Back in the mid-1940s, famed L.A. ceramicist Glen Lukens noticed young men returning from war with nervous disorders that left them unable to work or cope, so Lukens invited those veterans to come and take his art classes at the University of Southern California for free. Quietly immersed in their labor-intensive craft, the soldiers' once-obscured personalities gradually surfaced, just like the shiny glaze on the ceramic pots they fired in the university kilns.
Sixty years later, Encinitas ceramicist Steve Dilley had a similar experience. In the years after 9/11, he began noticing Marines returning to San Diego from Iraq and Afghanistan with anger issues, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. An art teacher who studied Lukens' innovative glazes in college, Dilley decided it was his turn to use his skills to help wounded veterans through art therapy.
"I never served, but my parents met in the Navy and I was always raised to respect and appreciate veterans," Dilley said. "I was noticing all these young Marines coming back and having troubles. You know, a lot of bad choices mixed with beer and a fast motorcycle."
So, with the support of the art staff at Grossmont College in La Mesa in 2009, Dilley offered military veterans free classes in ceramics and, later, bronze casting. Eighteen months later, he left Grossmont and established the Veterans Art Project, which since 2011 has helped more than 200 veterans, free of charge, at five locations in San Diego and Arizona. The entire program is underwritten by an anonymous donor who Dilley said is committed to helping other military vets like himself.
On Nov. 19, student and 15-year Navy veteran Reginald Green of San Diego was in the final stages of a bronze casting project at the California Sculpture Academy in Fallbrook. Under Dilley's instruction over the past few months, Green created a mold from a bust of his head that he embellished with the fanciful headdress, beard and eyeliner of an Egyptian pharaoh. Dressed in a heat protective suit, he poured 2,200-degree molten bronze into the mold, then waited for it to cool.
"I think it's a fine class," Green said. "I struggle with a little depression and a lot of chronic pain. Art is part of my method for helping me with that. It's a good outlet and a good program that more veterans should take advantage of."
Art therapy is not a new treatment for veterans, but Dilley said that the detailed technique of working with ceramics and bronze is especially good for troubled veterans.
"First, it's nonverbal, so you don't have to talk to anyone and tell them how you're feeling. Your work shows me how you feel," Dilley said. "Also, it's very process-oriented. It requires you to make a lot of choices and decisions every step of the way, so it keeps your brain focused. Also, there's an ambiguity to art. You never know how it will come out, and that's the same with the military. Making new discoveries as you go along is a way to find something within yourself."
Dilley -- who has supported his art vocation over the years through teaching and running a drywall installation business -- said he's seen miraculous transformations among his students, who have included veterans of World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars and more recent conflicts. No matter their age and time away from combat, Dilley said some of them are still struggling.
"Even if they've been back for a long time, we get a lot of guys who haven't unlocked their foot lockers yet, both figuratively and literally," he said.
One of his recent students was a female veteran whose PTSD was so severe, she was taking 17 medications and would only come to class when the room was empty and she was accompanied by both her husband and her service dog. But as her visits continued, she began leaving her husband, and then the dog, at home. Eventually she weaned herself off most of her medications and began attending class with all the other veterans.
Winchester resident Kevin Larsen, a 38-year-old Marine veteran who has attended Veterans Art classes for three years, said he's found release from depression while creating bronze sculptures at the Fallbrook studio. On Nov. 19, he was starting on a bronze bust of his wife by first covering her head in a plaster mold.
"By the end of the course, it's not really an art class, it's a whole process that allows you to focus on your art piece and not yourself," he said. "Everyone that has come into the class has experienced the same thing. I've seen fabulous transformations. Even guys from Vietnam who don't talk about their time in service have been able to let go of some things."
Dilley said his training is in art, not psychology, but he has seen a common thread in the emotional journey his students take in the classes.
"For many of these veterans, this class is like their first re-entry to society. It's the best time for them to have a good experience around other people," Dilley said. "Post-traumatic stress carves a road through the middle of your brain and doing art helps your brain regrow the passageways across that road."
The Veterans Art Project is now offering free classes at the California Sculpture Academy, Saddleback and Grossmont colleges, the VA's Aspire Center in San Diego and in Yuma, Ariz. In January, Dilley will add classes in Bisbee, Ariz., and at Lonestar College in Woodlands, Texas. In March, Dilley said he will expand the program to seven more campuses nationwide thanks to grants from the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. Course and registration information is available on the organization's website (vetart.org) or by calling Dilley at (760) 815-8868.
Dilley said running the Veterans Art Project has been spiritually and artistically fulfilling and he's grateful for the opportunity.
"I'm really fortunate," he said. "I get to use my degree, do art and talk to people all day."
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