Reno – Last Friday, inside a nondescript building on the Veterans Administration hospital campus in Reno, roughly 20 people gathered in a room that at first blush had the feng shui of a medical exam room with windows, but boom-box music from the 1960s and ‘70s and an abundance of art supplies and large, colorful pieces of art in process washed away florescent sterility.
With help from the David J. Drakulich Foundation, the free veterans art class has been meeting most Tuesdays and Fridays since 2009, and on the day I visited, people milled about and conversed as they arrived with the enthusiasm of familiars who had not seen each other in a few days. Artists staked out their turf on tables and arranged paper or canvass and various media, and before long there was less chit-chat and more drawing and painting.
Gene Hughes is a smiling, gracious man and the instructor. While he floated around the room and worked with artists who needed his conference, I pulled up a chair next to Cindy Ransom, a veteran of the US Army who served during the conflict in Vietnam.
Hear an audio interview with Cindy Ransom …
“It’ s a real comfort, stress reliever,” Ransom said. “I like coming here because it feels like a studio, and I am friends with all the people that are here, and we’re all comfortable together, and I do work here I didn’t know I was capable of doing.”
After her stint in the army, Ransom said she worked as a recreational therapist and is now pleased to be doing, rather than facilitating art. For her, drawing and painting fulfills a need she didn’t know she had.
“I was working as an editor for the newsletter. I was volunteer editor of the Veterans In Touch newsletter for six years, and that was getting a little too much for me and so I decided I needed to do something else, so I came down here to be an artist. I didn’t even know I could be an artist but I am one,” Ransom said with a broad smile.
When she first came to the art class, Cindy said she was nervous and explained to instructor Gene Hughes that she had little or no artistic experience.
“When I first came I said Gene I can’t draw a straight line, and he said, ‘oh well, no sweat,’ so here I am working and there’s not a straight line in there,” she said pointing at the canvass in front of her. “ I still can’t draw a straight line, but I put out some good work. I’ve got a couple of pictures in the art show at the McKinley Center, and none of them have straight lines.”
Ron Ramynke lives in Sparks and was a boiler technician in the US Navy, a dirty and dangerous job. He said he’s always been into drawing, and since his wife and doctor suggested he take the art class to stave off depression, he hasn’t looked back.
Listen to an interview with Ron Ramynke …
“About five years ago my wife and my doctor were ragging on me because of depression and stuff, and they had this art program, so I got into it and five years later I’m still doing it,” Ramynke chuckled.
For Ramynke making art creates its own center of mental gravity, more than a distraction from troubles and stress.
“Thing is, like me, I can start working on one of these pieces and I get involved in it. Pretty much even at home I could turn the TV on and I couldn’t even tell what was on that TV because I get so involved in my artwork … most of the time I’ve got a radio going at home and this way I don’t have to concentrate and I’ll sit down there for hours on end.”
Ramynke said he enjoys the classes for socializing with other vets and getting out of the house. For this former steel mill worker, art has become an important part of his life.
“Actually it’s pretty important because this way I’m not sitting at home and thinking about things, and I never realized … my wife and my doctor said I had depression … I just never realized it.”
Gene Hughes is the art instructor for the Veterans Art Project and said he was meant to be an artist and a teacher.
“I was born to be an artist and I discovered later I was born to teach art as well, so this is a dream come true for me to be here with veterans in teaching them the fine arts. I love it,” Hughes said with a smile.
Hear an audio interview with Gene Hughes …
A veteran himself, Hughes is keenly aware of the therapeutic role art plays in the lives of veteran artists.
“What it does is it takes them away from their everyday cares because they begin to concentrate on the piece of art that they created, and it heals the spirit because we are sharing that creative spirit that is God. That’s what we’ve been gifted with with art, and so when they plug into that, of course their whole life in all areas is going to improve, and the better they get, the better the life change. I don’t understand the correlation, I just know it works and I see it happening I see it and it works on a daily basis.”
When asked about the stereotype that older people learn less readily than younger people, Hughes guffawed.
“That is a fallacy. Don’t even complete the statement,” Hughes said waving his hands. “It is not true. What I find is the exact opposite. Once they get into art, and they create that first work of art, then they become really thirsty to learn more. So I encourage them to be unorthodox, mix this with that. Try this with that because every time they do that, they expand their artistic knowledge and their spirit.”
Hughes has seen art transform people.
