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Stephen, Minn., exhibit to showcase homeless veterans’ art

Gary Anderson, left, and John Jensen hang art work by homeless veterans at the Stephen, MN, Community Center for an art exhibit this weekend. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Ellen McKinnon, left, of the Veterans Resource Group, works with Betty Pikop, president of the Stephen Arts Council, to display a collection of artwork by homeless veterans for this weekend's exhibit at the Stephen, MN, Community Center. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Sometimes art is the only way to express one's innermost thoughts.

Because the Supportive Services for Veteran Families provides homeless veterans with donated art supplies, those service members have been able to put their memories to canvas, giving them a chance to heal.

An exhibit featuring some of that art work will be 1-7 p.m. Friday through Sunday in the Stephen (Minn.) Community Center. The event is free to the public.

"The exhibit is important to veterans because many of them feel like they are alone and isolated and that no one cares. The art gives them a way to express their hurt, loss, grief, anger, guilt, pride and more," SSVF outreach specialist Ellen McKinnon said. "It gives them a safe way to tell a piece of their story. It gives them a place to start healing."

SSVF is part of a grant awarded to the North Dakota Coalition for the Homeless.

It provides financial aid for housing and other services needed by veterans in the program.

SSVF often collects the art pieces while doing wellness checks on veterans who choose to stay homeless.

McKinnon said many veterans, especially those with untreated PTSD or other issues, have a hard time adjusting to change. SSFV does not offer its full range of services to those veterans, but still tries to build trust with them.

McKinnon said a simple attempt at communication with one veteran, who finally communicated by sketching a crude picture on a drawing pad with coloring pencils, has evolved into the over 50-piece exhibit that it is today.

The majority of featured artwork is from Vietnam veterans, but McKinnon said some newer pieces are done by Iraq veterans.

Many times, veterans will complete 10 to 15 drawings or paintings, only to burn them. McKinnon said even if SSVF doesn't ever see or receive a final product, it's still an important process of healing and letting go.

Many of the show's pieces are haunting, and some are more political. There is an 18 and over section for the more graphic submissions.

Although they are by no means professional artists, McKinnon said the veterans are very capable at delivering their messages.

"They are really quite expressive," McKinnon said.

Past exhibits have elicited very strong reactions, McKinnon said. Many people cry, while some even get angry. McKinnon said it's interesting to see what details other veterans interpret that she would have never noticed.

"I think people come expecting to see a kind of history of war, but what they really get is the raw truth from someone who was there. They see a freeze frame of the veteran's memory at a certain point in time. They see the explosions, the rape of Vietnamese women, the torture and disemboweling of U.S soldiers, the thoughts of suicide and the guilt of surviving," McKinnon said. "They draw, paint and write what they know, so it can't help but to spark emotion."

As important as it is for veterans to express themselves, McKinnon believes it's almost as equally as important for the public to be reminded of the hardships they endured.

"People have become so complacent about the freedoms we have here in this country. They forget that someone fought for everything we have," McKinnon said. "It's important that we all remember the sacrifices, the tears and the hurt because it's human nature to forget something that doesn't directly affect us. We can't change our history, but perhaps one day we can make it better for the next veteran who comes home and faces the barriers that keep them from moving forward."

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