OCEANSIDE — Nearly three decades removed from battleship operations in the Persian Gulf, Oceanside artist and U.S. Navy veteran W.B. May said he still struggles with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But unlike so many men and women of the armed services, the Gulf War combat veteran has discovered a way to heal — through artistic expression.
W.B., 50, will have a special opportunity this Veterans Day to share his artwork with the local community as the featured artist for the grand opening of the Veterans Art Gallery on Nov. 11 at the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park.
The event will be his first solo showcase and a chance to spread his message of hope and recovery through art with other vets suffering from PTSD.
“From my experience, art truly saves lives,” W.B. said. “For combat veterans suffering from traumatic experiences, art is an outlet to express ourselves and to lose ourselves in our projects.”
The self-taught artist started painting when he was 29 and considers himself a lifelong student of the craft. Some of his primary influences are Dutch painters Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn and Italy’s Michelangelo Merisi da Carvaggio.
Last summer, W.B. and his wife Cynthia opened “Cynthia’s Artistic Expressions,” a gallery and art studio located at Oceanside Village.
The Navy-veteran couple said they spend most of their time at their Oceanside business, hosting community arts events, participating in veteran outreach projects and offering art classes to students of all ages and skill levels.
“(Painting) started with (W.B.) to help him deal with his own issues, but I watched his artwork grow and become really good,” Cynthia said. “If he’s benefitting from it, maybe someone else can benefit. That was the idea for getting the art studio and gallery open.”
By having a space to fully immerse himself into a particular art project, W.B. said he is able to channel his feelings of anxiety, hypervigilance and depression — symptoms typically associated with individuals suffering from PTSD — into a cathartic exercise of focus and creativity.
“Just empty yourself and then you’re done, man,” May said. “Don’t carry any of those anxieties with you, leave it all on the canvas.”
The result is a remarkable collection of oil paintings in vivid photorealism:
African women wearing colorful headpieces and bright, decorative jewelry; black and white oil portraits of couples intimately portray the sensitive nature of partnership and love; a Monarch butterfly pops into focus above a dreamlike background of blurry green dots, a technique known as “camera obscura.”
W.B. captures a living essence from his fictional subjects, breathing life, emotion and beauty into the canvas. And he said the constant workload keeps him busy and out of his own head.
“(Art) makes me a more effective teacher, more productive citizen and a better husband, friend and father,” W.B. said. “It helps me with all those things I want to be better at.”
Since 2001, over 1.5 million U.S. troops have served in combat and support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly 20 percent of those returning veterans meet the criteria for either PTSD or depression, according to a study by the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research
Dr. Manish Sheth, chief of psychiatry at Tri City Medical Center in Oceanside, said artistic activities such as painting promote mindfulness and help keep the mind occupied on details which can help mitigate symptoms of PTSD.
“Most therapists believe artwork is a form of mindfulness because it involves a lot of focus and attention and takes the subject away from those memories and intrusions they’d be having otherwise,” Sheth said. “At the end of the day, mindfulness helps them focus on something in the present, not in another world in their mind.”
Sheth also underlined the importance and impact of veterans with PTSD supporting each other and working together.
“If a person shares their passion and skill for artwork with others and how it has benefited them, it will have more value (to a veteran) coming from another veteran.”
The Veterans Art Gallery project is the brainchild of Ret. Capt. Sheldon Margolis, who has served as president and CEO of the Veterans Museum since 2014. Margolis chose to step down from his position at the beginning of November.
But Margolis said he is excited to see the gallery open its doors as the only permanent art installation exclusively featuring veteran artists.
“I wanted to make this into a place that would allow us to give back to veterans and the active-duty community,” Margolis said. “It’s a whole day celebrating and honoring veterans through different art elements and keeping with our concept of art for healing.”
W.B. plans to debut several original works on Sunday, including a large mural featuring a World War II-era fighter plane and a handful of portraits depicting military friends and family.
For those in need of help, W.B. said that he hopes they will speak up and reach out within the veteran community.
“A closed mouth can’t get fed,” W.B. said. “Nothing good can come from suffering alone. Seek help, talk to like-minded people or get involved in some type of mentorship. Just don’t do it alone.”
If you are a veteran in need of assistance, please reach out to Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-TALK (8255)