October 6, 2016
By Aaron Skapik, Fellow
I see art as a valuable tool for anyone to express ideas, create conversations, and heal. For veterans, art can change their life by giving them a sense of purpose, giving them a platform to say something about their time in the military, and to heal through the therapeutic properties of art.
Two semesters ago the art department at Pittsburg State University offered a mural painting class. Having been inspired by murals I’ve seen of artists like Thomas Hart Benton and Michelangelo, as well as the murals near Route 66 close to where I live, I jumped at the opportunity to learn such fascinating craft.
After the class I was so inspired that I came home, took out a pad of sticky-notes and began writing down goals and giving myself small challenges to get me out of my comfort zone. At that point I had been ready to drop out of school and see if I could make it as an artist by selling my artwork. But the mural class made me stay. I decided to change my degree program from Art Education to General Studies and finish school by building a degree that would allow me to be an artist and give back to my community.
The opportunity to serve a fellowship with the Mission Continues helped bring my dreams from a sticky-note to reality. Now I’m serving my fellowship at Spiva as an education coordinator. While serving the fellowship I’ve had the opportunity to work as an artist, connect with and work alongside a large community of artists, and make an impact on community by using the arts as an educational tool.
The Mission Continues fellowship has given me the drive and platform to follow my dreams, create my own path, and do something I’m passionate about while making the world a better place.
Josie Mai, who is the Executive Director of the Spiva was a former art education professor of mine. We also worked on several projects together, like planning and hanging K-12 art shows in our galleries at the university. I admired Josie’s creative vision, drive, knowledge of art education, and her promotion of the visual arts in a community setting. She has also been instrumental in my healing by giving me opportunities to volunteer and interact with the community.
These activities get me out of my home and help shake off the funk we often get dealing with PTSD. I knew Josie would support me professionally and help me achieve to my highest potential in this fellowship while serving my community, so It was a “no-brainer” that Spiva was the right fit for me.
Art provides an outlet for me to escape from the symptoms of PTSD. It’s really a form of meditation for me because I can focus on the medium I’m working in, what I’m making, and nothing else.
Traditional therapy wasn’t a feasible option for me because of the distance I had to drive to be seen by at the VA and because I just didn’t respond well to it. In 2014, I began researching alternative treatments for PTSD and I found that art therapy has been used as an alternate treatment with great success.
Not long after that Josie connected me with a Marine Corps veteran, Joey Williams,who is starting a nonprofit that gives veterans a platform and empowers them to express themselves through the arts. Then I found there was a growing veteran art movement and started tapping into that community. I saw how the arts were bringing veterans together, not only to tell their stories visually, but to connect with one another and feel that camaraderie they often miss after leaving the military.
I helped lead drawing workshops at Spiva Center for the Arts with over 300 children from the Joplin YMCA and the Joplin Boys and Girls Club. Those drawings later became a collage that I helped design and now hangs in the Spiva galleries for the community to see. We held a celebration for over 800 residents of the East Town neighborhood and projected the mural onto the wall to show them how the history of their neighborhood would be preserved through art.
Later, we invited the community to help paint the mural and had over 250 residents leave their mark on this large-scale community mural. The lead artists’ graciously allowed me to help paint the mural which gave me the opportunity to hear neighbors have conversations and share history, on the sidewalks behind us as we painted.
We unveiled the mural on October 2 to the residents of East Town with the mayor of Joplin dedicating it. The Missouri Southern State University Jazz Orchestra provided entertainment along with a community choir singing gospels. The jazz band tied into an image in the mural that depicts the Duke Ellington Orchestra that played at Lincoln School thanks to prominent East Town residents also depicted in the mural.
The best part about creating this mural in East Town was forging a deep connection to the community. At the beginning of this project I was able to listen to stories and the history of the East Town neighborhood residents at mural design meetings.
This entire journey reminded me that we can all make an impact in our community by offering our greatest skills and talents. It’s just a blessing to be part of something so momentous and to see the truest sense of community right in front of you every step of the way.
Aaron Skapik is an Air Force and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran pursuing a degree in the arts at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, KS. Aaron has been married to his supportive and loving wife, Ashli, for just over 5 years. He is an artist and advocate for veterans and the arts. Aaron is currently serving his Mission Continues fellowship with George A. Spiva Center for the Arts in Joplin, MO.
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