I recently read an interview about Jane Olivier, a human rights activist and poet, and the interview was informative about her approaches to the joys and the ‘how-to’ craft of writing poetry.

I truly enjoyed the experience of reading this interview that brought me into a transcendent learning space, where I was learning about the world from Jane’s creative voice. Jane’s voice was an autoethnographic sharing of information, a self-reflection involving the personal experience of writing poetry and its diverse meanings. Jane’s interview transcended herself and touched others.

SketchOne meaning that I garnered from Jane’s interview was the power of creativity. I, too, have felt its power. Creativity has helped me engage with my readjustment issues after Iraq.

I spend lots of time writing about the unconventional and not-so-mainstream meanings of war. For me, the creative process has led me to appreciate both the metaphysical and the physical world. I can’t ignore Aristotle’s teachings of the human pursuit for the good, true and beautiful.

My creativity is tied to reflecting on war, as it’s not so neat! It’s expressed in the obtuse writing of both ancient and modern worlds. This is my art! This can unite the veteran and the civilian!

Art can be quite powerful. Art can be a source for healing and greater creativity on the path of wellness for others. Jane’s interview led me to reflect on my own creative pursuit. There are many others with creative pursuits, and this creative flow touches many lives.

Early experiences with creativity

Jane helped me look at my early experiences with creativity during my military life. In the fall of 1986, I was a cadet at America’s first private military college, Norwich University at the Military College of Vermont.

It was at Norwich that I began writing about the regimented life. This experience was valuable at both Yale and Columbia, as a troop in Iraq and as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ first Korean-American RCS Director/Team Leader. To think about writing, I think about my journey in life. This is a gift.

Before Norwich, I had prior experiences with writing from the soul. I had a high school (Northern Valley RHS at Demarest in New Jersey) teacher who was a Vietnam War vet, and planted the seed in me to share about life’s tragedies. My seed grew into words about being nervous on dates and my Mom’s battle with cancer.

At Norwich, I lived out the spartan existence of military cadet life, and yet, received grace in Gina Logan. She taught freshman English and guided me to open up within my writing in a truly deep way.

The world went beyond the barracks, and my creativity in writing led me to write about barracks life, my dying mother, dating failures, glories in regimental military balls and other happenings. This gift from Norwich’s Gina Logan would provide treasures of the soul throughout my life, while I was both in and out of uniform.

Veterans and art

Woman in boatRecently, I interviewed the artist Maria Amor, of Maria Amor Art, to engage in a discourse about art and veterans. I wondered where Maria’s creative flow was in relation to veterans.

Maria Amor is a fine artist: an oil painter with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degree and extended study at Manhattan’s Art Students League of New York.

The promotion of art and creativity with the aim of improving happiness and readjustment is her consistent mission. Her related work includes art therapy for children, private teaching and entrepreneurial projects near her current home in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Interview with fine artist Maria Amor

Mike Kim: How can veterans experience creative flow from art?

Maria Amor: “What matters most to you?” is what we should be asking, rather than “What’s the matter with you?”

Painting of table and chairsThe term ‘stress’ is too general and is overused. We should be addressing sadness, frustration, temporary loss of self, homesickness due to living in poor conditions, and little access to fun.

Many onlookers say that painting is “relaxing and fun, and releases stress.”  However, creativity activates the frontal and medial parts of the brain. That’s not relaxation, that’s joy. If painting, and creativity in general, activate the frontal and medial parts of the brain, that’s an active constructive process, not relaxation.

Continuous creativity can be meditative. Collaborative projects are wonderful to do and to watch! Paint a mural on a building, draw each other in a group, write and perform a play. Some of these things may seem silly, but our brains appreciate the work they can do.

Collaboration in an artistic venture resembles the bond that veterans have with one another, and it enforces it in the most positive way.

MK: Many vets and civilians struggle with loss. Is there creative space in art to deal with the issue of grief?

MA: If you find it impossible to openly acknowledge the loss of a loved one, you’re leaving your true emotions unexpressed and unresolved.

Human suffering has inspired some of our greatest artworks. Accessing these emotions isn’t always easy by talking, by using words. In fact, I find that talking or even thinking about my own losses immobilizes me, so I seek out the meditative process of painting.

It doesn’t matter what I paint or how, it’s that ‘brain to heart to hand’ activity of creating. Your verbal language is limited in expressing feelings. Also, it’s not always comfortable to even try to talk to someone about feelings. We can open our minds to this and find much comfort in creating artwork.

MK: How can veterans incorporate creativity as a healing part of readjustment?

MA: A few hours of painting or playing the piano can be meditative and generate a feeling of peace. Those who sculpt, dance, paint and play music witness the fact that creativity can improve their mood and sense of wellness.

