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Former soldier transforms into a crafty cowboy
Gainesville man combats PTSD with folk artistry
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Jason Smith, also known as the crafty cowboy, surrounds himself with his own art as well as that of his folk art contemporaries.

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To see or buy art made by Jason Smith, also known as the crafty cowboy, visit his Facebook page.

Jason Smith’s mind struggles.

Explosions, gunshots, wounded and fallen comrades — they haunt his memories.

When the Gainesville resident fought in Fallujah in 2004, he wanted to serve his country. And he did, as a medic. But he never envisioned the torture and turmoil that would tackle his brain and refuse to release its grasp.

“Where we were as a unit, we were involved in some pretty fierce combat,” Smith said. “Throughout the year, we constantly faced anniversaries of either somebody dying or getting hurt real bad. It gets rough. It really, really does.”

Anxiety, depression, flashbacks — the symptoms sneaked up on Smith. Then in 2006, after two deployments to Iraq, military doctors diagnosed the Navy corpsman with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s harder than I ever imagined,” he said.

The disease permeated every aspect of his life — his home, his family and his work. All of the adjustments overwhelmed him, and the Department of Veterans Affairs declared him a disabled veteran.

“Going from military to civilian life was very hard,” he said. “Going into the military, I was the equivalent of a sergeant. So, I was in a leadership role, and people knew me. I went from being that to coming home and just being a face in the crowd. I tried to make things normal again, and I tried to hold down jobs since then, with no luck at it, until I found what I’m really meant to do.”

His moment of clarity came one day at home when he picked up a paintbrush.

“From being unemployed to being an artist was the easiest step of this part of my life journey,” he said.

Now, the veteran has a new passion and a new name.

When he was in the military, Smith decided to give bull riding a try. The hobby quickly stuck, as did a unique nickname, the combat cowboy. But when he took up his brush and began creating works of art, his friends switched it up and referred to him as the crafty cowboy.

“I think it’s a good fit,” he said.

As is his style of art.

“Folk art, all the way,” Smith said. “My style is strictly my style, and nobody else has my style. I don’t know really how to describe it, because it just comes to me. What that ends up being is usually very down-home and country.”

The 32-year-old looks to his roots as a former North Carolina farmer for inspiration.

“So, there’s lots of farming in my work,” he said. “Lots of working with tobacco and working with livestock and a lot of tractors and people throwing hay.”

He also looks to history, painting Civil War images, as well as relying on his religion and military service to create meaningful paintings.

“Everything I am comes out in my artwork,” he said.

He also focuses on what he puts into the art.

“The art is taking stuff that is inside of me and putting it into a painting,” he said. “And that’s therapeutic. If I’m upset or something, I can sit down and start painting, and in a couple of minutes, I’m relaxed and I’ve completely forgotten about what was bothering me. It’s been a great therapy for me.”

That doesn’t mean he paints his demons. Instead, he strives for exactly the opposite.

“I’ve seen so much hate and discontent and gore,” he said. “I don’t want to see that stuff anymore. So I paint pleasant, happy thoughts, and when that’s what comes out of the end of my brush, then I feel pleasant and happy, too. If you sit there and paint hate and discontent all day, it breeds more inside of you, so why not do something fun and happy?”

After all, he said, that’s the attitude behind folk art in general.

“There’s a down-home attitude in folk art,” he said. “That’s what’s appealing to me about it. That, and I like that I’ve never even had a basic art lesson. To see myself figuring out all this stuff on my own is amazing to me.”

For now, while he still fights PTSD, Smith said he has found a home.

“I don’t want to get foolhardy and say this is going to carry me until the day God calls me home, but it’s going well, and it’s only going to go as far as I push it to go.”

And while he hopes the art will last long into his future, he also recognizes that his diagnosis likely will, as well.

“From everything I’ve learned about PTSD, I know that it will most likely stay with me the rest of my life,” Smith said. “But I do think that through the art and the treatment through the VA, I can definitely get to the point where it’s definitely under control.”

And for him, finding a comfortable place has always been the goal, and as far as he’s concerned, he’s accomplished just that.

“Art makes me feel like I have a place again, which is a feeling I lost when I got out of the military,” he said.