Veterans participate in pilot art program at USF

When Michael Congdon was finishing his stint in the U.S. Army, he and his wife Nicole weren’t sure where they wanted to live. So Congdon literally threw a dart on a map to help them decide.

The dart landed in the central part of Florida.

“It just really fit everything we wanted,” says 39-year-old Congdon, a former sergeant first class who has been finding new opportunities in Tampa Bay.

He had been working as a recruiting instructor in Columbia, S.C., when his career came to an abrupt end after breaking an ankle and tearing multiple ligaments while training others. So after a bit of research to help them fine-tune their plans, they packed their bags and moved about four years ago. U.S. Army vet Michael Congdon is participating in the Breaking Barriers program.

Now a Port Richey resident, Congdon is one of 15 veterans participating in a pilot Breaking Barriers veterans/art project at the University of South Florida, where he’s now learning a new career.

“I never in a million years thought I’d be an artist,” he says.

He originally enrolled in business classes at Hillsborough Community College, but a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Veterans Administration, Paula Sincil, suggested a drawing class as a creative outlet.

“Under the program, their goal is to rehabilitate you for civilian service in some shape or form,” he explains.

Art was fun -- and Congdon did well. HCC drawing instructor on the Ybor City campus, Edgar Sanchez-Cumbas, recognized his talent and mentored him. So he went on to pursue his bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts at USF.

Congdon’s main medium is photography. Through some of his pictures, he seeks to open a dialogue about mental health issues, helping to remove the stigma associated with them.

He’s also interning as a photographer for the USF football team.

The Breaking Barriers program became a reality after the University of Florida's Center for Arts in Medicine invited three museums statewide -- USF's Contemporary Art Museum, the Harn Museum of Art-UF, and the Lowe Art Museum-Miami -- to develop an art program for veterans and their families. The goal of this Museum on Call project was to form a consortium of museums to serve veterans and connect them with community-based art experiences.

Breaking Barriers consists of three phases: a five-week art workshop, an arts museum component, and an exhibition, says Leslie Elsasser, Curator of Education at USF’s Contemporary Art Museum

 “We really developed something, from the ground up, relevant to the USF community and the Tampa Bay community,” Elsasser explains.

“We were not going to offer therapy per se, but something to connect veterans with the community as an arts-based initiative,” adds Elsasser, a painter who makes her own water-based pigments.

Elsasser is collaborating on the project with Delores Coe, Curator, at USF Art in Health Programs, Contemporary Art Museum/Institute for Research in Art.

“For this project, what we wanted to do is provide the access, the instruction, the engagement in the process,” explains Coe, “knowing that the participant will take that in their own direction and use it.” A photograph Michael Congdon made for the workshop.

What distinguishes this from art therapy is that it’s the art itself -- and not therapy -- that matters, Coe points out.

“In what we’re doing, the art-making is important. It’s not the residue,” explains Coe, an abstract oil painter with a mental health counselor background.

There are benefits the come just from the process of creating art. “We know as artists that, when you engage in the process, you gain benefits of anxiety reduction, of focusing on something beyond the immediate,” she says. “We know that it opens up a toolbox and vocabulary for all kinds of self-expression.”

The workshop kicked off with a photography course taught by Jim Reiman of The Art Institute of Tampa, which covered basic techniques and tools.

The program also ties into the Contemporary Art Museum’s August 20-December 8 exhibit, “Miki Kratsman: People I Met,” a former press photographer who has chronicled life in Israeli-occupied territories. 

On Wednesday and Thursday, December 12 and 13, the program concludes with the Contemporary Art Museum exhibition, which will include two images from each participant. The event, which is free and open to the public, includes a reception from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the 13th.  

“The big hope is that right away we can share the model and support other entities in doing this,” Coe adds.

What’s next for the program at USF?

“When the exhibition is up in December, then we can look at what are the possibilities for continuing,” Coe says. “It’s a viable model.”

Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. 
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