VISTA — Around the start of COVID-19, Navy veteran Vincent Coniglio became passionate about working with sculpture, finding healing and community, and guidance from a certain instructor after connecting with the Veterans Art Project in Vista.
When Coniglio passed away in January 2022, leaving unfinished the bronze-casted head he had spent months perfecting, instructor Reginald Green created a custom portrait of Coniglio in his unique sculpture style to give to his wife.
On Tuesday, after months of work, Green presented the finished piece to Karen Coniglio at the Veterans Art Project School of Ceramics and Glass in Vista.
Green, a Navy veteran whose variety of works includes clay sculptures and masks of historical African and Egyptian figures, only sometimes creates portraits of folks he knows in real life. However, he chose to make an exception in honor of the Veterans Art Project participant, who he knew as “Vinnie.”
“This is my first face portrait of somebody, but I said, ‘you know what, if I do anyone a piece, it’s gonna be him because he spent so much time on his [own art],’ Green told Karen Coniglio. “I really wanted him to have it and you to have it.”
Karen was deeply touched by the result — a relief sculpture of her late husband’s kind, smiling face, set against a deep blue background in a gold wooden frame. Images of seashells and fish are set in an ocean scene below, alluding to his love of fishing.
The piece even included glasses, similar to the ones Coniglio always wore, that were removable and attached via a small magnet.
“It’s gorgeous. I’m so thrilled to have this,” Karen said.
To Veterans Art Project executive director Steve Dilley, this interaction is a unique example of how the organization fosters support for veterans and their “ecosystem” — their spouses, families, caregivers, and community.
“These are the things that are happening organically, and I love to see them happening,” Dilley said.
Veterans Art Project, also known as VetArt, operates out of a 5,000-square-foot studio space in Vista, which allows veterans to engage in art trades, including pottery, woodworking, glass casting, mosaics, ceramics, pottery and bronze casting.
The organization used to also offer metal casting lessons to veterans at its foundry in Fallbrook, a space that had to be shut down due to a lack of funding. Instead, they have relied on a mix of federal and state grants from 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.
Funding specifically from the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission, or MHSOAC, has allowed VetArt to offer an “innovation project for veterans mental health and wellness through pop-up art cafes,” Dilley said.
Green started as a volunteer at VetArt in 2020. After a year and a half of dedicated work, he was hired as an instructor, giving him a chance to help other veterans discover the therapeutic benefits of art.
“People that are suffering from traumatic pain, depression, or whatever, they need an outlet. It’s free for veterans and their families — why not come out and try?”
His work was recently shown at the Yuma Art Show in Yuma, Ariz., and Pop Smoke, a show for veteran artists at the Oceanside Museum of Art alongside other VetArt participants. Green has also done outreach and art classes through Veterans Affairs and the Aspire Center.
For more information about VetArt, their funding and their classes, visit www.vetart.org.