Week Eight Brings Artistic Therapy for Wounded Veterans

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Chautauqua Institution taught Ermyn King the arts have healing powers.

She will share that knowledge this week in her Special Studies class “Arts and the Military.” The class, which costs $70, takes place from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday in Turner 105.

There are innumerable research findings that confirm that arts programming and creative arts therapies can make patients, including wounded veterans, more resilient, able to cope better, decrease their need for pain medication, increase their self-esteem and generally get patients out of the hospital sooner, King said.

“With these recent wars, there are over 50,000 people who have been wounded in combat with visible injuries,” King said. “Not to mention even the invisible injuries. These are very serious and historically unprecedented injuries.”

Out of those 50,000, more than 1,700 Americans lost a limb in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, King said. Invisible injuries, including traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, affect one out of three Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, she said.

Explosive devices and sniper fire in those recent conflicts have left approximately 16 percent of all wounded service members with serious eye injuries, King said.

There are 11,000 veterans in Chautauqua County alone, according to King.

Throughout the course, King will discuss topics such as the importance of engaging those wounded veterans in the arts, including visual arts, dance, music, drama, theater, writing and puppetry. She said her classes will also explain the capacity in which people in the arts can work appropriately with the veteran population by using adaptive methods.

There are many artists in the military, King said. She said in writing the course description for “Arts and the Military,” she did not want to make it seem that artists or creatives are a separate category of people than service members.

Special guests will visit the classroom on three of the five days.

On Tuesday, Nadean Sitter, the Women Veterans program manager at Erie VA Medical Center, will focus on female veterans and show examples of the impacts of creative arts engagement with the women veterans she works with.

On Wednesday, Gregory Peterson, co-founder of the Robert H. Jackson Center, and Gary Chilcott, director of Chautauqua County Veterans Service Agency, will speak to their storytelling project “Defenders of Freedom.”

On Friday, Vinny Stefanelli, founder and director of Music for Veterans in Erie, will bring his musical perspective to the table.

King said she has many tools that allow wounded veterans to engage in the arts using multiple senses. She has a tactile drawing board that allows those with eye injuries to feel the lines they draw.

She has a Suzuki QChord Digital Guitar that she has helped service members who have lost or injured their hands play music.

She has “dancing hands,” or handheld tools that make the sound of tap shoes on a table for dancers who may have lost their legs in war.

“There are always ways to meet the person where they are,” King said.

King also engages veterans in the arts through color. She said she thought about the fact that veterans from recent conflicts have spent much time in dry, arid and colorless environments.

King asked photographers to send her black and white landscape photography.

“Then the veterans find the landscape that is a place of restorative goodness,” King said. “A place where one feels fully themselves and fully alive and joyful, and restore color to that.”

King said she believes the arts provide a way for many veterans to express emotions and thoughts that they find difficult to verbalize.

“We will look at the whole cycle from pre-deployment to being in the theater of war and military service to coming back, reintegration, to life as a veteran once people have retired,” King said.

Last summer, when King discovered Week Eight would be themed “War and its Warriors: Contemporary Voices,” she said she immediately buzzed with ideas.

“I have always found Chautauqua to be a place that is incomparable in terms of the health, healing and well-being properties that it delivers,” King said. “And I immediately thought of how that could be linked to our servicemembers and their families and those who care for them as well.”

Julia Mericle

The author Julia Mericle

Julia Mericle is a journalism/mass communication and English student at St. Bonaventure University in the class of ’17. She is reporting on the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Contact her at