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Healing Veterans Through Art

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2018 - Autumn


“Pictures say so much more than words,” C. says, examining a wartime recruitment poster in the Yale Center for British Art. “USA” is knitted into the brim of his wool cap. He and fellow veterans are touring the exhibit “An Indelible Mark: British Art of the First World War.” They are participants in an art appreciation program offered through the Errera Community Care Center (ECCC) in West Haven, an affiliate of the Veterans Administration Connecticut Health Care System.

C.’s remark goes to the heart of the program. Art, says Deborah Lehman Di Capua, the program’s creator, is “a way to speak about your experience without having to speak about your experience... Art makes a safe space.” Errera offers holistic care for veterans with mental health, loneliness, homelessness, grief, and addiction issues. Although the center offers arts therapy, this art appreciation program, funded by Artspace New Haven, is ECCC’s first. Di Capua believes that engaging with artwork, in conversation with other observers, is a therapeutic process. Through “close looking,” she says, “you begin to look at yourself. You begin to find your position in the world.”

When Artspace announced its theme of “wellbeing” for this year’s City-Wide Open Studios festival, Di Capua was intrigued. She had been thinking for a long time about the “loneliness epidemic” that affects nearly half of Americans. Di Capua, an art and architecture historian and deputy director of Fringe Projects, a Miami-based experimental public art agency, sees art as “a beautiful bridge” between people. Aware that veterans often feel isolated individually and as a community, Di Capua believed art could provide a “platform” to help veterans build relationships and engage with New Haven’s vibrant arts community.

Di Capua’s spouse, Paul Di Capua, MD/MBA 09, introduced her to his colleague David Rosenthal. Rosenthal is assistant professor of medicine at Yale and the medical director of the Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team (H-PACT) for VA Connecticut at the ECCC. “I saw the passion she had,” says Rosenthal, “I was the matchmaker.”

They took the idea to Debbie Deegan, director of the ECCC, and Mary Sperrazza, director of psychosocial rehabilitation and recovery centers and vocational services. “I said, ‘It’s a great idea and I’ll make it happen,’” recalls Sperrazza. Rosenthal and Di Capua sent their proposal to Artspace, which provided grant money for the program.

For two months before the launch, Di Capua visited the ECCC twice a week to get to know the veterans and the ECCC’s art therapist, Valerie Drake. Di Capua needed to become part of the clinical team, Sperrazza explains, so veterans felt it was “okay to take the risk.” Di Capua sent written invitations to veterans to join her group.

ECCC staff typically expects enrollments of three in special programs like this one, but 13 men and women enrolled in the Veterans Art Fellowship Program. Not all attended all sessions, but six or seven were regular attendees.

The group first visited the studios of New Haven artists: Gerald Sheffield, a veteran and a graduate of Yale University School of Art, who uses his uniform and military materials in his work; architectural and landscape painter Chris Barnard, who also holds an MFA from Yale; abstract painter Rachel Hellerich; and stained-glass artist Ryan Cyr. Sperrazza says that the veterans often returned to the ECCC eager to show her and others their photos of the artists’ work.

For the next two sessions, they visited the Yale Center for British Art. Linda Friedlaender, the senior curator of education, led veterans through the current exhibit of work by George Shaw and through the permanent collection.

Di Capua’s ideas about “close looking” lined up with Friedlaender's pedagogical approach. “We’re going to look and talk,” Friedlaender explained on the first tour. “The first thing is to describe what you see—not what you think is going on or what the artist is saying.”

Participants had a few minutes to sketch the first Shaw painting—the best way, Friedlaender said, to learn about a work of art. Two of the veterans were experienced artists. Because of his service injuries, J., who is wheelchair-bound, has lost some dexterity in his right hand; he is taking art classes at the VA to learn to draw again. C. hasn’t painted in more than 30 years, but, he reports, because of this program, “now I’m back.” Some of his artwork now hangs in the ECCC.

Friedlaender has offered her program, “Enhancing Observational Skills,” for almost 20 years, but before this, never specifically for veterans. She and her colleague Irwin Braverman, professor emeritus of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine, developed the program for medical and nursing students. Friedlaender regularly leads tours for students, residents, and faculty from Yale and Quinnipiac medical schools and area nursing schools. The program is mandatory for Yale’s first-year medical students. Like Di Capua, Friedlaender believes that teaching people how to look at paintings is a good way for them to “learn the difference between objective and subjective responses”—training that enhances clinicians’ visual diagnostic skills, as Friedlaender and Braverman’s 2001 study in the Journal of American Medicine reveals.

The final event was the City-Wide Open Studios Alternative Space Weekend on Yale West Campus. Sarah Fritchey, curator and gallery director for Artspace, led the veterans through the exhibits. Coincidentally, one artist they visited, David Chorney, was donating proceeds from his sales to the veteran service nonprofit Hope for the Warriors. They lingered at the memorial to the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, moved by the artist’s use of shell casings to depict violence. “The work paid homage in a way that the vets appreciated,” Fritchey says.

The Thursday after the program ended, Sperrazza was surprised to find veterans outside her office asking if there would be an art trip that day. “Like any group here,” she explains, “when the word gets out, interest grows. Usually a new program takes a while, but this one got up and running quickly.” Sperrazza hopes to find funding to keep the program running—both for newcomers and former members, who formed close bonds through art.

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