Art therapy opens up creative world for recovering soldier

While receiving therapy for a traumatic brain injury, wounded warrior discovers artistic talent he never knew he had.

Staff Sgt. Jonathan K. Meadows never had an interest in creating art.

A member of the Army National Guard since 2003, Meadows served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

It was during his most recent tour in Afghanistan that Meadows received a traumatic brain injury that affected his vision, cognition and fine motor skills.

While Meadows was in recovery, he began to sculpt clay figures and discovered that expressing himself though art opened up a well of creativity that he never knew he had.

“When I express myself like this, it gives me a sense of relief, release,” said Meadows, who’s been sculpting and doing other art for about a year and a half. “It just calms you down. You just go to another place and it takes away every other problem that you have, and you just feel good. And, then you’re just lost in the moment of making something. After you’re done with it and you make it and you see other people they like it. Especially, when you see somebody look at your work and then it means something to them. That means a lot. It really touches you. I get so much out of it.

Meadows, who is stationed with the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, shared his artwork along with other wounded warrior artists at the Nov. 20 Warrior Care Art Expo at the Pentagon.

Seema Reza coordinates art activities in the Department of Rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Fort Belvoir. That program works with the United Service Organization, The Art League and other community organizations to bring recreation arts activities to recovering service members.

“Our focus is on helping folks take the skills that they’re learning here and use them to reintegrate into the community and create community around it,” said Reza, who’s known Meadows for about a year. “Socialization, narration and being able to tell your story is half of how you can reconnect with your community.”

The program focuses on the wounded warrior’s treatment, whether inpatient or outpatient, by having them do writing and artwork. It also offers week-long programs at Walter Reed, the USO at Bethesda and the USO at Fort Belvoir.

“Our goal is for people to do it on their own,” Reza said. “Now we’ve led you this far and our hope is that you want to do it and you go on your own. And definitely, we try to create ways to make that easier. So we’ll introduce people through the USO. The Art League has had folks come out and teach painting through the USO, so then there’s a familiar face at the art league when they go off post. And so, creating easy ways for people to stay engaged and feel empowered to take care of themselves.”

According to Jonathan Meadows’ wife Melissa, she practically had to drag her husband “kicking and screaming” to his first art class.

“His first works were very rudimentary,” she said. “He was trying very hard to sculpt a Jesus and Mary sculpture and he worked hours to make this beautiful head for Mary. He said, ‘Look at this, isn’t it great?’ And I explained to him that the size of Mary’s head that the body had to reflect that, and he didn’t understand that because he was a lot more cognitively impaired then. I explained it to him and he got upset and he smashed Mary’s head.”

Realizing that her husband needed some time to calm down, Melissa Meadows stepped away for a while. When she came back, he’d completed his first soldier sculpture.

“He didn’t know where it came from, how he did it, because his vision is much more impaired,” she said. “Cognitively, his fine motor skills, everything was a lot more impaired and that first soldier sculpture came out.”

Much of Jonathan Meadows’ artwork centers around military themes — a soldier holding dying baby, a woman kneeling by a flag-draped casket or service member reading a letter from home.

“It’s helpful with my eyesight,” Jonathan Meadows said, of his artwork. “It’s helpful with my fine motor skills. It helped me to think more and just to do so much with cognition and things like that. So many different skills that are involved in art that a lot of people don’t know they’re using, but you’re using it. And it’s actually helping through a therapeutic way and it’s enjoyable. So, it’s a totally different way of helping someone.”


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