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How can the arts help Veterans heal? Can sharing one’s story be transformative? These are some of the questions explored during the spring of 2020 through a creative learning project between Columbus College of Art & Design and the Veteran Arts Initiative of the VA Central Ohio Healthcare System. Now, that project is turning into a documentary film, Re-story: Transforming Veteran Stories into Art, which will debut Nov. 13–15, 2020 as part of the National Veterans Film Festival Presents series of virtual film screenings and panel discussions leading up to the inaugural National Veterans Film Festival happening Sept. 10–12, 2021 in collaboration with the Gateway Film Center and the National Veterans Memorial and Museum.During the four-month-long partnership, 28 CCAD students from three classes in documentary video, podcasting, and animation were paired with 21 VAI participants to share Veterans’ stories and explore how their creative efforts as artists have helped them to process their individual military experiences. In addition, Veterans’ poems from the VAI poetry workshops at the Franklin County jail were used to create short animations. The videos, podcasts, and animations were combined and edited to make the forthcoming 45-minute documentary.

“By engaging in this rich learning partnership with the VA Central Ohio Healthcare System, our students had the real-world experience of making a direct impact in our community,” says Nicole Monahan, Director of Corporate & Community Partnerships at CCAD. “It was powerful for them to connect with each Veteran as a fellow artist. It immediately created an understanding through which they could tell the Veteran's story whether the student had military experience or not."

The Re-Story project

CCAD students and Veterans

Before working with the Veterans, students received training from VAI Program Coordinator Heather Seymour and VA Patient Advocate Tyler Strine on empathic listening and military culture, ethics, and privacy. The Veterans were consulted throughout the project and will receive a copy of their final stories. 

The idea for the project began forming two years ago when Monahan and Seymour were involved in a research project on creativity and stress reduction at Chalmers P. Wylie VA Ambulatory Care Center. Monahan, then an adjunct faculty member at CCAD, knew it would be productive and inspiring for students to work with the VAI Veterans. When she started her new role at CCAD last year, she and Seymour both thought it was the perfect time to bring the collaboration to life once more.“Because Heather and I had worked together, we wanted to connect CCAD students and these amazingly talented veterans from the VAI program to continue exploring the healing aspects of art through storytelling,” Monahan says. 

The overall project, dubbed Re-story, gave Veterans an opportunity to retell or “re-story” aspects of their lives both in and out of the military and reflect on how making art transforms these narratives. Sharing one’s story with a student also is an act of creation from which comes healing and understanding, according to Seymour. 

CCAD Faculty speaking to students

Re-story allowed a unique space for intergenerational dialogue that bridges the racial, gender, and socioeconomic divides through the commonality of making art,” says Seymour. “We started with a question, ‘How can collaborative creative storytelling connect Veterans and civilians across generations?’ The answers are in the works themselves. The common thread is that no life experiences define us. We are all dynamic. We all want to be heard, understood, and this platform of storytelling is essential in a digital world.”

Vivian T. Hutson, Medical Center Director of the VA Central Ohio Healthcare System adds, “There is a generation of Veterans that are just beginning to tell their story. Film is a way to express the truth of their experience and to share it with fellow Veterans, their communities, and generations to come.”

Veterans creating, healing

Through a network of community collaborations with local and national stakeholders, the VAI offers multidisciplinary creative arts programs for veterans and family members to foster therapeutic expression, promote resilience, and create social connections with purpose. VAI programs include visual arts, theater, dance, music, writing, group-based contemporary art interpretation, discussion, and exhibition. 

“The VAI community is a family of diverse veterans ranging in artistic mediums, experience, race, gender, and sexual identity,” Seymour says. “We are a mixed pot of dreamers, warriors, heretics, and academics. All of us are artists in some way.” 

Veronica Shields

Veronica Shields, a former U.S. Army sergeant during the Vietnam War, is now a Columbus artist who works in steel, wood, leather, and photography. She found solace by taking art workshops through the VAI Program.

“Before exploring how to express myself in a way that would connect to people universally, I never thought art was an option,” Shields says. “I was frustrated with the great disconnect and had no insight into bridging that void. A suggestion was made to consider the art program at the VA. This program gave me the building materials for my bridge. Art connects.”

Stephen Yarger, a former U.S. Army sergeant who is from Freehold, New Jersey and currently lives in Columbus, is an artist and a VAI peer mentor. He also participated in the animation and podcast portions of the Re-story project. 

“It’s refreshing to be able to connect with those who have the ability to tell the stories I can't quite put into words,” Yarger says. “Being able to watch my and others' stories get immortalized, and connecting across generations was as rewarding as anything I've experienced since separation from the military.”

CCAD Students working on film

The partnership has also left a lasting impact on the CCAD students involved, such as Antonio Sais (Advertising & Graphic Design, 2020). As part of his CCAD podcasting class, Sais interviewed World War II Veteran Andrew Lisko. Lisko, who taught music at Capital University from 1954 to 1990, plays violin and joined the VAI shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

“As I listen to my interview with Professor Lisko, I am constantly humbled by the way he speaks of his life, and the impact World War II had on him,” says Sais. “He is truly an amazing person who has made me look at life from a whole different perspective. Professor Lisko’s story reminds me that no matter how bad things get, the world will be okay.”

The public is invited to attend the Re-story: Transforming Veteran Stories into Art free virtual film screening happening Nov. 13–15, 2020 and the virtual panel discussion Nov. 13, 2020 from 6–7 p.m. EST. Learn more.The VAI partnership is just one of dozens of projects that take place through CCAD’s Corporate & Community Partnerships program. CCAD works with forward-thinking organizations such as Airstream, Cardinal Health, Madison-USA, the Furniture Bank of Ohio, COSI, and more to co-create projects with the college’s expert faculty, talented students, and skilled alumni to solve the real-world challenges of today and tomorrow.

Learn more about Corporate & Community Partnerships or CCAD’s Film & Video, Advertising & Graphic Design, and Animation programs. Apply here. Read more about the project in The Dispatch, Columbus Underground, or on Spectrum News.

Photos (from top): 

CCAD student filmmakers Madeline Anson and Madison Van Buren (both Film & Video, 2020) and CCAD faculty Stephanie West set up for their interview with Veteran Leni D. Anderson. Photo by Heather Seymour.

CCAD student Taylor Scalzo (Advertising & Graphic Design, 2020) talks with Veteran Greg West during a mixer at CCAD in February 2020 that connected students with participants in the VA Central Ohio Healthcare System’s Veteran Arts Initiative program. Photo by Ty Wright.

VAI Arts Coordinator Heather Seymour discusses potential Veteran collaborators with CCAD Documentary Video students Madeline Anson (Film & Video, 2020), Alyssa Morris (Film & Video, 2022), and Michael Cheatham (Film & Video, 2020). Photo by Stephanie Wott.

Veteran Veronica Shields awaits the start of her filmed interview about her military service and her artistic practice. Photo by Stephanie Wott.

CCAD students Alyssa Morris (Film & Video, 2022), Michael Cheatham (Film & Video, 2020)  and Madeline Anson (Film & Video, 2020) film Veteran and CCAD faculty member Mary Skrenta in her studio. Photo by Stephanie Wott.