Art Program for Seniors and Veterans

Art Program for Seniors and Veterans


Hillary Rodham Clinton

"Some of our most powerful works of art have been produced by older Americans—by hands that have engaged in years of hard work, eyes that have witnessed decades of change, and hearts that have felt a lifetime of emotions. Our whole society benefits when older Americans use their talents and experiences to become involved in the arts as creators, teachers, mentors, volunteers, and audiences."
Hillary Rodham Clinton

Art programs for seniors and veterans have great value, both to the individuals involved and to society as a whole.  The arts community benefits from people's contributions and resources. Older adults are creators, mentors, teachers, tutors, and advisors, sharing the wisdom that they have gained through a lifetime of experience. As role models, they show us how to age creatively by sharing their unique perspectives on life, and teach younger artists what it is like to grow old.  Included are practical considerations on possible types of programs. Also included: checklists and agendas, as well as troubleshooting and funding tips.

Contributors and Reviewers:
Stuart R. Nelson, Communications Coordinator, Blinded Veterans Association

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Practical Considerations

Program Basics

"America does not like to look at aging, but attitudes are thankfully changing with increased exposure to older adults and knowledge about aging. Attitudinal barriers can only be overcome if every other barrier is addressed, so that older adults will have opportunities to fully participate in ALL that an organization has to offer. The focus must be inclusion, universal design, and, as renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman encourages, 'access with dignity.'"

From: “The Arts and Older Americans” by Andrea Sherman, in MONOGRAPHS Volume 5, Number 8, November 1996.

Benefits of Art Programs for Seniors or Veterans who Are Visually Impaired

           ...for museums. With increased leisure time, older adults are increasingly becoming consumers and users of services. Organizing an art program at a school or center for the blind has several benefits over doing it at your museum, including access to an established audience and marketing network, as well as conveniences in traveling and facility maintenance.  While it may be possible to find attendees who are willing to travel for your program if it is held at an art therapy studio or at a museum, you are more likely to have a larger turnout at a place people who are blind and visually impaired visit regularly and are familiar with the course offerings. In addition, the school or center for the blind is a place where your audience feels comfortable and “at home.” This comfort level contributes to stable group attendance, increases group trust, and gives participants an opportunity to focus more completely on the art-making process.

            ...for seniors centers and veteran’s service organizations. Art programs provide tangible physical and mental health benefits by providing opportunities for participation in a larger community, and for maintaining hand strength and coordination. Administrators and educators can take advantage of museum resources and expertise. Collaborations with artists-in-residence provide opportunities for relationship building, inspiring creativity, and exposing students to careers in the arts.

            …for artists. Funding and grants are often difficult to secure for individuals, but collaborations with cultural or educational institutions are often well received by state arts councils. Residencies frequently provide an art-making space and opportunities to build relationships within community.

            ...for older adults and veterans. The arts can help us understand and define aging, explore what it means to grow old through writing workshops, forums, murals, theater, and dance. The arts offer an opportunity for self-expression amidst loss, for achievement and re-engagement amidst voids and uncertainty. Many older adults face frequent loss in their lives—jobs, health, spouses, friends, leadership positions, or income.  The arts can provide ample opportunities for lifelong learning and service to others. Older adults have increased leisure time with their unprecedented longer lives. Volunteerism enriches the quality of life for older adults.

Researchers Exploring the Health Benefits of Art

"We know intuitively that art and creativity can dramatically improve older people’s quality of life and health.” Gay Hanna, Ph.D., Executive Director, Society for the Arts in Healthcare (SAH)

From: The National Institute on Aging, press release, April 5, 2004, “Creativity, Aging, and Health Meeting,” Sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, Society for the Arts in Healthcare.

The latest research supports Hanna’s observation: the arts can keep you healthy. Creative activities like painting, writing, pottery, drama, singing, and storytelling raise self-esteem, increase enthusiasm for life, and result in fewer doctor visits, says Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., of George Washington University’s Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at The George Washington University Medical Center. Cohen's ongoing study at GWU's Center on Aging, Health and Humanities of approximately 300 men and women tracks several arts programs around the country. The arts participants, whose average age is 80, schedule fewer doctor appointments and use fewer medications than members of the control group (who are not involved in the arts). They also have fewer incidents of depression, higher morale, and more involvement in outside activities.

