GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – When veteran Mary Jo White is asked about her life of experience as an Air Force nurse and beddown commander, there are two places her mind goes. One is to her family – her husband, who died in battle in the 1970s, and her children, who never knew him – and the other is to a place to find peace. Both of those scenes share a story, and both can be found at Crandall Public Library’s second-floor art gallery.
“While I was flying in the 130s and picking up people from the sand and everything overseas, I just dreamed that there was a happy space,” said White, a California native veteran who now lives in the Glens Falls area, and who served in Operation Desert Storm and in critical stress management on Sept. 11, 2001. “It was always a calming thing to me.”
That happy space is represented in a work of magnet art on a whiteboard, depicting a hot air balloon much like ones that White – herself a balloon pilot – has piloted. It hangs on the wall of the library’s gallery, not far from another, made by her daughter in honor of White’s 23+ years of service. Those two are among many, spread across two walls and overlooking the library staircase, as part of the “Gift of Seeing the Unseen – Stand Strong” project.
The project is two-pronged. “Gift of Seeing the Unseen” refers to the whiteboard magnet art – some by veterans, others by the blind. The “Stand Strong” material is all by area artist Gregg Figura, using flag colors and other large-scale imagery to channel life in times of conflict in Ukraine.
Figura says the two halves of the exhibit go hand in hand. What bonds them?
“Definitely the idea that freedom is not free. That there’s a price to be paid for freedom, and it hurts,” he said.
The magnet art was originally conceptualized as a way to provide art therapy to the blind. Figura applied for a LARAC grant in partnership with the Glens Falls Association for the Blind, and in his own words, he wanted to teach the blind to draw.
“The president of the organization lifted up his eyebrows, and I could tell he was thinking that might be a little difficult,” Figura recalled. “But it was surprisingly easy, when I put my mind to it.”
The magnet art uses high-raised magnets of varying shapes. Blind and low-vision community members would build everything from self-portraits to penguins – many of which are in the exhibit.
From there, Figura was contacted by Cindy Roberts, a Gold Star Mom and organizer of the veterans’ community at VFW Post #6196 in Queensbury. She saw what Figura’s magnet art system did as art therapy for one group, and saw it as a perfect conduit for another – veterans living with PTSD and other forms of pain inflicted by their own time in service, and by those of family members.
The exhibit is full of works like White’s hot air balloon, which has helped her to depict something special to her experience as a veteran. Others, like Ken and Cathy Hayward of Granville, are not veterans themselves, but created their works of art as a tribute to relatives in the midst of their own battles – like the couple’s great-grandson, Chase.
“The last time we saw him was in November, and he threw a whiffle ball at me, and said ‘Catch, Grandma,'” Cathy Hayward recounted while indicating a piece of art showing the ball coming toward a pair of hands, along with several photos of Chase. “I didn’t catch it.”
Chase, at 3 years old, is fighting cancer. He is currently on the winning side of the fight, but remains in medical care. When Ken and Cathy told their great-grandson about the art project, he was quick to give a suggestion. The couple has family in military service, who they thought about depicting, but it was Chase’s fight – and his request – that won out.
“He told us to do something that was on our minds, and that we’re thinking about.”
The Haywards also created a piece of art depicting the log cabin home they built together, which burned down in 1990.
Art therapy is a meaningful tool for veterans living with PTSD, but it’s not the only one at their disposal. Sandy Arnold, who served 28 years as an Army nurse, depicted a horse from Dapple a Day, a program that connects people with PTSD and disabilities with therapy horses – creating bonds that leave much more than a hoofprint of impact.
“I have a problem with trust. With a horse, it builds up your trust,” Arnold explained. “Something we do with the horses is we do stimulus training. We build the trust between us and them; we open an umbrella above their head; we walk on plastic, so the noises wouldn’t scare them.”
Interactions with therapy horses have been important even moreso for Arnold, who struggles with health and breathing issues. When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in 2020, she isolated herself, fearing for her health, and her life. The horse – and its place in a public space – serve as a symbol of her rebuilding confidence in interacting with the outside world.
Figura is the facilitator of the veteran group’s artwork, and he has his own favorites. One depicts a group of trees poking out of the snow, created by a Pentagon employee who was present for the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. Figura says that the words he heard from the artist are ones he hears from many – to his great surprise.
“This person said they have no talent – and it is an incredibly stunning piece, I believe,” he said. “These people – 90% of them, 95% of them – they say they have no talent. They all have talent.”
Figura is hoping to help more people realize their talent – and tell their stories – using the same magnetic means displayed at the library. Next on his list are local groups with physical challenges, including limited ranges of movement. He also hopes to take the exhibit to Washington, D.C. and has been communicating with Senator Dan Stec, a Queensbury local, on the first steps to making that a reality.
When he looks at the magnet art and his own Ukraine-related work – which work started on five years ago, long before the Russian invasion brought the country’s struggles further into the public consciousness – Figura sees hope.
“There is hope, and there is a way through all of the things that we’re going through. The pandemic, all of these things. As we help each other, support each other and do things together, that’s shown through all of this.”
For those who want to meet the artists and hear their stories for themselves, the library is hosting an official opening for the exhibit at 4 p.m. on Thursday, May 19. The exhibit is open until the end of May.