Art collaboration helps homeless veterans
“Once proudly serving and so needed/Now looked upon with scornful eyes,” reads two lines from the poem “Kintsugi,” written by a veteran staying at Homes for the Brave under the pen name M.M.
A new collaboration is set to bring veterans like M.M. into the spotlight to develop and act out creative interpretations of their experiences.
Homes for the Brave, a transitional home in Bridgeport for homeless men who served in the military, is partnering with the Quick Center for the Arts at Fairfield University to create “War Stories: A Veterans Project” for Quick’s spring season next year.
“We (as a society) are aware that veterans are here,” said Quick Center Executive Director Peter Van Heerden, who is directing the theatrical performance. “But we don’t usually hear their stories as told by them.”
While war is visible in American society, its adaptations are not generally from people who have actually experienced it, he said. Van Heerden hopes the performance will challenge the audience’s perceptions of war and address their roles as civilians and in supporting veterans.
For the performers, Van Heerden said the experience should be therapeutic. He believes soldiers often return from war and do not receive support or care, so he aims for “War Stories” to be a chance for the community to support veterans and open up conversations about veterans’ issues.
“I think the narrative that veterans hold is very important,” he said. “I think that they don’t have a chance to share that narrative when they return from war.”
Van Heerden came up with the project because he wanted to use his background in performance to work with veterans. While previously working as the Westport Arts Center’s director, he began the WAC Gives Back program, which coordinates artists to teach art classes at Homes for the Brave and in other therapeutic settings, covering styles from graffiti to assemblage.
Veterans will audition for about a dozen spots in the production. They will be paid and professionally employed as actors to develop their stories this winter and perform them in early spring.
To co-create the production, Van Heerden tapped Westport-based artist Nina Bentley and Fairfield University English professor Sonya Huber, who teaches in the university’s low-residency MFA in creative writing program. Bentley will focus on visual artistic elements, including the set, while Huber will put together the final script.
Bentley knows Van Heerden from his time as WAC director, where he encouraged her to teach at Homes for the Brave through WAC Gives Back.
“I really, really enjoyed teaching,” Bentley said. “I enjoyed the men. I enjoyed the whole project.”
Bentley has taught art therapy classes at Homes for the Brave’s 655 Park Ave. location. The classes are among a number of life skills classes the home offers, which also include topics such as financial skills and cooking.
Homes for the Brave Communications and Outreach Specialist Katie Marinelli said Bentley shows “individual interest” in residents during her classes and becomes invested in their art and their growth. She has helped some veterans exhibit their work at the WAC. At one point, Marinelli said, residents thanked Bentley and her daughter by hosting a dinner they made. Homes for the Brave offered funding, but residents insisted on using their own savings to put on the dinner for Bentley.
“Their stories are amazing,” Bentley said. “So many of them are so creative, so talented and so hurt — hurt by the war experience.”
The assemblage artist said she has been closely involved with Homes for the Brave and encouraged and aided veterans there to continue their work outside of the home. Last year, Bentley had the veterans in her class do drawings of a dinosaur template while Stamford was looking for designs to be painted on large fiberglass dinosaurs to be displayed around the city. One man’s design was so good Bentley submitted it. He was selected and paid to paint the statue with an American flag-inspired design.
The chance to be paid “is just so validating,” she said. That experience can be empowering, she added, and make veterans feel like they can make their way in the world again after being homeless.
The act of telling their own stories, such as with “War Stories,” can also be empowering for the veterans, said Huber.
“The specific thing that they will take away could vary depending on the individual, but I think the ability to tell and retell one’s individual story can change the way that story is interpreted,” Huber said. “And I hope that each veteran takes away a sense of community support.”
Huber said when working with writers on a challenging topic, she usually tries to get a sense of participants outside of their most difficult experiences first. With the “War Stories” actors, she will first aim to build the group and learn about their experiences outside of war, so they do not feel the only thing they are interested in is stories of their most difficult moments or times of suffering.
She wants the men and women to know “that they as whole people are visible.”
“War Stories” recently secured a $10,000 Arts & Community Impact grant from the state’s Department of Economic & Community Development, which Van Heerden said will go first to paying participating veterans’ salaries. The Quick Center has applied to various other government and institutional grant programs to help fund the project, he said.
Marinelli said the combination of therapeutic and vocational benefits from “War Stories” has the potential to be “ground-breaking” for men and women as they shape their own stories while income can help them become independent again. She said paid employment in the production will boost veterans’ work histories and possible connections for future jobs.
Homes for the Brave residents have never had a similar opportunity where they will be both professionally paid and take their artistic work and stories to the community on this scale, Marinelli said.
Homes for the Brave CEO Vincent Santilli said the production has the potential to give exposure to the struggles homeless veterans face. He said the amount of talent in the home gives the show high potential, noting the poem by M.M. and artists that have blossomed in class with Bentley.
The team hopes to assemble a series of programming in town related to veterans’ experiences to complement the performance, Van Heerden said. Likely events include a panel on veterans’ issues, as well as an exhibition at the Fairfield Museum and History Center of Westport resident and artist Leonard Everett Fisher’s cartography work from his service during World War II.