Shortly before Nolen Bivens retired from 32 years of military service, he noticed something about the soldiers at Ft. Hood, Texas, where he’d been serving as a Brigadier General over the Fourth Infantry Division.
The soldiers at Ft. Hood, he says, are often at the “tip of the spear” as conflicts arise, and through his interactions with the medical community on base, he came to understand that many of them were not taking advantage of available mental health services largely because of the stigma still attached to psychiatric care.
“I realized I potentially had service members who were going back into conflict without having readied themselves. If they were physically injured, we could see that and we could respond to it. In the case of these silent wounds, we didn’t know,” Bivens says.
He eventually saw a form of art therapy as a viable solution.
The former general, now living near Washington, D.C., is scheduled to tell his story in Kansas City at a day-long conference called Art Ease. The regional event will feature performers and speakers from several states. Bivens says it’s one of the first gatherings in the nation that brings together the arts and veterans communities in a way that will allow them to see how they can benefit from and contribute to each other.
Bivens, who is a writer, has long been a patron of the arts. He says it was serendipity that, during a large dinner event, he happened to be seated next to Bob Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts. The two struck up a conversation and stayed in touch for years.
After a great deal of thought and input from others, Bivens says, he started to see that involving veterans in the arts could be a good way, free of stigma, for veterans to begin to re-center themselves and heal.
He says art isn’t exactly meant to replace more traditional therapy, but they “discovered that if you combine a creative art therapist in that treatment program, many of the service members give us feedback that that is a critical component for them.”
Veterans who suffer from various invisible forms of trauma such as PTSD often have trouble with the verbal expression of their particular injuries.
“So,” Bivens says, “when you ask them to get involved in a visual arts exercise or musical exercise, they’re able to focus in a way on something that helps them without going through that communication piece, which is very difficult for many of them.”
Michael Donovan, executive director of the Missouri Arts Council, says Art Ease will be a “lively, creative, and moving” event.
Founders of various music and storytelling organizations are scheduled to present or perform, including Guitars for Vets and SongwritingWith:Soldiers, as well as Telling Project story tellers and the Freedom Endeavor Project.
“In a city as large as Kansas City, you have a large population of veterans who may feel isolated and unconnected with the resources that are out there,” Donovan says. “We need to make sure they don’t feel that and make sure they know there’s support.”
The hope of the Missouri Arts Council and the Mid-America Arts Alliance in bringing this event to Kansas City is to foster relationships between the two communities.
Sometimes art is initially introduced as therapy at a base hospital. And, Bivens points out, 75 percent of service members don’t live on bases but in surrounding towns, so if they discover or rediscover an interest in one of the arts during therapy, he says the transition to practicing the art out in town is organic.
He cites a veteran in Tacoma, Washington, who enjoys glass blowing. The man told Bivens that focusing his mind on something creative felt good, and seeing that he could do something with his hands other than kill was a relief.
“Being human, we do begin to think about things,” Bivens says. “If it wasn’t a traumatic injury that caused your brain to not connect in a way, or you saw something or you participated in something that was so unreal from the way you view the world that you have to get back to your center… years later they think: that was not me, that’s not who I am. And they try to reconcile it.”
Art Ease: A Regional Convening on Arts and the Military, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday, April 26 at the Kansas City Public Library, 4801 Main St., Kansas City, Missouri, 64112. $10, which includes a boxed lunch. Participants must register by April 23.