Art helps veterans heal from war wounds at La Jolla exhibit


Retired Marine Aaron Raher, who twice deployed to Iraq, was introduced to art through the Navy’s OASIS (Overcoming Adversity and Stress Injury Support) program in 2012. On Thursday, Aug. 4 he shared how his art has helped him work through post-combat stress as a member of the kick-off panel for the ArtOasis Show at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) in La Jolla.

“Art was a way for me to put things on the canvas without having to talk about them, because you get sick of talking about things all the time ... and a way to slow down my thinking, focus on one task, and enjoy it. There’s something really refreshing to it,” Raher said, adding that his favorite art medium is acrylic paint on canvas. “I also like to collect art on my body,” he laughed, pointing at his many tattoos.

Raher said he kept in touch with Elizabeth Washburn, artist and one of the program’s teachers, after he graduated. Today he works as a liasian between the veterans going through the program and the museum. “I come (to MCASD) and explain to OASIS members how art has been helpful for me, how I use art. I tell them, ‘As veterans, we are all we have, we have to look out for each other,’ ” he said.

Washburn has been working with veterans since 2010 through her non-profit Combat Arts, but it was two years ago when MCASD came in and the ArtOasis program was established at the base in Point Loma. “We use art as a tool to relax, to reduce anxiety, to connect. … But also, we are using this program to educate the public about challenges that service members and veterans face when they return home,” she said.

More than 75 veterans a year work with ArtOasis. The program includes, besides the weekly on-base lessons, quarterly workshops at MCASD and a yearly show of art by service members from all over the country. MCASD education curator Cris Scorza selects the veteran’s art for the show.

“The pieces that I get more excited about are the collaborative pieces, like the murals, where a couple of service members work together, share their ideas, talk about their experiences, and just make it evident through the collaborative work that there’s a lot to share,” Scorza said.

Featuring more than 30 individual and collaborative pieces among canvas, masks, dreamcatchers and sketches, the ArtOasis exhibition will be up through Sept. 4 at MCASD. “The show is for the public to become more aware of what service members are capable of doing ... to really start digging deeper to get a different perspective of what a wounded veteran might look like — even if it’s just through their art,” Scorza said.

Raher added, “We have to change the perception of what combat is; you don’t have to be sorry for me and you don’t have to be scared of me.”

Another Marine Corps veteran, Daniel Lopez, now works as an assistant teacher at ArtOasis. He offers a leather class where service members receive tools and training. He chose leather, he explained, “because there’s something about it, everyone loves the smell of leather.” In his classes he combines leatherwork with thread and students create dreamcatchers, like the ones featured in the show.

“For me it’s hard to sit and put together a painting, but when I do dreamcatchers, I see why people love to knit. It’s a repetitive thing, and it allows you to have a conversation, take your mind off other things,” Lopez said, pointing out that there’s an underlying understanding between war veterans that goes a long way in the program.

Also on the panel was artist/teacher Perry Vasquez, who said the sense of community is sometimes more helpful than the art. “I remember one day I came into class and the mood was down … one of the younger men was struggling, and a first sergeant went to talk to him. I noticed how the class changed, within minutes there was laughing, joking and singing a Bob Marley tune,” he shared.

IF YOU GO: ArtOasis will be on view through Sept. 4 at MCASD, 700 Prospect St. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, closed Wednesday. (858) 454-3541.