VISTA — A 15-year Navy veteran suffering from daily migraine headaches, lower-back pain and depression never imagined creating bronze and ceramic sculptures of pre-colonial African kings could be an effective form of therapy and pain management.
But after his early medical retirement from the military, Yeoman 2nd Class Reginald Green started to discover healing properties in art creation, exploring the basics of sculpting, painting and ceramics during his spare time.
“What do I really love? Well, I love art,” Green told The Coast News. “Why don’t I start trying to create my own instead of buying other people’s art?”
Green experienced a temporary repose from his reoccurring symptoms — likely side effects from an anthrax vaccine and years of active duty — by volunteering with various art projects, including recreational therapy services at the VA Medical Center in La Jolla.
Today, Green, 42, is an art instructor at Veterans Art Project, helping teach fellow veterans the therapeutic benefits of woodworking, glass casting, mosaic tile, ceramics, wheel-thrown pottery and bronze casting at the organization’s 5,000-square-foot studios in Vista and Fallbrook.
He also teaches classes at San Diego’s Aspire Center, a residential treatment facility for servicemembers.
“I like seeing other people heal and get a creative outlet,” Green said. “When I help other veterans sculpt and cast their own faces, I see them glow and it’s very fulfilling for me — being able to help other veterans and to create art. It’s the best of both worlds.”
As an artist, Green has created an impressive portfolio of ceramic pieces ranging from life-size face masks of Queen Tiye, King Tut’s grandmother, and Mansa Musa, a king of the Mali Empire, to figurines of historical African figures, such as Hannibal Barca (Carthaginian general), Taharqa (Ethiopian pharaoh) and Yasuke, a 16th-century samurai warrior from Mozambique.
The former Texas resident also created a bronze cast of himself in the style of a Moorish king using the lost-wax process (cire-perdue), a technique established more than 5,000 years ago by pouring molten metal into a wax model. Green and other veterans at Veterans Art Project learn this ancient casting process before hot-pouring bronze into molds at the nonprofit’s foundry in Fallbrook.
Green’s latest work is a ceramic interpretation of the Statue of Liberty portrayed as a Black woman. According to a summary report funded by the National Park Service, rumors have long circulated that the original model for the iconic American emblem, created by French artist Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, was a Black woman.
While the report cannot rule out the possibility that Bartholdi’s designed evolved from earlier drawings of Egyptian women, the researchers found “no corroborating evidence” the statue was “intended to depict Liberty as a Black woman.”
Regardless, Green jumped into the project, crafting a ceramic interpretation of the statue’s historical provenance.
“These stories need to be told,” Green said.
Steve Dilley, executive director of Veterans Art Project and art instructor at Grossmont College, started the organization after 9/11 to help returning veterans and active-duty military integrate back into the community by providing access to creative opportunities.
“If a (veteran) shows up at our door…we kick the door open for them,” Dilley said. “We are here for them. We offer the facility, material, instruction and a practice component. Wellness is created through practice – having access to a non-verbal means of communication is very important because people can visualize images, thoughts, feelings emotions
The program has proven to be a success. In 2019, Dilley said the program had about 400 participants. In 2020, the county’s Health Services Advisory Board presented Dilley and Veterans Art Project with the 2020 Community Inspiration Award.
But Veterans Art Project is more than just free art classes. According to Dilley, the key to success stories like Green is its therapeutic component, led by board-certified art therapist and instructor Jill Brenegan, ATR-BC, LCAT, who has been working with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury for the past 10 years.
Brenegan started at Veterans Art Project two years ago and she currently supervises mosaic art therapy classes. In addition to teaching art fundamentals, Brenegan facilitates a safe, confidential, group-therapy setting for veterans to practice social skills and process difficult emotions resulting from past trauma.
“This isn’t just clay, this isn’t just art,” Brenegan said. “This is really a place for veterans to come and connect with each other, feel safe and express themselves in a way that is more comfortable for them.”
The group’s funding model is a combination of state and federal grants, including partnerships with the National Endowment of the Arts: Creative Force, California Arts Council, Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission, Aspire Center and Veterans Museum of San Diego, among many others.
However, since the COVID-19 pandemic began last March, the program was forced completely online until the county returns to the state’s less restrictive red tier.
Despite the year-long setback, the Veterans Art Project continues to raise awareness and seek donors to continue offering its bronze casting and art therapy programs without any cost to veterans.
For the next six months, Veterans Art Project will be holding a series of virtual pop-up community art cafes featuring stories of veterans, art exhibitions and live workshops. The first virtual event kicks off on Saturday, February 27, in partnership with the Oceanside Museum of Art. Registration information for the online event can be found at https://pheedloop.com/VETARTcafewithOMA/site/home/.