From: AARP website. “Lively Arts”

Read the transcript from the Meeting on Creativity, Aging and Health

Possible Program Sites

Older adults now have an increasingly broad range of settings in which they can choose to live, and receive healthcare and other services. Possible sites for arts programming targeting older adults, including veterans, are:

The Internet also has strong potential to reach these audiences. Older adults are increasingly Web savvy, and there are many assistive devices that make computers accessible to people with visual impairments.

Types of Programs

Programs for seniors can range from a traditional art history class to art-making activities, or a combination of both. Both art history and art appreciation provide a useful context and source of inspiration for your art-making processes. Program can vary from a few days, a few months, or in the case of an artist residency, sometimes several years.

To best understand the type of program that is most appropriate for your community, look to local resources. Include veterans and older adults on your board of directors. Plan staff training in partnership with local aging organizations, and keep access issues in mind. Consider making your program intergenerational. Creative interactions among children, young adults, and older persons can benefit families and society as a whole. Intergenerational programs can be opportunities for communication and exchange around the issues and experiences of aging.

Possible formats include:

If possible, find out what kinds of art or museum experiences your program participants have had. However, even more experienced art viewers can benefit by a general introduction to visual art vocabulary and concepts, such as perspective, light and shadow, and color theory. Allow adequate working time and an opportunity for discussion. We have included samples approaches for how to explore these concepts, and on how to develop critical thinking skills and personal expression through the creative process.

Art History or Art Appreciation

Tactile drawing of The Persisitence of Memory by Salvador DaliPainting by DaliMuseums educators often use slides of works from current exhibitions to present classes and discussions at a senior center or nursing home. This type of programming can easily be adapted to seniors with some sight loss by providing large-print, high-contrast handouts of the slides before the lecture begins, and beginning the discussion with a verbal description of the artwork. If most of your participants have little usable vision or are completely blind, this type of course can be done with tactile diagrams instead of large-scale handouts, or with verbal description alone. However, we do not recommend combining visual handouts and tactile graphics because of the type of description necessary for the tactile diagrams. If the participants in your group have a broad range of vision impairments, it is preferable to use large-print handouts with a thorough verbal description before discussing the artwork, which will serve the needs of those who cannot see the handouts without unnecessarily disrupting the flow of the lecture.

Art Making

Seniors sit around a table of craft materialsArt-making classes focusing on different techniques or themes are also a good option.  Art making can be supplemented by writing or music projects, allowing participants a variety of outlets for expression. Materials should be large and easy to handle, and introductory activities should draw on skills participants already have rather than trying to teach completely new activities. For more information on how to adapt traditional art-making techniques for people with disabilities, see our Accessibility Tools Training. Once participants are comfortable with the creative process, new skills and media can be introduced. For instance, quilting or piecing together material with glue draws on experiences many seniors will have had and skills they have likely developed, as opposed to something like stone carving, which would require the development of new skills.  Working with large pieces of colorful material also has the advantage of being relatively accessible to seniors with sight loss, although, again, not to people who are completely blind. These works can also be displayed, contributing to the aesthetic pleasure of their environment and giving a sense of ownership of the space. Sculpture is also possible, with clay as the recommended medium because of its ease of use and familiarity.

Distance Learning or the Telephone Conference Course

Information communication technologies provided through the internet and broadband have made distance learning a viable programming option. Art history and art appreciation can be easily taught through a telephone conference call. A telephone conference course has the advantage of reaching out to people who cannot leave their homes or may otherwise have limited human contact. People who participate in telephone conferences show significantly lower levels of loneliness and isolation, and have an increased number of social interactions per day. Participants tend to exchange phone numbers and stay in touch, both between sessions and after the course is over. The conference course is a good way to bring together similarly minded people experiencing the same mobility limitations and who are interested in maintaining virtual relationships.

Telephone Conference Call Tips:


In order to choose a theme that will best meet the participants’ needs, it is best to have open communication with your programming partners, or someone who is familiar with your participants. Common arts themes, including portraiture, narrative, landscape, spirituality, history, and abstraction, can be targeted to the interests of your audience.

