where murals are painted. Find out more about Sam and Patriots in Paint at WarriorGateway.org.