In the sculpture at the Art League’s Impart ceramics exhibition, twisted, chunky plumes of dark clay emerge from the top of a man’s head. The face grimaces in torment; the shapes are swirling, grotesque.
“They’re demons,” said Jon Meadows, who made “Headache.” “I wanted to do demons blowing out of its head. Because everyone’s got things in their head they’re trying to get out. Headaches, anything. You know?”
“Headache” is one of 25 pieces on view in the Impart program’s first exhibition on display at the Alexandria Art League’s Torpedo Factory gallery. Impart, an acronym for injured military personnel art, is a collaboration between the Art League and Fort Belvoir military base offering studio time and instruction in ceramics every Wednesday afternoon for recently injured military personnel in Fort Belvoir’s Wounded Warriors program. Few of the six to nine participants the program draws each week — eight have pieces in the exhibit — have backgrounds in art, and most had never worked with clay before.
Meadows is recovering from a frontal-lobe traumatic brain injury he suffered in Afghanistan in January. He said his doctor at Fort Belvoir was hesitant to allow Meadows’s participation in Impart, fearing it would be too much strain. “He wasn’t sure because of how bad I was at first,” Meadows said. “But he knew I loved it, so he let me keep exploring it.” After his doctor saw the sculptures, Meadows said, “he was blown away. He said it opened up a channel for me.”
The Impart program started 18 months ago, driven by Art League Executive Director Suzanne Bethel’s belief in the importance of visual art as an expressive catalyst for survivors of injuries. Bethel approached officials at Fort Belvoir, along with Art League volunteer and former military personnel Carla Amerau, hoping to create a program that would give recovering veterans a chance to make art.
“Part of the reason why I felt that this would be an extraordinary catalyst for this particular group is the number of people that have come up to me that have gone through battles with cancer, who’ve lost limbs or who’ve gone through traumatic brain injury, who have said that expressive catharsis has meant the world to them,” Bethel said. “We can do that here. And we can do it through art.”
Impart’s success has led to another Art League collaboration with Fort Belvoir’s United Service Organization, which provides art instruction on base for patients from the Fort’s Unit D, which treats returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Art League ceramics chairman Blair Meerfeld, who runs the Impart program, said working with clay helps veterans overcome some of their special physical challenges. “It’s a very complete medium — you have the aesthetic consideration that you do with painting and drawing and photography, but you also have the physical challenge of making it work and making this stuff stick together, and firing it so it doesn’t collapse,” Meerfeld said. “There’s a lot of physicality involved.”
Meerfeld said participation in the program was hit-or-miss at its inception, but eventually, a close-knit group of regulars emerged: “The beauty is, I knew we had a program when we had continuity. When they came back [the following week], and they couldn’t wait to get back. And now when I get a text from someone on a Thursday [the day after a session] that they’re enjoying a restaurant somewhere, it’s like: ‘Yeah. We’re family now. This works.’ ”
The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 5, drew a crowd to the Art League’s gallery at its opening reception last week. Visitors included Veterans Affairs Department Chief of Staff Joe Riojas and Meadows’s congressman, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.). Flanked by a number of her husband’s therapists who had come from the base for the opening, Meadows’s wife, Melissa — also a transitioning veteran with work in the exhibit — praised Impart’s role in her husband’s recovery.
“The Art League has been a godsend. It really has been,” she said. “He’s improved so much. It’s been a relaxing way for him to express himself.”