Reminiscence and life review techniques and themes are Woman shows her completed memory boxcurrently being explored as psychologically, emotionally, and physically beneficial for older adults as part of a therapeutic process. Older people need to find meaning and purpose as they draw closer to the end of life. Documenting and recording life experiences can provide closure, help clarify values established throughout life, and provide a personal and cultural legacy for future generations. Role playing, sense memory, guided discussions, collective poetry, and the creation of family trees enable older adults to enhance self worth, stimulate memory, and create a supportive peer community in which they are able to affirm their identity. These processes and concrete outcomes, such as written, audio-recorded, or visual artifacts, can lend comfort and stability at a time of life when loss is faced more often: loss of family and friends, loss of independence, and new physical limitations. Arts programming can offer a context for coping with the loss, and expressing needs and any changes in the role of family members, especially through intergenerational programming.

Some basic techniques of reminiscence are based on active listening skills.

Life review and reminiscence can generate powerful emotions as participants may face life-long issues in this process. Whenever possible, keep close contact with therapeutic support staff.

Senior Center

The first step in organizing any sort of joint program is an introductory meeting with administrators and/or educators at the partnering institutions. In this meeting, explain the benefits an art-making program for people who are blind or visually impaired. This is your opportunity to excite and inspire them about your program, and to ensure success throughout the planning and execution of the course. Although flexibility is important in meeting the needs of each individual group, it is best to come to the first session prepared with a proposed course outline and session plan that address their particular students’ needs.

We have put together an agenda for your first meeting. Talking points for the meeting include the primary benefits of art-making activities:

Other possible topics for this meeting include defining the target audience and proposing the parameters of your program, including the duration and scheduling of your program.

At the End of Your Art Program

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Access Issues for Older Adults in Arts Programming

Physical Access

Also, older adults are more likely to experience other limitations or disabilities. For more information, see our Disability Awareness Training program.

Financial and Social Access.

Many, but not all, older adults experience fixed incomes and feelings of isolation. To address these issues, consider the following ways to make your programming more accessible to older adults:

Smiling man and woman working on memory box

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Sample Art Programs for Seniors and Veterans

Veterans Programs

Veterans are another diverse audience for your art programs. Veterans may experience vision loss as a result of aging, or as a result of combat trauma. In either case, the arts can play an important role in the rehabilitation, recovery, independence, and personal growth of veterans.

Blinded Veterans Association

The Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) has found that physical and emotional isolation are large obstacles to overcome for those who have only recently lost their eyesight in a combat-related setting. The Department of Defense has confirmed that some 16 percent of all wounded evacuees from Iraq and Afghanistan have serious eye injuries, many of whom have been totally blinded by Improvised Explosive Devices or sniper fire in one of the two theaters of operation. Most, though not all, of the men and women suffering eye casualties have been young soldiers. Some have returned with permanently damaged or lost limbs in addition to their eye injuries.

“BVA contends that arts programs provide a significant means by which recently blinded veterans can overcome the traumatic physical and emotional isolation associated with their injuries. In some cases, contact with the arts reminds blinded veterans of familiar objects or familiar sensory experiences that evoke a positive feeling or memory. Association with the arts can also be a stimulus or motivating force for many blinded veterans as they discover previously untapped physical and mental capabilities, particularly in the area of creativity. BVA is aware of a variety of cases in which blinded veterans have gone on to become noted writers or authors, sculptors, painters, auto mechanics, and musicians after the loss of their vision and with hardly an inkling of the existence of the artistic talent prior to the injury. The end result is a passion for something beautiful that they are capable of creating artistically, which in turn makes life meaningful, productive, and rich for the blinded veteran and his/her family.” – Stuart Nelson, Communications Coordinator, Blinded Veterans Association, Washington, DC

As for other audiences with disabilities, arts programming can provide the following benefits for veterans experiencing vision loss:

The best way for a veteran who is visually impaired to get help is to contact a VIST Coordinator. VIST stands for "Visual Impairment Services Team." A VIST Coordinator will help a visually impaired veteran obtain all of the services he or she may need. They will help educate the veteran and provide any needed applications for services.

For a list of VIST Coordinators by state, as well as information about other programs for veterans with impaired vision, visit the VA Blind Rehabilitation National Web Site. The VA operates nine blind rehabilitation centers in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

The Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) Coordinator manages services for legally blind veterans and their families. They identify new cases of blindness, arrange annual healthcare reviews, provide professional counseling, assist with benefits and resolving problems, and arrange for appropriate services with the Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialist (BROS), the Blind Rehabilitation Center (BRC), and other programs that provide services to blinded veterans. These services enable blinded veterans to acquire the skills and capabilities necessary for the development and maintenance of personal independence and emotional stability.