That state is based on recent scientific discovery. To create utilizes multiple regions of the brain. Neuroscientists are proving that making art alters and rewires the specific regions of the brain involved in reward and happiness. Sometimes the changes are permanent! Any form of art—music, dance, sculpting, painting, theatre—inspires neural activity to transmit emotions that are difficult to convey with words. It could be an instinctive preference.

In a way, the creative flow of art can activate the reward system in an expansive way, while deactivating a system of negative emotions. The neural networks of critical social assessment and negative emotions can be delayed or deactivated. This can be of great value to a veteran with readjustment issues.Let’s be creative and positive. Art can bond individuals in the reward circuitry and it can enable the power of universal love. Art motivates and exhilarates me! Sometimes after I paint, I forget where I am, and I see everything around me as shapes and colours. In my painting groups, we’ve come to realize that we don’t talk, yet we share immense peace and happiness together.

MK: Vets are suspicious about outsiders who join their world. You’ve worked with some great artists, why move into the veteran world?

MA: Working with great artists is harder than it looks, and I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity. However, I’m an extremely empathic person, as most artists are, and it’s difficult for us to witness our friends and neighbours pay such a high price to defend our country.

I’m not a veteran, and I don’t have personal experience with the trauma of war. But I’m a lifelong, dedicated patriot who’s driven to share my talents and resources that may help in some way.

Recently, a friend who’s an art historian put out a survey with the question, “Why do you paint?” There were hundreds of responses, which mainly consisted of, “I paint because I have no choice, I have to.”

Art in the veteran community

MK: You have worked with some great artists and have done some interesting projects.  Why are you pursuing art projects with veterans?

MA: My awakening to the challenges facing the American veteran community came at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2012. It took one year to plan, and cost $8 million just for 75,000 imported fireworks shells, six federal agencies and thousands of security officers, 50 miles of computer cables, closed roads, and so on.

That’s the closest I’ve been to any semblance of war. But Thanksgiving is supposed to be the day to celebrate American independence, to honour those who fought for it. The parade is financed by our taxes, and some benefit from the profits of 150 million hot dogs and $1.5 billion of beer. What citizen could go there, have fun and forget what it’s all about?

That day, I spoke with some veterans and signed up for volunteer activities. I met you, and our conversation led to my goal of gathering my resources and doing something for vets. I learned that as an artist, my time would be well spent and rewarding. I then contacted some organizations, including Wounded Warriors. I’m so excited to say that my fellow artists and I formed our own organization, “Operation Bliss”!

MK: You’re doing several expansive art projects. Recently, you’ve been painting vets like Rudy Reyes, myself and others. Why?

MA: Those of us who aren’t soldiers or veterans can’t truly understand their lives. I paint veterans to learn about them from stories and photos, and as a way of knowing and respecting them.

Painting portraits is very demanding and can take weeks. During this time, I’m silently acknowledging their accomplishments. And if I’m lucky, they’ll be pleased when they receive their finished painting as if it were a greeting card.

MK: Thanks, Maria, for your humble, yet expansive presence. Your paintings touch many souls and your vision for healing vets is powerful.

For more information

Maria Amor is dedicated to spreading the gospel of art as a source of healing for veterans. Dr. Jonathan Shay, a leading PTSD researcher and clinician, has written about veterans communalizing trauma as the last stage of healing. Maria promotes the idea of communities for veterans to gather and transcend readjustment issues, and she sees art as a powerful source of communalizing healing.

Some domains that focus on art for veterans:

Plein Air Force Veterans Squad (Plein Air refers to outdoor painting): This organization is dedicated to reaching veterans through the joys and benefits of Plein Air painting. The publisher provides a Facebook page and website to enable artists to volunteer their time to locate and teach interested veterans. The Facebook page and website offer all the tools needed to get this done. Visit the organization on Facebook or on the web at www.pleinairforce.com.

There are many other programs available. Here are a few that I found by doing an internet search:

Americans for the Arts


United States Veterans’ Artist Alliance

Center for Women Vets

American Art Therapy Association

Veterans Families United

This article is part of a weekly column exploring spiritual transformation for veterans. To read the previous article in the series, visit THE UNSEEN HARD WORK OF TROOPS: A tribute and poems for veterans on Labour Day»

Mike Kim Veteran: Mike is a psychoanalyst, an Iraq War vet, an ex-friar monk, a war trauma care provider and a doctoral researcher at the Teachers College of Columbia University. Find him on his website (www.mikekimveteran.com), on Twitter, on Instagram and on Facebook at Warrior Wellness and Lifeworlds.

All art by Maria Amor