"Art saved me."
A round of applause followed the introduction of Alfredo Hurtado before he took the stage with his fellow Black Box dancers Saturday morning.
It wasn't something the retired U.S. Army paratrooper originally thought he'd be doing -- dancing -- but he also didn't expect to be savaged by shrapnel during an Iraq deployment, after which he suffered.
Art, he said, saved him.
After the IED hit his Humvee in 2004, Hurtado said he endured physical and mental pain, which his doctors and therapists and medications couldn't entirely fix.
In 2010, suicide became a real possibility.
"I ached everywhere," Hurtado said, remembering the pain in his head and on his body the shrapnel left behind.
Music had always been an outlet for him but it felt like more of a distraction at the time.
"The place I was in, there was no room for art," Hurtado said.
His wife gave him a leather-bound book. Inside he created songs, eventually creating a CD full of music, which his wife insisted others needed to hear. That CD eventually led him to Black Box where he became a dancer.
He pushed through his body's pain, he lost 60 pounds and started focusing on keeping his body healthy in order to pursue this new part of his life. On stage Saturday, Hurtado moved with grace, fitting his body next to and around the other dancers who moved with him.
"I feel that I've come a long way," Hurtado said, smiling.
Like Hurtado, there are other military members in need of an outlet the arts can provide, which is why the Creative Forces Arts and Military conference was held at Coastal Carolina Community College on Saturday.
Gayla Elliott works with Camp Lejeune Marines doing art therapy and some of the masks these service members created adorned the hallways of the college. Some of the setups included two masks, and Elliott described one of the men's work during a panel discussion.
When he started the project one mask represented his outward appearance, a stoic solid black face with a concealed mouth that showed how closed off he felt he was expected to be. The other was more colorful and was dotted with question marks and other representations of his emotions.
Elliott said as time went on, the man started pulling some of the emotions from his internal mask and adding them to the face he showed to others. He told Elliott through art he was healing, and he felt more capable of showcasing those emotions instead of trying to hide them.
That is what art healing is all about, said Jane Chu, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Congress has seen the positive influence that writing, dancing, painting, and other expressions of art can have on service members.
"(Art) was noninvasive. It gave them their dignity," Chu said of service members who have found art as a outlet.
Chu said they're expanding their efforts across the country. Saturday was the first step for North Carolina.
"This is why this is such a big and important thing," Chu said of the conference.
Hurtado is an example of the benefits of art as therapy. Military members are trained extensively in their careers, but they're not trained for everything.
"We don't have training to be human again," Hurtado said.
"That's what art does."
Reporter Amanda Thames can be reached at 910-219-8467 or Amanda.Thames@JDNews.com ___
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