“Pictures say so much more than words,” says C., examining a wartime recruiting poster at the Yale Center for British Art. “USA” is knitted into the brim of his stocking cap. He and other veterans visit the exhibition “An Indelible Mark: British Art of the First World War”. They are participating in an art appreciation program offered by the Errera Community Care Center (ECCC) in West Haven, a branch of the Connecticut Health Care System of the Veterans Administration.
C.’s remark goes to the heart of the program. Art, says Deborah Lehman Di Capua, the program’s creator, is “a way to talk about your experience without having to speak about your experience… Art creates a safe space. Errera provides holistic care for veterans struggling with mental health issues, loneliness, homelessness, grief and addiction. Although the center offers art therapy, this art appreciation program, funded by Artspace New Haven, is ECCC’s first. Di Capua believes that engaging with works of art, in conversation with other viewers, is a therapeutic process. By “looking closely,” she says, “you start looking at yourself. You begin to find your place in the world.
When Artspace announced its “wellness” theme for this year’s City-Wide Open Studios festival, Di Capua was intrigued. She had long pondered the “loneliness epidemic” that affects nearly half of Americans. Di Capua, an art and architectural historian and associate director of Fringe Projects, an experimental public art agency based in Miami, considers art “a beautiful bridge” between people. Aware that veterans often feel isolated individually and as a community, Di Capua believed that art could provide a “platform” to help veterans build relationships and engage with New York’s vibrant arts community. haven.
Husband of Di Capua, Paul Di Capua, MD/MBA ‘09, introduced her to her colleague David Rosenthal. Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Yale and Medical Director of the Aligned Care Team for Homeless Patients (H-PACT) for VA Connecticut at ECCC. “I saw the passion she had,” Rosenthal says, “I was the matchmaker.”
They pitched the idea to Debbie Deegan, Director of ECCCs, and Mary Sperrazza, Director of Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Centers and Professional Services. “I said, ‘It’s a great idea and I’m going to do it,'” recalls Sperrazza. Rosenthal and Di Capua sent their proposal to Artspace, which provided a grant for the program.
For two months before the launch, Di Capua visited ECCC twice a week to get to know veterans and ECCC art therapist, Valerie Drake. Di Capua was to be part of the clinical team, says Sperrazza, so the veterans felt it was “ok to take the risk”. Di Capua sent written invitations to veterans to join his group.
ECCC staff generally expect three enrollments in special programs like this, but 13 men and women have enrolled in the Veterans Art Fellowship program. Not all of them attended all of the sessions, but six or seven were regular attendees.
The group first visited the studios of New Haven artists: Gerald Sheffield, a veteran and 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 veterans often returned to the ECCC eager to show him 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, guided veterans through the current display of works by George Shaw and through the permanent collection.
Di Capua’s ideas of “looking up close” aligned with Friedlaender’s pedagogical approach. “We’ll watch and talk,” Friedlaender explained on the first tour. “The first thing is to describe what you see, not what you think is happening or what the artist is saying.”
Participants had a few minutes to sketch Shaw’s first painting – the best way, according to Friedlaender, to learn about a work of art. Two of the veterans were experienced artists. Due to his service injuries, J., who is in a wheelchair, has lost some dexterity in his right hand; he takes art classes at the VA to learn how to draw again. C. has not painted for more than 30 years, but, he reports, thanks to this program, “now I am back”. Some of his works now hang at the ECCC.
Friedlaender has offered his program, “Enhancing Observational Skills,” for nearly 20 years, but before that, never specifically for veterans. She and her colleague Irwin Braverman, professor emeritus of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine, developed the program for medical and nursing students. Friedlaender regularly hosts tours for students, residents, and faculty at Yale and Quinnipiac medical schools and area nursing schools. The program is required for first-year Yale 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 improves the visual diagnostic skills of clinicians, such as the study by Friedlaender and Braverman in 2001 in the American Journal of Medicine revealed.
The final event was the City-Wide Open Studios alternative space weekend on the Yale West campus. Sarah Fritchey, curator and gallery director for Artspace, guided the veterans through the exhibitions. Coincidentally, an artist they visited, David Chorney, was donating the proceeds of his sales to the nonprofit Hope for the Warriors. They lingered at the memorial to the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings, moved by the artist’s use of bullet casings to depict the violence. “The work paid tribute in a way that 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, the interest grows. Usually a new program takes a while, but this one got up and running quickly. Sperrazza hopes to find funds to keep the program going, for both newcomers and former members, who have formed close ties through art.