Contact VIST Coordinators or ask about arts programming and eligibility for coverage of your program. Contact local rehab centers or browse facilities by state on the Veterans’ Administration Web site. Contact information is given for each facility. Many goals of the VA can be met through programming. Eligible non-VA services can include your programming

The Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) is another excellent source of information and assistance. Its staff can also direct you to a VIST Coordinator. BVA's phone number is (800) 669-7079.

National Veterans Creative Arts Festival

The National Veterans Creative Arts Festival (NVCAF) is an annual celebration, and grand finale stage and art show that is the culmination of talent competitions in music, drama, dance, and art for veterans treated in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) national health care system.

Approximately 140 veterans exhibit their artwork or perform musical, dance, or drama selections in a gala variety show. A professional orchestra accompanies the performance.  All veterans invited to participate are selected winners of year-long, national fine arts talent competitions entered by thousands of veterans from VA medical facilities across the nation.

VA medical facilities incorporate creative arts into their recreation therapy programs. This annual competition recognizes the progress and recovery made through that therapy, and raises the visibility of the creative achievements of our nation’s veterans after disease, disability, or life crisis.

Sponsors are the Department of Veterans Affairs, American Legion Auxiliary, and Help Hospitalized Veterans.

Other Veterans Organizations include:

See also our Art Therapy Program chapter.

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Sample Approach: Philadelphia Museum of Art


About Form in Art
By Carol Wisker

Form in Art, which began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1971, combines studio classes in sculpture and the study of art history into a course for people who are blind. The classes take place in the Museum, and its collections play an important role in the education of the students. Form in Art reverses the almost universal "don’t touch" policy of art museums, by giving those without sight the opportunity to learn about art by touching selected original works of art, as well as a variety of interpretations. These touch tours, art history lessons, and lectures by museum staff and guides help facilitate the learning process by exposing students to a wide range of periods and styles of art.

Students are not required to have had previous art training before entering the Form in Art program. Classes attract both congenitally blind and newly blinded adults of all ages, races, religions, and economic groups. Students entering the program must be legally blind (90% of people who are legally blind have some residual vision). There is a $10 (beginners) or $40 (advanced) registration fee for each semester. The museum provides all supplies, and also arranges for and pays half of the students’ transportation to and from the classes.

The creative talent and hard work of all the Form in Art students is inspired by their teachers, who are professional artists, and by the many dedicated volunteers. Four classes meet once a week for two thirteen-week semesters each year. At the end of each year, students have an opportunity to enter the best of their works in an exhibition held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition serves as a celebration of their efforts, and it inspires many blind and sighted Museum visitors.

Since 1987 the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been exchanging ideas and resources on art education for blind and visually impaired people with museums and galleries across the country and throughout Europe. In 1989 an exhibition of the work of Form in Art students traveled to Japan where it was displayed at the Gallery Tom in Tokyo and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kobe. These collaborations have influenced the creation of similar museum programs in Japan.

More information is available on this program by calling the Form in Art Program Coordinator in the Office of Accessible Programs in the Museum’s Division of Education at (215) 684-7606. For more information about the museum’s other programs for people with disabilities, please call (215) 684-7602 or for deaf callers TTY (215) 684-7600.

Form in Art is generously supported by The Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Art Talk: Art by Phone

Individuals who can no longer visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art due to age-related limitations or disabilities can still experience the excitement of a lively conversation about works of art on a free conference call over a regular phone line that links ten to fifteen participants with a facilitator from the museum.

Each session is approximately 45 minutes to one hour in length. There are two or three sessions in one series. Past courses have included paintings and sculptures by Picasso, Rubens, Tanner, Monet, and Rodin, as well as decorative arts and architecture from the historic houses of Fairmount Park.

The Art Talk facilitator is a Philadelphia Art Museum guide or Park House guide with many years of experience. Participants can take part in the conversation or just listen, and do not need an art background to enjoy Art Talk. Participants receive a booklet to view as they listen. The museum invites people to join the upcoming series and then enjoy an hour a week in conversation with new friends.

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Sample Approach: DOROT

These are the descriptions of the programs for New York City’s seniors that are developed by DOROT, an organization dedicated to enriching the lives of the elderly and bringing the generations together. For more information about these programs and how to start similar programs in your community, please contact DOROT.

