For Michael King, art was once a protective cocoon. It was a space to retreat from the burden of deployment as well as an oasis where he planted the seeds of his future.
“I really started picking up art on my second and last deployment to Iraq,” said King. “I found that I needed to do something with my hands. I needed to make something to keep my own center and stability.”
King was a first sergeant in the Army and responsible for leading 170 Soldiers spread across three different areas. It was a stressful role he says. To manage the stress, he visited the motor pool and began cutting and shaping metal from destroyed vehicles into knives. Over time, his projects grew into forming and embossing leather into sheaths for the knives he created.
Today, he uses those skills learned in the motor pool and the Army as the foundation for his art career. His artwork has evolved from basic tools from his military days into elaborate social commentary, mostly about technology and caring for one another.
King is a first-time participant in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival and winner of two first- place awards in the sculpture and military combat experience categories. His sculpture, Beat,depicts a human heart molded out of discarded orange medicine bottles. Made to beat with pulsating light, the piece is a caution about the potential overuse of prescription medicine.
“The message that I was trying to send is that medication isn’t necessarily the answer,” said King. “It has a purpose and it may help you to calm down your symptoms enough so you can address the bigger issues, but drugs are not the sole solution.”
His second entry, On, depicts a giant light switch broken in the on position. It’s a visual representation of the constant state of hyper-alertness that haunts Veterans like himself, with post-traumatic stress.
“Although I’ve applied this piece to my military experience, I think it’s successful because it’s accessible to a much wider audience,” he said. “Whether it’s a missing cell phone that makes us anxious, or negativity on social media, or divisive political rhetoric, we all have something that we just can’t turn off.”
With art being one of his more successful strategies for managing his symptoms, King encourages others to get involved in the creation process.
“You don’t have to be a professional artist or a technically proficient artist in any particular medium to derive benefits. Art is an amazing way to express visually what you may not be able to express in words and can be an extremely cathartic process.”
King retired from the Army as a sergeant major in 2015 with more than 20 years of service.