Gary Keenan meticulously works the needle into the skin for another stitch, settling in for a couple of hours making a knife sheath.
The concentration plays comfortably on his face. Getting into a groove, enjoying the relaxing rhythm of the task stretching out the stitch and starting another.
Keenan, 37, speaks softly and thinks his words carefully.
Enjoy your time at the Veterans Art Center. It gives him a sense of purpose and sparks his imagination while fueling his creativity.
“It’s a great place to come down and do a variety of different activities,” he said looking up at his project.
In another room, there are several paintings that Keenan has created. On the bench is a high-quality leather tool kit that he made at the center.
“There’s a sense of community, it’s just a great general space for arts and crafts.”
A MISSION BASED ON ART
The Veterans Art Center has been owned and operated since May 2013 by local non-profit Operation Revamp.
The goal of the center and its president and founder, Wendy Hoffman, is to provide an outlet and help for veterans.
Hoffman’s past is riddled with domestic violence and he now deals with post-traumatic stress disorder and issues with traumatic brain injury.
Her love is art and her mission is to provide relief through art. She’s quick to admit that she’s living proof that art has helped her deal with and overcome a number of mental issues over the years.
“I’ve always had this concept of veterans coming in and making art,” he said. “Suicide prevention is the most important thing.”
Hoffman looks at the data and statistics and says vehemently that the Veterans Art Center saves lives. Part of their research comes from surveys that veterans take.
“We had 17 who had made some comment or directly told us that they had changed their suicide plans since coming here,” he said.
She flashes a smug smile about it.
His past research has shown that art or being creative in some way has a direct benefit on mental health.
“They all come here for different reasons, but what we are here is to give them, let’s call it mental well-being, because art is scientifically proven that if you sit for 15 minutes with a piece of clay or with a coloring book. , increases their dopamine levels.”
Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that makes a person feel good, and that’s huge for people struggling with depression and mental stress, Hoffman said.
“There are so many aspects of art that help and many times they come back and have changed their mind about suicide.”
CREATIVITY AND MORE
The handful of people who came to the center that day felt good and creative. Greg Tidwell, 65, was the last to arrive and had to put up with a bit of a specter from the group.
“It’s nice to have people to talk to and call me names,” he said flatly. “The camaraderie is good and so is the occupational therapy to get me to use my hand.”
Tidwell carried a leather wallet/briefcase over his left shoulder. It took him several months to complete it in the center, but he did it, and he did it with very little help from his right hand.
After suffering a stroke about six years ago, Tidwell came to Grand Junction from Los Angeles to work with therapists at the Veterans Administration Hospital.
Speaking in a slow, methodical cadence he developed through speech therapy after his stroke, Tidwell says he’s truly enjoying his time at the center.
“It’s my bag,” she said with a smile, holding up her handmade wallet. “I look like a more worthy spy now.”
Her voice fills with pride when she talks about packing her “bag.”
“The thing is, you’re stuck with your limitations and you try to overcome them. And that’s fun sometimes,” he said with a nod. “Doing things differently. I was right-handed, so I made this bag with my left hand, and I didn’t think that was possible.”
The center offers different activities. Keenan paints and there is a music room, as well as offering woodworking, which Tidwell used to create some toys for his grandson.
“There are a lot of different projects you can do here,” he said. “It’s really limitless and depends on your imagination as to what you can do.”
Her daughter is a big fan of “Game of Thrones” and her goal was to make a crossbow like the ones they have on the TV show.
When he decided that the project was a little too ambitious, he decided to make toy catapults instead.
The small 16-inch catapults could launch ping pong balls about 25 feet, he said with a smile.
“I made some for my grandson and there were ping pong balls all over the place,” she said with a laugh as the others joined in. “It was something I thought of and created. It’s always good to think of something and then create it.”
Jim Stancil has been teaching leatherwork at the center for over five years.
It has a backstory on how it got into leather work.
He was back in Korea when he was in the army in 1982.
“I’ve always been interested in leather work, but when I was in Korea, I was given an interesting belt buckle.”
One small problem: a buckle is worthless without a belt.
So he headed to the base craft shop and got to work.
He was stationed at Camp Page near a town called Chucheon. The buckle was special and meaningful and I didn’t just want to throw it in a box.
The brass buckle had a design of a footbridge leading into the city with a teahouse in the middle of the bridge.
The words “Camp Page Korea, The Last Resort” were engraved on the buckle.
He really wanted that buckle on a belt, so he made a belt.
When he first entered the Veterans Art Center, he revealed that he had leatherworking skills.
“There was a guy at the counter and he called out ‘Wendy, we have a guy who knows how to teach leather work,'” Stancil said.
Hoffman was very excited to hear that.
“A leather working instructor, we need one!” said Stancil, remembering that day. “So I guess it was a bit redacted.”
As a volunteer, Stancil jokes.
“The joke is that I get a 50% raise every year. Of course, 50% of nothing is still nothing.”
Stancil, 65, isn’t complaining one bit. He enjoys working with fellow veterans and seeing how much they enjoy their work.
“How can it not be rewarding,” she said of teaching the group. “You’re allowing people to express their creativity.”
FEELING OF ACHIEVEMENT
Being creative gives Keenan a level of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment that he can’t quite describe.
“It’s more of a learning process and that’s where a lot of the value is, it’s based on the processing,” he said of working with leather. “It’s just about growing, learning, developing skills.”
Comparing leather work and painting, Keenan said the creative process is very different.
Leather work requires more concentration and thought, and the process can be tedious.
“But I really like the beat,” he said with a smile.
When it comes to painting, there is more stimulus for the imagination, he admits.
She smiles again: “Skin mistakes are harder to fix, so you want to make sure you get it right the first time. Painting is a little more forgiving.”
Although modestly ignorant of the quality of his leather work and paintings, Keenan says, the value of the center has had a profound impact on his life.
“The inherent value and benefits of creation are rewarding,” he said before pulling the needle with another kick.
This group is familiar with the center’s financial struggles and problems with the building’s roof, and they can’t fathom the center leaving.
“This place is a lifesaver for me, it really is,” Tidwell said. “It’s not me, there are many people who use it as an outlet.
“It also helps to have different veterans to talk to, so it would be a shame if this place went away. I wouldn’t want it to close.”
For Hoffman, it’s the art-based mission that makes the center a special place. “There are different aspects to it, they can increase their self-confidence because maybe they learn that they can make art well or maybe it’s cathartic and there are so many emotional issues or traumas that are released because of making art.”
It sounds like a slogan and Hoffman loves to say it: “We’re not trying to create great artists, we’re trying to create great souls.”
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