For Some Veterans, Art Speaks When Words Fail

Nov 7, 2014

Wayne Williams and Adam Nilson are war Veterans. Even on United States soil, there are days when they feel far from at home. By creating art, they have found an unlikely way to settle in. They think it can help others too.

For Williams, who was stationed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the journey is 40 years and counting.

"Artwork to me is about expressing my deepest feelings, my fears, my encouragement in to self, the strong points in myself to keep pulling myself along," said Williams, whose current focus is documentary film.

For Nilson, enrolling in photography at the University of Colorado Boulder helped him move forward as he adjusts to life after serving in Afghanistan.

"It sets you aside from everyone else and it is something most of us carry within and don't really like to talk about," Nilson said. "It's why I've really fallen in love with photography because I am able to express things that I don't  really like to put in to words."

The pair are among a dozen Veterans whose art will express what they have yet to say. It is part of a new exhibit at the Dairy Center for The Arts titled Veterans Speak. A year-and-a-half in the making, the two week long commemoration of Veterans consists of visual and performing art created by and focused on servicemen and women.

"We wanted to present a very complete menu for our patrons, to give them the experience of understanding the world of a Veteran better," said Mary Horrocks, Dairy Center Curator of Visual Art and Education.

In the military both men had prescribed tasks and a clear sense of purpose. Civilian life isn't that exact.

Following his service, Williams, 60, said he worked a variety of manual labor jobs. A brain surgery in the 90s, required to treat a war-related injury, left him disabled.

Williams' creativity was encouraged by a nurse during a separate hospitalization in the 90s. Then suicidal he had little interest in her proposed project. Still, she presented him a white hat, a tray of paint, and a request – "just write something on it."

"And I did, I wrote something. S-O-M-E-T-H-I-N-G," Williams said recalling his rebellious act. "That gal gave me that hat and allowed me to be something."

That hat, which he has kept, serves as a reminder of how far he has come and the things he has to live for – his wife and sons, fellow Veterans, and his art.

Unlike Williams, Nilson, 31, has long been passionate about creating his artwork, although it was a hobby prior to his service when he was a firefighter. Injuries also left him unable to return to his job. He has come to realize photography is one thing he has to contribute.

"I'm trying to create a way to bridge the gap between Veterans and civilians," Nilson said, his own voice filled with emotion. "I want to give a voice to those who don't have a voice. Especially those we left behind. I feel I owe it to them to make the most of my life and to make life better for my brothers and sisters who are still here."

Some of the photographs Nilson will exhibit at the Dairy Center were taken in Afghanistan where he focused his lens on many of the Afghan people he met. He recalls children desperate for pencils and paper to use at school, working to ignore the gunfire just outside of the window. Another image shows a father pushing his young son in a wheelbarrow away from nearby combat.

"It was just one of those poignant moments of humanity that I witnessed over there," Nilson said. "And it really touched me."

Williams will exhibit four short films in Veterans Speak. Ten years and more than 100 interviews with World War II Veterans in the making, his work is part of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. For him, it has been an honor speaking with those Veterans.

"I go back as far as they can remember and I talk them home," Williams said. "I talk them back to today."

Neither Nilson or Williams likes discussing the physical and mental toll military service has taken on them. When they share, they said it's because they have learned it is good for them. They also hope it will be an entry point for those who have never served, which is the majority of the population.

Nilson said their minority status can make it difficult for many people to understand or feel comfortable around Veterans.

"It's important to remember that we're people too," Nilson said. "We're not these caricatures that we're often portrayed as. We're not ticking time bombs. I know that we're not dangerous to society because of our experiences, if anything we have more to offer."

Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, RMPBS and KUVO