One of DOROT's fastest-growing programs is University Without Walls, New York's largest continuing education and support network for the homebound. Its classes and support groups provide an extensive social, educational, health, and spiritual forum for the homebound. Professionally led sessions connect students to the intellectual and cultural life beyond their homes, stimulate their minds, lift their spirits, help to forge new friendships among classmates, and build a sense of community within the group.

 Using our own teleconference system, DOROT conducts more than 200 courses and support groups a year, each accommodating up to 15 participants and meeting weekly for one hour. Most of these conference-call sessions are facilitated by volunteers, some of whom are homebound themselves. Speaker phones can be used at senior centers, residences, and hospitals to foster group participation. There is a single registration fee of $10 and a $15 tuition fee for each course. Single sessions and holiday calls are free. Scholarships are available. Because DOROT calls you and connects you to the class, you do not pay for the phone call.

University Without Walls works in partnership with more than 40 health and cultural institutions throughout New York. The program reaches hundreds of the homebound in every borough of New York City, on Long Island, in Westchester and Rockland counties, and in New Jersey.

Via telephone conference calls, University Without Walls offers the homebound a multi-subject curriculum, support groups, and a community of friends who share their interests. Class topics include music, art, current events, health, science, theater, and more. Volunteers with special interests and knowledge conduct classes from their offices or homes. Time commitment: 1 hour a week for 4 to 12 weeks.

The Arts Programs for elderly at DOROT bring music, poetry, theater, painting, and other arts into elders' lives through alliances with New York City's leading educational and cultural organizations. Arts subjects are included in teleconference classes that may culminate in a volunteer-escorted visit to a museum, where students enjoy a private tour and a lecture on a current exhibit.

DOROT also presents musical concerts and art lectures at its headquarters, where art classes bring the generations together as young and old attend painting, quilting, and photography courses. In addition, volunteers with music skills perform in the homes of the frail elderly.

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Sample Approach: VA/VSA Arts

Very Special Arts (VSA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) share a deep conviction that the arts stimulate the emotional, mental, and physical well-being of veterans who receive care in VA Medical Centers or other VA health care facilities. To exemplify this belief, they have partnered to create the VA/VSA Program, which was designed to encourage the rehabilitation, recovery, independence, and personal growth of veterans through artist-in-residency programs offering a variety of artistic experiences in creative writing, dance, drama, music, and the visual arts.
The goals of the VA/VSA Program are to:

Each year, VSA affiliate offices, in partnership with local VA Medical Centers, are selected to coordinate the VA/VSA artist-in-residency programs. The VSA affiliate and VA Medical Center staff co-design a program to encourage and enhance the artistic talents and basic life skills of the veterans served by the medical center. Together, they develop specific program goals and objectives, select the type of artistic experiences to be offered, and determine the schedule of activities. Professional artists, who are often veterans, are then contracted to become the artists-in-residence to facilitate the art workshops for the year.

For more information on the VA/VSA arts Artist-in-Residence Program please visit the VSA arts web site. or contact the VSA arts Artist-in-Residence Program coordinator, VSA arts Headquarters, 1-800-933-8721.

VA/VSA arts Retrospective Exhibit

VSA arts, formerly Very Special Arts, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have enjoyed more than a decade of bringing arts opportunities to veterans at various VA medical centers and VA health care facilities around the country. Designed to encourage independence, communication skills, and the artistic talents of veterans with disabilities, the success of VA/VSA arts program participants was celebrated during the 1999 VA/VSA arts Retrospective Exhibit, exhibited in conjunction with VSA arts' International Art & Soul Festival held in Downtown Los Angeles.

The final exhibit of 39 pieces was installed according to the Smithsonian Institution guidelines for accessible exhibition design, with flat works mounted on white walls at a medium height of 50 inches and all sculptures on pedestals at a wheelchair accessible level. The works of Michael Naranjo, which the sculptor encourages people to touch, were additionally labeled with braille signs for the benefit of visitors who were blind.

With its prominence as an exhibit of the VSA arts International Art & Soul Festival, the VA/VSA arts Retrospective Exhibit positively contributed to the VA/VSA arts Program's goals. During its run, the exhibit was viewed by more than 800 people and generated greater exposure for both the program and its participants. In addition, the exhibit provided yet another opportunity for veterans to participate in the arts, encouraging the selected artists to continue their artwork and to work towards increased independence and self-confidence. In attracting the attention of international festival attendees, VSA arts affiliates, local veterans, the disability community at large, and the public, the exhibit also increased public interaction with and appreciation of veterans and the role the arts can play in the rehabilitation and recovery process.

