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Vets learn artistic skills at Helen Arts & Heritage Center
Steven Derry, who served in the National Guard, works on placing a piece of wood on his clock. - photo by Erin O. Smith

In an open room filled with framed paintings, clay sculptures and other scattered art projects, chatter from bass and baritone voices rises and falls with casual conversation.

The rough hands from men who served in the U.S. military, however, steadily work at piecing together parts of what will become a functioning clock. These four men are conducting these simple tasks as part of the Art Workshop for Veterans at the Helen Arts & Heritage Center.

For U.S. Navy veteran William Reid, following the instructions in their proper order and piecing together bits of wood is not an easy process, but it is a rewarding one.

“It wears me out,” he said. “I go home and collapse. But, I pace myself, and they work with me. It’ll be a clock by the end of the day.”

Creating this and other pieces of art appears to help Reid along with the three other veterans. Lisa Cahill, instructor of the inaugural class based in the Alpine Village of Helen, has seen the results first-hand.

“When you start creating something, you come out of yourself,” she said. “You’ll see there’ll be a point where people are talking and then there’ll be extreme quietness. When you’re building something ... there’s more purpose.”

The former art therapist said though art can be therapeutic, she doesn’t want this particular class to be deemed one.

“When we first started the program, they were calling it Veteran’s Art Therapy Program and I put a kibosh to that,” she said. “Veterans don’t want to hear therapy. They’re not going to come if they hear therapy.”

New destination

Getting veterans through the door for the six-week pilot program was one thing, Cahill said. Convincing them that they could make pottery, carve wood into a recognizable object and build clocks was a whole other story.

“They always come into the arts — and it’s always interesting with men — but they come in with expectations that they can’t do anything and that they’re not creative,” Cahill said.

Reid was one of those men.

“Believe me, every time they show us a project, I look at it and say they’re crazy,” he said. “Every time I come in I tell her, ‘I can’t do that’, but I just do it.”

Reid, who served in the Navy for 17 years, has a reason to believe he can’t accomplish things. The man has a hard time getting around since he suffers from multiple sclerosis and degenerative heart disease.

But this class in Helen is a new destination for the man who was injured on active duty in 1991. Before enrolling in the class, Reid only ventured out of his house for medical appointments for the past year.

“You stay at home all the time and you start to feel like there’s no hope,” he said. “And all you see are doctors and they never have good news. So, this has been very challenging for me.”

However, Reid is up for the challenge. He hasn’t missed a class.

“I really doubted I could do it, being able to follow directions or even use that sharp knife,” Reid said. “I said ‘No, you don’t want me to do that,’ you know.’ But I did it.

“Les (Green) laughed at my (wood-carved) bird, but it still looked like a bird,” he continued. “So I’ve gotten a lot of benefit from this.”

While Reid is a novice in the class, six-year veteran Les Green is more familiar with crafting and has made furniture in the past.

Green said the key is not to be worried about making mistakes.

“If you make a mistake, you make a mistake,” he said. “What are you going to do? It’s part of the experience process. As you get older, you get more experience. I prefer to say that instead of aging.”

Each experience impacts each veteran differently.

Green was extremely proud of his wood-carving project. The class carved birds in the third class.

“I posted it to the Internet!” Green said with an accomplished smile. “My cousin said it was really great. She was so surprised. She said she didn’t think I had any talent at all.”

Family members play a key role in the class as well. Many family and friends motivate the veterans to come each week. Reid’s granddaughter attends the class with him occasionally. And National Guard veteran Steven Derry’s wife pushed him to sign up.

“My wife said, ‘Get out of the house,’” he said. “I’m retired, so I’ve got the time to do it.”

Derry, whose family moved from New York to Georgia about a year ago, uses the class to make new friends and socialize.

Unexpected outcome

Helen Arts & Heritage Center President Nancy Ackerman said the response to the class took her by surprise.

“There have been no closed doors,” she said. “I mean, everything is opening up. It’s amazing. I had no idea the need was so great.”

The program is funded with a $5,000 grant from Help Hospitalized Veterans, a nonprofit out of California. It is the first of its kind. Ackerman said she hopes it will continue to grow, allowing more veterans to benefit from the class.

“If we’ve affected just one person’s life, we’ve not failed at anything,” she said. “When you see the difference it’s made in their lives — when you have men who can barely walk, drive themselves and come every week – there’s something there.”

Ackerman, who paints and does glasswork, said she understands why the program is so important for the veterans.

“There’s a quiet that falls over you when you’re working on that piece,” she said. “It’s just you and what you’re doing. It’s your world right then. It takes away the stresses and everything.”

Ackerman said she believes veterans such as Reid, who have a difficult time after service, need a stress-free place to focus on something simple.

Reid agrees.

“We would have to do such crazy stuff — we’d put our lives at risk — and I would try to explain to them (his team), ‘We’re doing this for those people back home,’” he said.

“Then when I got home, I realized nobody really cared. It felt like when I got out nobody out here really knew about anything that we were doing and nobody really cared.”

Now, with the art workshop, Reid said he feels like the community cares. Plus, it’s giving him the chance to bounce back and be active.

“This gets me out of the house,” he said. “I enjoy it, and even with the little projects, I’m very proud that I was actually able to do it.”