Art therapy helps veterans communicate feelings and emotions

Vets often struggle to connect with outside world
Posted at 5:37 PM, Sep 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-15 19:56:27-04

Veterans with mental illness or PTSD may struggle to express their feelings.

For one local Vietnam veteran, the solution is a canvas and paintbrush.

Willie Weaver-Bey spent 40 years in prison after serving in the Army.

When he got out, he struggled to reconnect with the outside world, but through color and paint, he found a way to share his life experiences.

"There's nothing more rewarding than finishing a painting," Willie said.

Each piece of artwork Willie does tells a story, like the one he did of a man holding up a note that reads, "Thank you for seeing me as a veteran and not a homeless man."

"That was a turning point in my life because I was homeless at that time (after being released from prison)," Willie said. "I was living in a van and it was cold."

His passion began in the early 1990s when he met an inmate who was an artist.

"One day I was bugging him and he gave me a canvas board, five primary colors and some old brushes that were on their last legs and he told me to get lost," Willie said.

He took those tools as an opportunity to be productive behind bars.

"I did my first picture and got laughed at but that inspired me to keep going," Willie said. "Each one of these pieces tells tells a story in my journey toward getting back to freedom. 95-percent of the stuff I've done was created while I was incarcerated in a cage."

His most prized piece of artwork is a panting of a teardrop which he was able to create using a potato bag that he got from a kitchen in prison.

He also paints portraits of people like Harriet Tubman and Ray Charles.

However, some paintings hit closer to him like the one he did of an elderly woman dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"The eyes are chilling in that piece because it tells the story of all that she went through and that's been the story of my life, Willie said. "I've been through a lot."

Marisa Straub, an art therapist at the Milwaukee VA, met Willie after he got released.

"What we really try to focus on is encouraging the veterans to use the art materials as a tool to help them communicate and express the things that they hold inside them, the things that are difficult to talk about," she said. "Willie is an inspiration."

Straub also describes Willie as a role model for other veterans.

"Once I learned how to finish something, I've never started anything else in my life since then that I don't finish," Willie said.

Right now, Willie only paints and draws for fun, but says he would eventually like to open an art studio. At this point in time, he doesn't have the money to do so.

He also displays his artwork at festivals and across the nation.

Only about half of the VA centers across the nation have art therapy classes which not only help veterans with PTSD, but also substance abuse issues.

If you are a veteran and would like to learn more information about the VA's art therapy program, call 414-384-2000 ext. 41976 or click here.