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Sample Approach: National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum

The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum (NVVAM) inspires greater understanding of the real impact of war with a focus on Vietnam. The museum collects, preserves, and exhibits art inspired by combat and created by veterans.

In 1981, a few Vietnam combat veterans put together an artistic and historical collection that would become a timeless, humanistic statement of war on behalf of all veterans for future generations.

While the stigma against Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder continues, veterans around the country have found a way to let the healing process begin by making art. Although many may never fully recover, creating art has provided a chance for them to express the joy, pain, fear, and devastation of their experiences in Vietnam, becoming an outlet for their inner voices. The artistic process, alone, has been an essential ingredient for the recipe of good mental health and spiritual nourishment; something they never had before. Their artwork is proudly presented at the NVVAM.

The rare collection assembled by a group of veterans blossomed in the post-war era and has now grown into the NVVAM, the world’s only museum with a permanent collection focusing on the subject of war from an artistic perspective. Visitors express that this perspective is a universal message to all generations, and cultures.

The Vietnam Veterans Art Group was created in Chicago in 1980, and the group mounted its first exhibit of veteran artwork, “Reflexes and Reflections,” a year later, which toured museums and galleries in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Austin, and Columbia, SC.

The overwhelming emotional response to the work, along with an increasing amount of contributions by artists, led to the official establishment of the NVVAM. After viewing the collection, Mayor Richard Daley was so personally moved that he allocated a permanent building in 1995 to house the NVVAM. The NVVAM opened the doors to its permanent home on South Indiana in August 1996.

Today, NVVAM is still located in Chicago’s South Loop and houses more than 1,500 works of art, including paintings, photography, sculpture, poetry, and music. All the works in the museum’s permanent collection were created and comprised by more than 100 artists who chronicled their individual experiences from the Vietnam War.

The artwork presented at the museum provides a unique viewpoint on the controversial subject of war to all visitors. It is a tenuous and reflective balance of beauty and horror, giving unique insight into the psyche of combat veterans and consequential hindsight war leaves on its survivors.

The collection is born from the sheer sentiment of those who personally experienced the immediate suffering and realities of war. It’s clear the artists have experienced the creative and spontaneous insight, and intuition, that comes from witnessing the magnitude of human combat and death first-hand.

Art Therapy

Art therapy is an established mental health profession using the creative process of art to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. It’s based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people resolve conflicts and problems, develops interpersonal skills, manages behavior, reduces stress, increases self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieves insight.

This is particularly true with veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam and those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of war. For these veterans, art is the only way for them to express the atrocities they experienced. It is the first step of many towards healing. Like those before them, Iraq war veterans are now finding resolution and therapy by putting into art what they are unable to put into words.

"Road stop... STOP..." painting by Iraq Vet
Aaron Hughes

University of Illinois arts student Aaron Hughes served in Iraq for 18 months and was overwhelmed by watching friends die in front of him, and seeing women and children beg for food along roads. For many veterans like him, art has become the only way to let others know not only the extent to which war reaches past an enemy, but also how it affects an entire society.

The topic of war is a sensitive one that few galleries and museums are willing to display on a regular basis. The NVVAM has provided a home to veteran artists, allowing their unique voices to be heard through a variety of artistic expressions.

However, the museum is not only home to veteran artists, but also to others who have been involved with war and war relief, those who lost a parent to war and those artists who want to share their visions of war. For instance, the award-winning photographer Nina Berman created an exhibit called “Purple Hearts” to tell the individual stories of several disabled Iraq veterans.

Stretching Beyond Vietnam
Since 2003 the NVVAM has broadened its mission to include art by all war veterans. Recent exhibits include:

Trauma & Metamorphosis I & II,” which shows the transfiguration of these soldiers’ memories of the atrocities they’ve experienced, turning it into art. For the first time, these veterans and artists gain some measure of control over their Vietnam traumas, allowing the process of healing to begin. All “Trauma & Metamorphosis” artists endure symptoms of PTSD in varying degrees and have chosen to share their journey of healing through this very special exhibit.

“Things They Carried,” an interactive and educational exhibit for audiences to learn what kinds of things soldiers carry with them during war, and try on an 80-pound backpack, boots, and uniforms. The exhibit was inspired by a book of the same name, which was selected by Mayor Daley as required reading for the Chicago Public Schools.