“The transformative quality of art is rarely spoke of and given the importance that it really has. I’ve not only seen artists themselves change but their families. Families come and say things like he was not, he did not communicate with us before. Now he’s communicating. He’s opening up. He’s sharing his art with us. As a matter of fact, you’ll look around and see some family members were meandering because they get so excited about their art they want to share it with their family, when before they were pretty closed. Didn’t share a lot, pretty quiet, and I also encourage them to encourage others in the class.”
Several artists said Hughes builds an ethos of positivity in the class, a safe creative space where artists are comfortable enough to experiment and negative criticism is not allowed.
“This is art and it should be free and it should be fun and it should attest to that person’s spirit, and so we are about uplifting the spirit through the arts. You know our motto is, ‘we preserve, protect and present the voices of veterans through the arts.'”
Artist Luana Ritch was in the class with her service dog. Ritch was a satellite communications technician and a chaplain’s assistant in the US Army, and since being discharged has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). The Veterans Writing Project awakened Luana’s creative energy. Then about a year ago she had surgery on her hand and in an effort to rehabilitate she came to the art class to help with mobility and range of motion. Her hand has healed, and art has become more than rehab.
Hear an audio interview with Luana Ritch …
“It’s a way of expressing myself through my art is a way of healing for me,” Ritch said, her eyes welling with tears. “When you have PTSD, you can spend a lot of time ruminating on memories and be overwhelmed by memories and not exactly sure of your emotions. When you’re doing art you are totally consumed by it, and so there is really no room when you are fully engaged in the artwork, there’s no room to let negative thoughts or emotions interfere. You can just become very free from those kinds of things.
“And also I find from the injuries I’ve had, from chronic pain too, is that when you are totally engaged and doing the art or writing, any of those creative ideas, it’s like it distracts the mind from a lot of things that would otherwise negatively impact your day. That’s why I stick with it.”
The Combat Paper Nevada exhibit in the McKinley Arts Center in Reno is just that. The paper used for the pieces of art is made from recycled uniforms. Luana Ritch made the paper for her piece titled The Flag Maker’s Hands during the 2018 political season, and when she was making the flag the fiber ripped. Ritch saw the mistake as an opportunity for the addition of an I Voted sticker.
“In my mind it is an analogy that no matter what, in what place on the political spectrum you are, that it’s voting that repairs our democracy, and if the flag is a symbol of our democracy well then, the flag maker’s hands, repairing the flag, and doing it no only literally through the sewing of the flag back together but through the analogy of voting.”
Ross Nagle was a cryptologic technician in the US Navy and studied fine art in college but chose to work as a carpenter to make a living. In college he focused on oil painting and ceramics, but Gene Hughes introduced him to water colors, which he loves. For Nagle, art is an exploration.
“I’m always exploring so I’m always looking for something more … something, I don’t know … depth. I was having trouble a couple weeks ago with meaning, but what that was doing … that allowed me or forced me to focus a little differently than I had been, so I am just trying to keep up with it and figure out what’s going on because it’s … I never really totally know what I’m doing. I just love doing art.”
Hear an audio interview with Ross Nagle …
Lewis Scott McGathy said he was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago and that the experience was emotionally overwhelming. His doctor suggested he try art classes to settle his stinging mind.
“I was doing whatever I could to try get my mind off being sick, so this is one of the things that came up, so I came out just to try it, and I found it was a really good way to escape, get away from everything else because I had never done anything like this before, just a good way to get my head involved in something that I knew nothing about and just try to have fun, and it worked,” McGathy said with a smile. “Whenever I’d come down here, it was just like I was on another planet, forgot about everything and everybody and just focused on this.”
Hear an audio interview with Scott McGathy …
McGathy said he creates three to four pieces a year and is looking to improve his abilities with every effort.
“I always pick something that’s challenging. The one before this I did a … it was a charcoal pastel of the Crown Point Trestle, which is on display at the McKinley Center.”
Hear an audio interview with Scott McGathy …
When McGathy first started drawing and painting, doing art was a casual hobby, but as time has passed, his passion for the work has deepened, and now the creation of art plays an important role in his life.
“It’s pretty important now. At the beginning it was just an outlet. Now I consider it part of my weekly activity. I make room for it instead of showing up if I have time. I try to make room to be here.”
The following images are from the Veterans Art Project and Combat Paper Nevada exhibits at the McKinley Arts Center in Reno. The pieces will be on display until February 15.