Veterans healing through art

clay county histories

Two masks made by a local veteran at the Fargo VA.

Markus Krueger | Program Director  HCSCC

War costs a lot. When we ask our nation’s sons and daughters to go to war, some of them will not return. Many others will come home to us with scars inside and out. Psychological wounds are not always apparent or understood by the spouses, children, parents, friends, and coworkers of veterans – or by the veterans themselves.

People have a hard time talking about trauma. In a 2007 Heritage Education Commission interview, Moorhead veteran Jim Svobodny said that after he came home from Vietnam “Nobody wanted to talk about it. They were glad I was back. Nobody asked me any questions about what happened during the year. I didn’t volunteer anything. They all thought that I didn’t want to talk about it. I thought that they weren’t interested.”

Ken Andersen of West Fargo is a nationally recognized fine woodworker and photographer, as well as a friend and collaborator with our museum. In 2019, Ken approached us with an idea for an exhibit. Ken, a Vietnam veteran, is one of many local veterans who have worked with Dr. Margo Norton at the Fargo VA to use art as part of trauma therapy. He wanted a place to highlight this artwork to raise awareness of the issue. We jumped at the chance.

For two years the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County worked with a group of local veterans and Dr. Norton of the Fargo VA to create an exhibit now on display at the Hjemkomst Center. The exhibit displays artwork created by local veterans who are using art to work through trauma.

Joshua Zeis is one of the artists steering this project. The location at the Hjemkomst Center made him think about Vikings and their belief that warriors who died in battle went to glorious Valhalla. But what about those warriors left behind on earth after the battle? The exhibit’s name, “Warriors in the North: Healing Through Art,” comes from this mental image. The logo is a lonely winter tree line that also resembles a heart EKG reading or a wall of warriors.

It started with displaying the mask making project, where veterans decorate masks with paint or glued objects to show visually and with accompanying words what they feel under the mask they wear for others. It expanded to paintings, photography, writing workshops, and music. Some of the art was made through VA programs, other artwork was created by established local artists who are veterans.

The goal is to give these veterans a venue to show their family, friends, and neighbors what they are going through, and also to show fellow veterans who may be going through similar experiences that there are resources that could help them.  

The artwork is profound, but you might not always like what you see. There are giant paintings made by a featured artist who wishes to remain anonymous depicting harsh nightmares. Some of the masks can break your heart. But you owe it to these veterans not to look away. They’re trying to tell us what they’re feeling. Listen to them.

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