by Beth Liechti Johnson (American Legion member)
On the Saturday morning when I showed up at American Legion Post 1 in Phoenix for the Heal Her Art painting class, I carried in with me that familiar jumble of empty and full.
The flyer for the free event, specifically for women veterans, promised a fun morning and a take-home of our own version of “I Hope You Dance.” When I heard about the class, I didn’t think painting would make much difference in my life. I resisted. Yet when another woman I knew signed up, so did I. The power of peers. I am so lucky to have women vets in my life. A conscious choice I cultivate the farther I get from those years I wore olive-drab battledress and combat boots.
In two hours, the instructor, Army veteran Dana Ramsey, who served in Afghanistan, walked us through a step-by-step process to paint a landscape that depicted a dancer living her best life. Fifteen women, veterans of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, gave her their undivided attention.
Dipping my biggie brush into red and white paint to make pink, I brushed the pale hue across the canvas. Then I covered the pink with layers of white, then red, then blue. Featherlike cumulus started to emerge. With swipes of white and blue, I used the small brush to accentuate the cloud tips.
As I blended and dabbed, my mind settled into a satisfying, abundant place. The aggravation and apprehension of the present receded. Internal struggles from the past diminished. Each stroke brought me closer to the moment—that moment of peace so difficult to find, but once found, so worth the journey. The jumble in me worked itself out.
“The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength,” wrote Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius in Meditations (11.18).
I’d say the same is true for a woman.
Exit surveys of the painting session revealed positive changes. My sisters, who had worn the uniform, arrived that morning at the American Legion carrying a range of unsettled emotion. Sad. Tired and Ugly. Depressed. Stressed. Fearful. Uncertain. After two hours of painting, these same women described feeling happy and invigorated, emotionally uplifted, and successful. Many expressed gratefulness to Ramsey.
While advertised as a painting class, the session proved to be more about connection—the gratifying bridge that brings purpose and meaning to our lives. Many of us connected: some within ourselves and some with others.
“I have always known the benefits of creativity in my own life and felt it would be a valuable process for other veterans,” explained Ramsey, who holds BFAs in fine arts and education from Moore College of Arts and Design. “When I became a member of the American Legion and the Auxiliary, I found like-minded women who had the same vision—helping veterans.”
Soft instrumental music played from a boom box. Portable fans circulated the warm air in the meeting room—helpful with temperatures already hovering at 105F in Phoenix. The mood in the room filled with concentration and an occasional murmur from one or other of the vets seated in front of small easels. Heck, I felt at ease just being around women vets. We were strangers, yet we shared the bond of military service.
Before starting, I doubted my ability to create anything that resembled the example.
Ramsey enthusiastically tutored us in blending, stippling, and underpainting. She reassured us our pictures would take shape as we added layers of paint. She was correct. Blobs of color transformed into ground, sky, and clouds. While we received the same directions, each of us created a singular work of art. Why? Because each of us hears differently, translates individually, and responds uniquely. How cool is that?
Several women painted ballerinas. One painted a flying dancer. Another painted a couple dancing. One painted a ballroom dancer in long gown with a cape of feathers flowing from her outstretched arms. Some chose not to paint a dancer. My friend decided to paint a cactus in the landscape. When I asked to copy, she generously agreed. The Saguaro represents the tough, sweeping Sonoran Desert that had captivated me and become my home. Inspired by Ramsey’s direction, I created a brilliance of colorful clouds to replicate the monsoons that rip through the desert in the late summer months.
The two hours was well worth my time.
Women veterans, make some time to find that moment. Consider signing up for a class.
Upcoming Heal Her Art events include:
• Lady Succulent Potted Planter (Jul 9)
• Pastel Landscape (Sep 10)
• Fanciful Horse Partner Painting (Oct 8)
Women veterans only. Sessions are FREE but registration is required.
In 2018, Heal Her Art began with start-up funding from the American Legion Auxiliary Foundation. It is a collaboration of Ramsey’s company—Creatively Phoenix and Veterans First, Ltd. The American Legion Auxiliary provides guidance, volunteers, and funding. Heal Her Art hosts in-person monthly sessions throughout the Phoenix metro area.
The session I attended at the Luke-Greenway American Legion Post #1 was jointly supported by Veterans First Ltd, American Legion Auxiliary, Arizona Commission on the Arts, Boccuti Family Foundation, and the City of Peoria.
Beth Liechti is an Army veteran and member of American Legion Post 61, Crandell-Palmer.
Dana Ramsey is an Army veteran and member of American Legion Post 62, John J. Morris.