After seven years of service in the Marine Corps ended with an injury, Joe Williams felt lost until he decided to become an artist.
He quickly discovered that there weren’t many resources for veterans like him, who might benefit from art therapy or other creative outlets. So Williams began building his own networks, starting with a degree in sculpture at the Kansas City Art Institute, and eventually co-founded Operation Art and became founder and CEO of After Action Network, both of which help connect veterans to artistic and other resources.
“When I started getting into the art world, making my work and getting it out there, I really though the art world was this mythical, white-walled world,” Williams says. “It was actually the complete opposite.”
Williams says he met several veterans who were interested in following the same path but didn’t know the way forward. So five years ago, he set out to create a database in order to bring veterans together with people who wanted to help. His objective is to share the resources he’s found with other veterans in the metro area. Those plans are beginning to bear fruit.
One part of that project is The Armory, a new gallery in the Crossroads. It’s geared towards putting veterans in touch with artists, holding workshops, and creating a safe space for veterans to showcase their art work.
“Veterans are doing all this already. They’re doing paintings in their basement. They’re doing sculpture and ceramics. And it just sits in their basement. It doesn’t go anywhere,” Williams notes.
“To me, that’s some of the best artwork in the world,” he says. “They are finding a voice in art and they’re finding themselves in art.”
The new gallery had several soft openings over the summer, but to kick off the fall season, Williams enlisted the help of his former professor, sculptor Michael Wickerson.
“I love doing big outdoor sculptures, and Michael’s been a great mentor for me,” Williams says, adding that his old teacher can also be a mentor for other veterans. “He really taught me about metal casting. You might just fall in love with (it), but regardless it’s going to be therapeutic for you.”
The show opening on Friday, “Not Wanted On The Voyage,” is a multifaceted work that incorporates ceramic, bronze and wood sculpture, performance art and music. Williams says it is the perfect platform to display a diverse range of art.
The installation's centerpiece is the hull of a ship created with rough-hewn logs; interspersed with the wood are ceramic sculptures Wickerson created with his children.
Wickerson, who is known for the outdoor gallery of hand-built structures and live performances at his rural-seeming outdoor Wickerson Studios property in Kansas City, Kansas, says the goal is to bring that spirit into an urban gallery. He's brought in eight truckloads of raw wood, mulch and artwork, and invited musicians and other performers for opening night.
“It’s a theater,” Wickerson says. “And it’s like, 'Who’s going to write the play that fits in here?' The same rules apply as at Wickerson Studios: Come once for a visit, come back for an idea.”
The only difference is that it will all be taking place indoors.
“What we’re doing here isn’t any different than on my land, except that there’s no breeze blowing through, the sun isn’t above you and you’ve got synthetic lights,” he says.
Joining opening-night's makers are musicians Joey Watson, who performs on experimental ceramic instruments as part of the group SOLLUS, and Annelise Kinney, who plays the musical saw. A senior in the KCAI sculpture department, Kinney says Wickerson’s ship installation seems like the perfect place to perform her eerie music.
“We have so many stories about these strange sounds coming from the sea, stories about sirens wailing and beckoning ,” she says. “And everything here has been touched by a tool. You can see all of these cuts along the sides of these pedestals. The saw belongs there too because it makes those marks.”
Kinney, who often plays her saw during kiln firings on Wickerson’s farm, says the transformation of the gallery space is impressive.
“It feels like I’m transported to Michael’s land,” she says. “There’s an air about it that’s super unique. I think is super crazy and wonderful to have a moving vessel be a part of land.”
Surveying the work in progress, Williams says he's looking forward to the opening and a chance to share a favorite teacher with veterans just like him.
“Wickerson Studios is a fun playground," Williams says, "and one of my favorite places to be.”
The Armory presents “Not Wanted On The Voyage.” Open First Friday 6p.m. - 9 p.m. Regular gallery hours: Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., and by appointment. 527 Southwest Blvd Kansas City, Mo.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.