20 May 2015

Notes from a Veterans-in-the-Arts Symposium

MEA2 event organizer Jason Poudrier, MEA founding president Travis L. Martin, and
current MEA president David. P. Ervin celebrate a successful veterans-in-the-arts
symposium  conducted May 14-17, 2015 at Cameron University, Lawton, Okla.
PHOTO: Military Experience & the Arts
More than 100 military veterans, writers, artists, scholars, therapists, and others assembled in the second Military Experience & the Arts Symposium (M.E.A.2.) May 14-17, 2015. The event was held at Cameron University, Lawton, Okla., near the Fort Sill military installation. Participants attended nearly 75 workshops, performances, meet-ups, and seminars on the communication of military experiences through expressive arts, including music, writing, dance, painting, and more.

The first such event was held 2012 in Richmond, Ky. Each symposium has been under the banner of Military Experience & the Arts, a Kentucky-based non-profit organization.

News reports about the event included this broadcast from ABC affiliate KSWO-TV Channel 7: "Veterans Create, Display Art." (See text, video at link.)

The Cameron campus was lush and green, the dirt red, and the weather relatively cool and blustery. (Wind conditions kept me off the on-campus disc golf course.) The region has gotten plenty of rain this year, and flash flood concerns were often as high as local waterways. Some friends from Wisconsin had to find hotel rooms at the last minute, after the cabin they'd reserved on Fort Sill turned about to be high and dry, but surrounded by a moat impassible to anything but tactical vehicles.

Still, to update that old Army saying about the weather and training: "If it's raining, we're still painting!"

While it was impossible to participate in every workshop or experience, I hope the following notes provide some sense of the talents and topics available at MEA2.

DAY 1:
Saw lots of friends from MEA1. Met friends I didn't know I knew already. ("Who I am depends on who you are and where we are ...") Met entirely new friends. Even friends who'd said they'd gotten published via venues identified at the Red Bull Rising blog. Oklahoma, in short, is a very friendly place. 
In the evening, former Marine and poet Suzanne Rancourt read from her work in a theater setting, and made me cry. And then, former Marine Roman Baca's Exit 12 Dance Company took the stage, and performed a ballet about motherhood and separation and deployment. They also made me cry. 
When the lights went up, the mother who commissioned/choreographed the piece was suddenly in the audience, as well as one of her two sons, who is stationed at nearby Fort Sill. And later, the troupe re-purposed a dance to an impromptu Native American flute performance by Albert Gray Eagle
"Magic" does not adequately describe all this.
DAY 2:
Made DIY comic books with Steve Gooch and Marc DiPaolo of Oklahoma City University, then learned about contemplative photography from Buddhist and Army veteran Tif Holmes from the non-profit Engage the Light of Lubbock, Texas. 
Wrote about the homefront through prompts suggested by Amber Jensen of South Dakota State University, a writer and Army National Guard family member, whom I first met back at Great Plains Writers' Conference 2014
Then, dinner with the jazz musicians of 77th Army Band ("The Pride of Fort Sill!"), followed by provoking insights about Military Sexual Trauma issues from Miette Wells, Phd., an Air Force veteran. 
Finally, video presentation from Ben Patton, grandson of WWII Gen. George S. Patton, and founder of "I Was There" Film Workshops. The latter uses digital film-making as a collaborative therapeutic intervention for people diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
So much energy here! So many sparks!
DAY 3:
Got the gouge on self-publishing from MEA president David P. Ervin (author of "Leaving the Wire: An Infantryman's Iraq"), then learned about flash non-fiction techniques from Rob Roensch of Red Earth MFA in Creative Writing at OCU. 
After lunch, Tara Leigh Tappert of The Arts and the Military blew my mind by academically connecting the Arts & Crafts movement with the origins of occupational therapy as a profession, and the establishment of craft shops U.S. military installations in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Scholarship like that puts veterans and arts organizations such as MEA into historical context. "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again." 
Evening performances included readings of flash fiction by Veterans Writing Project Managing Editor Jerri Bell (from whom I learned lots of new sailor slang. Household-6 will be very pleased), and physical comedy (Masks! Mime! Puppets! Juggling!) from Hoosier Doug Berky. Berky's re-telling of the Korean fable, "The Tiger's Whisker," is a family-friendly tale of one family's journey of healing from PTSD. I hope to invite him to Iowa someday.
Bottom line: The Military Experience & the Arts Symposium 2 provided a unique opportunity to exchange insights on expressive arts techniques, tools, scholarship, advocacy, and healing on veterans issues—and encouraged veterans, students, educators, and arts practitioners to try new things.

Godspeed, and God bless! I can't wait to see what happens next!

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