Matt Ping is a 25-year-old art student in Chicago whose path into the classroom has been quite different from that of his peers. Ping is an Army veteran who spent 16 months in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan.
As a result of what he describes as “16 months of seclusion,” Ping returned to the states in 2007 a changed man. He’s angry and admittedly stingy with trust. He resents his government and a too “docile” public that, he said, simply goes along with whatever is preached in Washington. Ping grew up with religion, but says he’s an atheist now.
“My feelings changed completely after being there and being treated like a tool,” Ping said of his service. “Nobody cares about the person in the uniform.”
It is through art, though, that Ping is finding comfort, and during the month of February, Ping will have a chance to combine the two things that have come to define him – his creativity and the war.
Lisa Rosenthal, a Forest Park artist and resident, has organized the Vet Art Project hosted by the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph. For an entire month, artists, veterans and the public will work to establish new outlets for battle-scarred men and women to express what can be so difficult to comprehend. Therapy through art is just one of Rosenthal’s goals, she said, and there is a powerful to be had by everyone about peace, violence, healing and social responsibility.
The month-long series of workshops at the Chicago Cultural Center will culminate with a Feb. 23 performance that is open to the public.
“They need to tell their story to the public, but the public doesn’t want to hear stories,” Rosenthal said of combat veterans. “They know something about humankind and something about the hole they descended into, and through that we can begin to make alternative choices to war.”
The Vet Art Project was inspired by the work of another organization called Soldier’s Heart. In September 2007, Rosenthal said she heard a radio interview with the man who created Soldier’s Heart and was absolutely captivated.
Christine Krumsee is one of the artists participating in Rosenthal’s program and, for the last three years, has worked for a nonprofit called Help Hospitalized Veterans. The group works with veterans’ hospitals to provide art therapy. Krumsee has been placed at the North Chicago VA Medical Center.
Krumsee often works with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and has seen veterans from every age group benefit from the exercises. She’s almost always met with resistance during the group sessions she conducts at the hospital, but has been told often that the creativity is soothing. Some veterans have said that the art projects are calming distraction while others use the opportunity to confront their emotions.
During a session at the hospital, said Krumsee, a Desert Storm veteran created a very violent picture in which people were being killed.
“I really think that’s a relief because now it’s not something that’s just in his mind,” Krumsee said.
Ping learned of the Vet Art Project while searching online and attended the very first workshop, which was intended to be a tutorial for the artists on some of the differences between the various military branches. He didn’t say much. But on the second night he returned for smaller group discussions with the artists.
“Matt’s group couldn’t get him to stop,” Rosenthal said. “He completely opened up.”
Ping also connected with a Vietnam veteran participating in the project and later asked Rosenthal to critique some of his most private writings. In an interview several days later, Ping said much of what he revealed that night he had not discussed with anyone else. He’s never sat and talked with other veterans and he’s not in counseling.
It’s difficult, he said, to open up to his family.
“I tell them things, it’s just – I can’t really explain it. It’s hard to tell the people in your family the things that happened,” Ping said. “You’re here now and you just want to be happy.”
In working to put the Vet Art Project together, Rosenthal has heard horrific stories that have left the veterans who lived them feeling guilt, shame and anger. Those experiences can lead to isolation, too, she said, because the public can’t relate. An important goal of the Vet Art Project, she said, is to give veterans a stage in front of the public for the benefit of both the artist and the audience.
Rosenthal is also interested in helping people make more immediate connections. After just the first four days of workshops in Chicago, 15 different collaborations between veterans and artists were under way. One of those projects involves a writer who is working with her father, a Vietnam veteran. The man has never really talked about the war with his family, but agreed to sit with his daughter for an intense weekend.
“However people want to plug in, let them come,” Rosenthal said.