Life in art: Veterans and the community

Art can be a lot of different things, for some it’s a means of expression, for some it’s a means of finance, for others it’s a way to heal.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1

Artist Jim Stevens poses for a photo inside the VFW Post 1 during a call for art on April 8, 2017, Denver, Colorado. VFW Post 1 is a veteran ran art gallery on the Santa Fe Art District. Photo by Carl Glenn Payne • cpayne16@msudenver.edu

Using art as a way of working through a traumatic experience has been proven over the years to be valid and effective. Perhaps there’s no one that understands that better than the folks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1 located in Denver’s Santa Fe Art District.

On Saturday, April 8, an open house was held in an effort to welcome new artists to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, as well as showcase the work of existing members.

Founded in 1899, the John S. Stewart Post 1 is the first VFW Post established in the entire nation. Though the VFW remains every bit as dedicated to its founding mission statement to, “honor the dead while serving the living,” they also feel it’s equally important to never become exclusive all unto themselves. Instead they always offer services to non-military members of the community as well.

Jim Stevens, who serves as not only the Arts Council Director, but as an accomplished artist, explained that their space stands apart from most common perceptions of what a VFW can be.

“In our gallery 80 percent of all the art in here is done by veterans, 20 percent is by non-veterans, community artists, and we did that because we wanted to be good neighbors,” Stevens said.

Being the international award winning artist and author that he is, it’s more than fair to suggest Jim knows a thing or two about being a professional artist. That’s why it remains essential to him that the VFW never become a bar for veterans to drink and commiserate over painful memories. Though he recognizes there’s a time and a place for commiserating, he’d like to see their venue continue to provide more than just a place for recovery from the past but an opportunity for the future.

“We work with artists who are at a point in their development where they’re good enough to let the public see their work and what we want to do is help those individuals move forward into a career as an artist. We want to be that next step, whether a veteran’s working their way through PTSD or just working their way to try and be a better artist, we want to be that next step of having their work seen and sold,” Stevens said.

Every available space on the walls is occupied with art, but immediately upon walking through the doors it’s hard to deny that one piece stands alone, at 12-feet tall. It’s Rod Ford’s robotic sculpture titled “PTSD”. Both nationally and internationally recognized for his work, Rod has been commissioned by NASA, Johnson Engineering, International Robotics NYC, Vogue Magazine, Elitch Gardens, Industrial Computing Magazine, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science just to name a few.

Having served in Vietnam, Rod said the inspiration for his giant robots came to him while returning home from war. After making a few smaller models from bronze he thought it might be an interesting idea to build life-sized replicas. Though it took a year to build the first one, it took three years to just collect all of the machinery, due to Rod’s strict rule of only using throw away materials because he feels he and his fellow veterans aren’t much different.

“I only use throw away materials because with being in the military we were once throwaways, too, so now that’s the only material I’ll use. Art work is the best kind of therapy there is because you can take that focus off the negative and put it into something positive,” Ford said.

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