Life moves fast; finding time to step away from the “how” of living and reconnecting with things that provide the “why” takes deliberate effort. A healthy human needs a certain amount of art in their diet, whether for self-expression, for reflection or simply for pleasure.
Fortunately, Colorado Springs has galleries, concert halls, clubs, theaters, statue gardens, libraries and more in ample supply — availability pending pandemic restrictions, naturally. And thanks to a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense, local service members, veterans and their families can be referred for art experiences at zero out-of-pocket cost.
The Military Arts Connection (MAC), administered by the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, offers arts experiences and classes facilitated by local artists. It’s part of the NEA/DoD/Department of Veterans Affairs-run Creative Forces initiative, which has pioneered programs for arts and healing in the military sector for the last decade.
Here’s how MAC works: Local military and veterans service organizations, such as the USAFA Airman & Family Readiness Center or El Paso County Veterans Services, can refer people for one of many arts experiences through the program, which range from private music lessons to cooking classes to photography workshops.
Participants must be referred — they can’t just sign up on their own. Those referred for art experiences pay nothing — COPPeR manages funds from a variety of supporting partners and pays artist facilitators directly. Participants need only finish an evaluation survey after the fact.
“The point of the program [is] really to allow military and veterans and their families to have this opportunity to try something new, connect with their family and community in a new and unique way, and learn alternative ways of expression — poetry, photography, whatever it is — that was not therapy,” says Erin Fowler, UCCS Veterans Health and Trauma Clinic clinical therapist.
While learning art may have therapeutic value, MAC isn’t art therapy the same way an exercise class isn’t physical therapy. It’s not about treating a specific need or difficulty. It’s about art as enrichment, as recreation and as a means of self-expression. Fowler says it’s also about the human-to-human connection, which gives MAC participants another familiar face in the community through an experience totally outside of military life.
“The variety of creative experiences that are available to the community is really rich and diverse and growing all the time,” says Andy Vick, COPPeR executive director. “We’ve taken a little bit of a beating from COVID, in that some of the experiences really don’t lend themselves to a virtual environment. ... Notwithstanding that bump in the road that COVID has [caused] us, it’s really been a wonderful way to engage and connect the arts and military communities.”
While the MAC program is only two years old, its roots go further back. As noted above, it is part of the Creative Forces initiative, which was started in 2011.
“The NEA has been piloting this notion of creative arts therapies as a way to help active duty and veteran populations,” Vick says. “About 2015, they came out and held a meeting ... at the Fine Arts Center, where they pulled together a variety of [local and regional] art entities — the State Arts Council was there — and the NEA basically said [they had] identified 11 communities around the country that have active military presence and a strong arts community [and were] interested in standing a program up here in Colorado Springs in conjunction with Fort Carson.”
As part of that, there is a clinical component to the NEA’s goals in each of the 11 communities — Fort Carson’s Warrior Recovery Center has a music therapist, for example. However, the NEA also wanted programs to connect arts and military communities in these 11 locations. In February 2018, COPPeR convened around 200 interested parties for a meeting of the minds, which defined local priorities and produced the earliest structure for MAC.
“Other sites around the country have their own community connections program that looks nothing like Military Arts Connection,” Vick says.
“There [is] so much richness here in Colorado Springs, and diversity of ... services that, for some of us, the military, we realized we were missing out on but didn’t have a clear pathway to connect,” says Damian McCabe, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and the former chief of the Child and Family Behavioral Health System for the region.
“And I think, conversely, there were lots of folks in the community wishing they had a more direct pathway to provide services to military families and veterans. [They] just weren’t sure how to negotiate this monolith sometimes that the military appears to be in terms of bureaucracy and red tape and processes and security and access and all that kind of stuff.”
In addition to making it easier for artist facilitators to connect to the military community, MAC gives them training for cultural competency. McCabe says that those outside the military often have a limited idea of what military life is like. It’s not a monolith — the backgrounds and experiences of active duty service members, combat and non-combat veterans, and their families all vary widely. When the MAC trains artist facilitators, the goal is to give them the tools to make clients feel connected and integrated with the community.
“I can’t think of a better community than our local artist community, which is also hugely diverse, to plug in and provide opportunities,” McCabe says.
What MAC offers, Vick clarifies, is not a lifelong pass to free arts classes in a chosen discipline. The experiences tend to be short-term, enough to let participants try something new without some of the logistical and financial obstacles.
“We want to spread the resources we have available around to as many people as possible,” Vick says. “You sign up for a block of four guitar lessons, great. And if you love it, and if your referring entity thinks you could benefit from another four, that’s fine.”
For someone like that, for whom a few MAC-backed guitar lessons have sparked a big interest, Vick says they’ll have the interest, the basic knowledge and the connections to keep going — in that example, to buy a guitar, book lessons outside of MAC and so on. If MAC leads a participant to a lifelong hobby, that’s a wonderful outcome — but the main goal of the program is to give service members, veterans and their families the chance to have an enriching art experience.
For more information or to find a list of service organizations providing referrals for arts experiences, go to militaryartsconnection.org.