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The art of healing the wounds of war

The painting looks like a hologram. Step a few feet away, and the figures – a helmeted soldier carrying a young girl over his shoulder – get darker and more defined. Inch closer, and the images soften. But view it from the side, and there's only emptiness.

That's because the acrylic paint is applied to hundreds of strands of 12-pound test fishing line. The artist, James Stevens, attaches layers upon layers of taut monofilament inside a clear acrylic case, with each layer painted in a different shade of the same color.

"I wasn't trying to deliberately create something new. I couldn't help it," said Stevens. "That's kind of how I see the world. I see things in the empty spaces."

The painting, called "The Best of Us," is on display in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts as part of the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. And it's all the more remarkable because Stevens is legally blind.

Stevens took a bullet to the head during the Vietnam War. Some bullet fragments remained in his skull because it was too risky for doctors to remove them. Twenty-three years after he was wounded, one of the fragments shifted and triggered a stroke that took away all but a small pinhole of his eyesight.

And like so many of the veterans exhibiting their work on Saturday, Stevens credited the artistic process for helping heal the wounds of war.

"It helped him with his personal demons a lot," said his daughter Megghan Stevens. "He was angry."

Stevens, who is from Denver, remembered taking a crowbar and smashing his motorcycle when he learned that his driver's license was revoked because of his vision impairment. He also lost his job and his marriage.

Painting "gave him something else to focus on and kind of restructured his thinking as far as, 'What do I have to offer,'" his daughter said.

More than 120 veterans from across the country participated in the art  festival, which wraps up Sunday with an exhibit of artwork and musical and dramatic performances. Nearly 3,500 veterans from 138 Veterans Affairs medical facilities entered the 2017 competition in 51 categories in art, music, drama, dance and creative writing categories, with 140 gold medals awarded. The festival, in its 28th year, was being held in New York State for the first time.

VA hospitals across the country have long used the creative arts in therapy for veterans. And while the therapeutic value of painting, sculpture, dancing or writing is different for each individual, those artistic endeavors often "relieve some of the things that are blocking their health and welfare," said Pam Kaznowski, recreation therapy supervisor for the Buffalo VA Medical Center.

This year's art competition winners came from as far away as Hawaii, Texas and Maine. Robert Ball traveled from Minneapolis. He won for his color photography, "The Color of Night," a shot of downtown Minneapolis at night, glowing with an array of colors from the illuminated buildings.

Ball served in the Navy during Vietnam as an anti-submarine air crewman. He didn't encounter combat during his three years, but he continues to be haunted by the loss of four close friends in the war. "I was pretty safe where I was, which has bothered me throughout my life," he said. Ball always has found refuge in a camera.

"Having a passion is what keeps you from thinking about your problems," he said. "I shoot every day. It's very good therapy for me."

The winners included Grand Island resident James Becker, whose "Intraflection" painting was awarded a gold medal in the Military Combat Experience category.

Charles Marshall of Lawrenceville, Va. has been creating macramé for about 40 years. His latest knotting creation, "Windows to the Soul," features jute and blue and white polypropylene blended together in a form inspired by the smile and personality of Marshall's grown daughter, Kiki.

Marshall said making art was instrumental in his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder after Vietnam. It also helped his physical rehabilitation after he was assaulted in a vicious 1998 attack that left him partially paralyzed. "I have to focus on the work and the details, not the pain," he said.

The art exhibit is free and open to the public from noon to 1:45 in the atrium lobby of the Center for the Arts. A stage show will be held at 2 p.m. Admission is free but tickets are required; call 862-6814.

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