Shifting Memories,” a photo that would become one of two large oil paintings (Number 52) that set the stage for 24-year-old Iraq war veteran Aaron Hughes’ “Shifting Memories” exhibit. The photo is of Hughes and a sergeant in front of a burnt Humvee, only its charred metal frame remaining. Three soldiers died when the car was hit in an ambush. Hughes served 18 months in Iraq; after his return to the U.S., he attended the University of Illinois, where he was initially an Industrial Design major, but later turned his studies to the College of Fine and Applied Arts. In “Shifting Memories,” he shares a series of projects that bring to the forefront the very complex personal realities of the war in Iraq.

The museum is located at 1801 S. Indiana Ave., Chicago, IL 10616; phone: (312) 326-0270. For more on NVVAM and its current exhibitions, visit its Web site:

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Sample Agenda

Meeting with Administrators of the Community Center

Preparation for this meeting: Research the goals of the institution and its previous programming history, and outline your program objectives and format. After the meeting, revise your program outline as needed and make sure it is clear how the institution’s goals are being addressed. Draft your proposal and submit it for review of dates, participants, materials, and resources for which each partner is responsible.

Benefits of Art-Making Program for People who Are Blind

You may start with an overview of the three purposes of art:

Goals of the School or Community Center
How those goals can be incorporated into an art program.  Examples are cardinal directions, independence, and verbalization skills.

Who Is Your Audience?
What are the different types of visual impairments or other disabilities? Do they have previous experience with the arts?

Programming Possibilities
How many participants can we accommodate?
What is the length of the program? Is it a drop-in program or will you be able to have consistent attendance?
What spaces are available?
What resources and services are available?
Discuss the potential for field trips or outside activities. Can participants travel?
Is there space and resources for an exhibition of student work and/or an opening reception? This could take place at a community center or local library for the blind.

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Troubleshooting Tips

Harriet Lerner once wrote: "We can count on only two things ... the will to change and the fear of change. It is the will to change that motivates us to seek help. It is the fear of change that motivates us to resist the very help we seek." When we have so much to offer veterans and older clients, we may feel a combination of confusion, frustration, and anger if our help is refused. We may label a client "resistant" at these times, rather than explore the obstacles that prevent the client from working with us. In this session we will examine the etiology of resistance by examining the role of guilt and shame.

Physical Access: Transportation

Tips During Planning
Identify local resources, including the local Office of the Aging, a senior center, nursing home, adult day care center, and older adults in your community.
If possible, include older adults on your board of directors.
Plan staff training in partnership with local aging organizations.
Plan with access issues in mind.

Think intergenerational. Involve family members if possible. Increase contact, exchange understanding, express issues/experience of aging, opportunity for communication. Also, if there is recent sight loss, coping and communication of the person’s needs, and the role of family are all important.

Emphasis is also placed on studying creative intergenerational interactions and opportunities among children, young adults, and older persons that can translate into innovative program developments to benefit families and society as a whole.

Group size: be flexible. Because of healthcare needs, group attendance may fluctuate.

Take other disabilities into account; for example, many older adults experience some degree of hearing loss or mobility issues.

A simple way to engender support and enthusiasm is to start with short crafts projects, rather than plunging into a full-length art course. Such projects are especially welcome around the holidays, when you can offer one or two session activities that result in crafts people can take home. This will generate interest and help participants feel more comfortable with more complex programming.

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Funding Strategies: Low Cost. No Cost.

Low Cost

Modify existing seniors programs for people with disabilities including visual impairments. See our accessibility tools training for more information.

Fundraising concepts: organize/host festivals and auctions featuring works to support artists and your program. At your art shows, the money from the sale of artworks went to the artists.

Telephone conference courses are relatively low-cost programming. There are services that are free for the host institution, but require participants to pay long-distance charges. This may discourage seniors on a fixed income. Contact your local telecommunications provider; it may have grants for community service projects, and provide free or discounted service.

No Cost

If you use a no-fee provider, telephone conference calls are good options.

If your program is community based, try to find a free space to use, such as a room in your local library, a senior center, a community center, or an area church or synagogue.

Look into partnering with local groups that will fund the cost of art supplies, space, and/or transportation for program participants. Many communities have business and volunteer organizations that will provide assistance and support staff for worthy programs.

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