When M. John Green, a U.S. Navy submarine sonar technician for the past 13 years, says that art saved his life, it is not hyperbole.
Seriously injured while stationed in Guam, Green suffers from oppressive and chronic pain. Treatment for the pain led to an addiction to morphine and other narcotics, which in turn provoked severe depression and frequent thoughts of suicide.
In Guam, he recalled, “they told me I’d be on morphine my whole life.”
Good-naturedly and passionately chatting about his art, complex origami works created within the covers of old books, it is difficult to imagine Green as either depressed or suicidal or as a daily outpatient at Walter Reed Medical Center where he is finding ways to put together “the puzzle pieces to fix my brain.”
Standing in front of two of his intricate, folded paper creations, Green, 35, explained, “I focus on my art work so much that I don’t notice the pain.”
Green’s book origamis are part of a current exhibition at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton that runs through Aug. 13. Titled “360 Degrees of Post-Traumatic Stress,” it features the art works of service members “in transition” at Walter Reed and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital and “exposes an often unseen view of PTSD from every angle.”
Green’s experience with the healing powers of creating art is particular for every individual but not uncommon, suggested Eileen McKee, an art therapist at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, at the exhibition’s recent opening.
As a vehicle to express mental struggles with drug and alcohol abuse and the lingering scars of PTSD, “art gives them a way to communicate feelings,” McKee said. “Gives form and substance to things there are no words for … transforms something painful into something beautiful.”
She recalled with satisfaction an Army infantryman telling her: “I always knew how to destroy things; now, I know I can create things, too.”
An artist herself, a painter of both abstract and representational works, McKee, 28, who has a masters in art and art therapy from the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, urged exhibit-goers to look at the art works not only from a mental health standpoint but also aesthetically.
She said, “I’m a civilian; I’ve not had the experiences they’ve had. I’m honored to see what I can learn from them.”
Encouraged by his wife to pursue art as therapy, Green not only found a way to constructively escape his pain but also to develop a true lifelong passion.
“I never thought I’d be an artist. I surprised myself; I surprised a lot of people,” said Green who has sold some works and has written an instructional book so he could share his art form with others, including other injured service members.
Green, whose creative process is extremely meticulous, discovered in himself a special talent for envisioning the completed work at the very beginning of the process during which he scrupulously maps out his vision on graph paper.
“Uncomfortable with the idea of cutting up books,” his method, which takes many hours, is to painstakingly fold page by page. He explained: “As I crease each page and I am able to see what I planned and when it’s completely done, I say ‘wow’ that’s exactly what I saw.”
Now residing in Rockville with his young family to be near treatment at Walter Reed, Green mused, “Art has made a huge difference in my life. Without art, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Green’s strong sentiments about the healing powers of creating art are echoed in the statements accompanying other service members’ art works in the exhibition.
For example, Capt. (Ret.) Rina Shah, who served in the JAG Corps for seven years and deployed to Iraq in 2006 as an operational law attorney, described her art as “process driven.”
A D.C. native who now lives in Arlington, she said, “[I am] not trying to communicate any particular message but simply trying to find peace.”
One of her works is a mixed-media sculpture of a head wrapped in ticker-tape-like strips of paper filled with saying such as “PTSD makes you feel like your brain is mush and no longer works” and “PTSD is feeling life is not worth living.”
Using sidewalk chalk on paper made from combat uniforms as his medium, Marine Cpl. Joe Merritt, currently stationed at Quantico, has about a half dozen works—with titles like “Whispering in My Ear” and “Invisible Wounds”-- in the exhibition.
Deployed to Helmand and Farah provinces in Afghanistan during his seven years as a machine gunner with the Marine Corps, Merritt said art has always been part of his life.
Although in the past he simply used it as a distraction, “now,” he said, “I’m able to use my art to tell stories that words alone cannot explain. … I channel my feelings into it.”
U.S. Army Sgt. Linsey M. Siu, who currently resides at Ft. Meade, Md., deployed twice as a combat medic during her 12 years in the Army. She found that art therapy, which she began in December 2012, is the only thing that “will give you a second chance.”
Working in a variety of media and forms, especially quick-drying acrylic paint, Siu’s piece in the exhibition is a three-dimensional, mixed-media head with two faces, titled “Just Put on a Happy Face.”
She said, “Art is the one true thing that gives me respite from the anxiety and the PTSD that so easily overwhelms me. All in all, it gives me hope for a better more colorful world.”
The exhibit culminates with a one-night “pop-up” show in the Vulcan Gallery on Aug. 16, 7-10 p.m. It will feature prints on handmade paper newly created during a Combat Paper Project workshop at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir. Visitors to the one-night exhibit also will hear readings by service members and veterans.