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Local Veterans Find Hope and Healing through the Arts

Upcoming arts competition allows veterans to share their talents

Jan. 31, 2017
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It wasn’t too long ago that Willie Weaver-Bey and Jeff McNeil could have been written off as hopeless. The odds were stacked against both men in so many ways.

Willie Weaver-Bey had spent 40 years in prison. Although he grew up in St. Louis, when he was released he was given $100 and a one-way ticket to Milwaukee, where he had relatives he didn’t know. Weaver-Bey worked, but he was homeless, living out of his van and estranged from his children.

“I was sent here to fail,” Weaver-Bey said.

Jeff McNeil faced different challenges. McNeil drove an 18-wheeler but was in the grip of a 20-year drug addiction, in poor health and unable to walk.

“I was in so much pain I was in a wheelchair,” McNeil said.

Fortunately for both men, they were military veterans and sought help at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center

Even better, Weaver-Bey and McNeil, who have both struggled with post-traumatic stress, developed their artistic talents while at the VA, using art as a way to express and release their inner turmoil, turn their lives around and find peace.

In fact, Weaver-Bey and McNeil have undergone such dramatic transformations that both men are nationally recognized artists who won top honors at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Years after teaching himself how to paint while incarcerated to keep out of trouble, Weaver-Bey is now a first place-winning painter for his portrait of an African American vet, titled “Thank You for Seeing Me as a Veteran and Not a Homeless Man.” Weaver-Bey, then homeless, based his portrait on a photo he’d seen online and felt a connection with its subject.

"Thank You for Seeing Me as a Veteran and Not a Homeless Man" by Willie Weaver-Bey

“I did part of that picture in the back of my van on some cardboard boxes,” Weaver-Bey said. “And I did it with my finger. I didn’t use anything but my finger.”

McNeil won a top prize for singing when he competed in Reno, with a voice that will make anyone sit up and take notice. He said the song that most speaks to him is “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” because his mom had abandoned him “in a dope house before I could crawl” and his father beat him until he bled.

“I would sing because that was the only place I would receive love, when I sung in front of an audience,” McNeil said. “When I stepped out in Reno, [in front of] five or six thousand people, it was like all of the love I had been missing.”

‘Art is What Saved My Life’

Both men credit the VA for helping them heal physically, emotionally and spiritually—and for allowing them to nurture their artistic talents.

“Art is what saved my life,” Weaver-Bey said.

They’re encouraging other military veterans to get involved in the next arts competition at the local level at the Milwaukee VA as a stepping stone to the nationals. Visual artists will compete on Feb. 27, while the performing arts competition will be held on March 2. Local winners can compete at the national level. From there, selected first-place winners will showcase their talents at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Buffalo, N.Y., from Oct. 23 to Oct. 29. 

Participants can compete in 51 visual arts categories and 100 performing arts categories, ranging from painting and leatherwork, metalwork and paint-by-numbers kits to singing, creative writing, drama and dance.

The competition is open to the 79,000 veterans who are enrolled at the Milwaukee VA or its clinics, said spokesman Gary Kunich, even if they aren’t receiving care at the VA. 

And veterans who want to participate, but not compete, are welcome too. 

“We know there’s a ton of talent out there and we want to recognize those people,” Kunich said.


‘I Found a Home, I Found Family’

Kunich said the VA has robust, holistic mental health services that include art and music therapy, as well as equine therapy. Vets can work with a therapist and also in a group with other veterans.

“People don’t always know about our program and the wonderful work that it can do, especially for veterans with post-traumatic stress or military sexual trauma,” Kunich said. “It’s just incredible. It’s a way to have them express themselves.” 

Shep Crumrine, who heads the local VA’s recreational therapy program, said the arts allow veterans to focus on the here and now—not on the past, which can lead to depression, and not on the future, which can create anxiety.

“If you have been living in the past or you are anxious about the future and you practice that over and over again, again there’s this automatic emotional, physical and psychological response that’s always going on,” Crumrine said. “When you engage in the arts, you can’t help but think about right now, where you are. So you begin to practice being present.”

The sentiments expressed in music and other art forms can also trigger new insights in those struggling with emotional trauma.

“An innocent piece of music—it seems like an innocent piece of music until all of a sudden you connect with it and there’s emotion with it and there’s memories with it and all of a sudden it’s not the same.” Crumrine said. “It will never be the same piece of music.” 

For Weaver-Bey, who displayed 50 of his 10,000 paintings in the “From Prison to Portraits” exhibit at the Milwaukee VA to promote the arts competition, losing himself in his painting helped him to achieve peace. He aspires to teach art therapy to his fellow veterans to show them how it can be done. 

“I would just paint for hours and hours and hours,” Weaver-Bey said. “And I found out that it was a release from all of that anxiety and the anger that I had bundled up inside. Now I’m at peace and I want to be able to share that peace with others in the community.” 

McNeil said participating in the arts competition has helped him become more accountable in his sobriety, since he knows he can’t compete if he relapses into addiction and disappoints those who love and support him at the VA. 

“When I went to Reno, singing on stage, the largest stage in the world, changing in a dressing room that Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra changed in, it changed my perspective,” McNeil said. “It made me want to be accountable for my word. … But [being] here at the VA with PTSD and being in the Creative Arts Festival, it helps me to be more accountable for all my actions, because it’s something that I’ve got to look forward to. It’s like I found a family here at the VA. I’m here in Milwaukee with no family. I found a home, I found a family here.” 

To learn more about the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival and the local competition, call 414-384-2000, then the following extensions: Creative Writing and Drama—Christine Wiggin, ext. 41685; Music and Dance—Sandi McCormick, ext. 41988; Art Show—Marisa Straub, ext. 41976; Rene Burgoyne, ext. 46575; or Kris Kulas, 41688.

To learn more about the VA’s art therapy program, call 414-384-2000, ext. 41976.


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