In a series of weekend workshops at the Concord Vet Center in Concord, California, a group of combat Veterans are encouraged to pick up a paintbrush and express themselves. No art experience is required and all materials are provided. The workshops are an opportunity for Veterans to show others how they see themselves by painting a self-portrait in a supportive environment among other Veterans.
The portrait workshops are called ABOUT FACE, a term familiar within the military which translates to “turn around [in an opposite direction].” Dr. Felisa Gaffney, a readjustment counselor at the Concord Vet Center, got involved in ABOUT FACE through an invitation by a local county commissioner representing the Arts and Culture Commission of Contra Costa County (AC5). ABOUT FACE workshops are a part of the California Arts Council’s Veterans in the Arts grant program that seeks to encourage Veterans to participate in quality arts programming that is both sensitive and responsive to Veterans unique experiences. The success of the workshops at the Concord Vet Center is in the ability of Veterans to use art therapy to augment readjustment counseling.
As a co-facilitator of the workshops, Dr. Gaffney believes art therapy provides an opportunity for self-reflection. She notes, “It’s honest and there is no real way you can cover up what your art brings to the surface.” Veterans may stifle their true feelings in relation to their military experience, but as Gaffney explains, “With a self-portrait, you have to look at ‘you’ and paint what your eyes see.”
Painting allows Veterans to explore places within themselves that they might not speak of, nor perhaps have the words to do so. The beginning of the first day of every workshop starts with meditation where Veterans are asked to suspend judgment of themselves and allow their psyches to engage in painting. The intent is to allow the Veteran’s subconscious “to be conscious” which enables their self-portraits to reflect their experiences.
While the Veterans paint and their portraits form, Dr. Gaffney finds opportunities to discuss post-deployment readjustment. It is often the case where she can see a Veteran reveal something openly in their portrait that they had not discussed privately in counseling. The workshop’s collaborative approach is appealing to Veterans who find comfort being among their peers. Several participants were given a recommendation to attend by their Vet Center therapist as a means of socializing with other Veterans.
The collaborative feedback resulted in an ABOUT FACE program expansion where Veterans and their families can now attend workshops together. Dr. Gaffney is delighted with the expansion, expressing that “When an individual is actively working to heal the family, it is often the most instrumental tool used to help facilitate change.” The expansion to support military families is reflective of Vet Centers own mission to provide readjustment counseling to Veterans, service members, and their families in a safe, welcoming environment. At a Vet Center, offering options for collaborative readjustment therapies is summed up in the response of a Marine Corps Veteran who shared, “I was able to look at myself in a different light, dive into my artistic abilities, and realize that my suffering is not unique. I was able to come out of it with hope and a clearer image of my situation.”
It is the mission of Vet Centers to help Veterans do an “about face” by reaching out to them, engaging their communities, and providing them with quality readjustment counseling and timely referrals. Vet Center teams are allowed the flexibility to create programs within their community that are best suited to meet the needs of those they serve. Where art therapy may be offered at one Vet Center, another unique program may be created at another. To get connected, build your community and learn about what’s offered at your local Vet Center, visit www.vetcenter.va.gov.
Readjustment Counseling Service