Interview with Michael Hawley

A conversation with Iraq Veteran Michael Hawley, founder of the Veterans Art Foundation

By Theresa MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate

The Veterans Art Foundation (VAF) was established in 2008 with the mission of using art therapy to assist the recovery process for veterans dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and their families. Hartford Stage is pleased to host a display featuring art and words from VAF members throughout the run of The Body of an American in The John and Kelly Hartman Foundation Lobby.

What prompted you to start the Veterans Art Foundation?

Michael Hawley in Iraq
Michael Hawley in Iraq

I spent 12 months in Mosul, Iraq as an infantryman; and the day after I returned home, the news started reporting my unit had been extended. For three weeks, we were in limbo. My life was both heaven and hell. Then we were sent back for another four months into Baghdad where I lost friends. Everything I do – writing, public speaking, and photography – is a way to both explain and decompress from the terror of those 16 months. I left pieces of my soul in Iraq; and, in some ways, I still live there.

When I left the army, I fell into the Hartford Vet Center. I built a great relationship with my social worker, Jay White, and joined a PTSD support group. The founders (Brian Barkman Jr., Aaron Jones, and Pablo Ravizzoli) of the VAF and I met as part of Jay White’s OEF/OIF (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans) group at the Vet Center. Each of us wanted to help our fellow vets through creative arts. The VAF’s founders suffered from PTSD, surviving wartime trauma, only to return to broken lives with few outlets. We were full of passion and back then, we had time to kill. I was struggling with keeping a part-time job as a substitute teacher, which I don’t recommend so soon after combat.

Our first artists – Ira Dick, Al Kim, and me – were all photographers. Our board outnumbered us, so the VAF opened its ranks to family members of veterans. We still accept family members. Family serve alongside us, and sometimes we forget their struggles.

Michael and his wife on their wedding day.  The first night I met my wife, I told her about my traumatic military extension, and she fell for me – craziness and all.
Michael and his wife on their wedding day.  “The first night I met my wife, I told her about my traumatic military extension, and she fell for me – craziness and all.”

Did you have experience using art as therapy?

At the time we started, I had no experience with art therapy. I credit Virginia Iacobucci with channeling our idea into the Veterans Art Foundation. Virginia is now the Director of the VAF; and we also have Rachel Sclare, a Master’s level Art Therapist who is the VAF’s Arts Director. Rachel also facilitates therapeutic art experiences and produces art shows, in addition to other arts and organizational responsibilities.

If I’d known about the West Haven VA Hospital art therapy programs, I may never have started the VAF. In a way, the VAF was personal therapy for me. I began my healing journey through art. Photography, writing, and public speaking are part of my personal treatment plan.

Do you have a background in fine arts/photography?

I took drawing and painting classes in high school. While I was studying Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, I took a screenwriting class and then produced the screenplay the following year. The screenplay was called “The Last Fantasy,” a romantic comedy based on Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego.

How do you reach other veteran artists?

The VAF reaches artists a number of ways. We are very active on Facebook and Twitter, where artists from across the state and country interact and share their work. We also conduct outreach, have public speaking events and open calls for art, but quite a few of our artists find us through word-of-mouth or referrals.

Do you do any work in conjunction with the VA or other veterans outreach organizations?

The VAF shares artists with the Giant Steps Art Program, the Veterans Art Council at the West Haven VA Hospital, and we also cross-promote with the Veteran Artist Program, a nationwide nonprofit. We have good working relationships, and all share the same goal of helping veterans heal through art.

What kind of feedback do you get at exhibits or shows?

“This is amazing,” or “You need to do more shows,” or “I love what you do, how can I help?” Sometimes, we get requests to set up shop across the country. The feedback is usually very positive. Artists, galleries, and organizations want to help promote us or showcase our work.

When we started with just three photographers, the VAF could barely fill a wall in a small coffee shop. Now, we have over three dozen artists in different mediums; we are always growing.

Unicycles in Avalon (Glastonbury, UK) – Photo by Michael Hawley. I came out of the hotel I was staying at on my honeymoon, and there was a kid riding a unicycle through the street. It was perfect timing.
Unicycles in Avalon (Glastonbury, UK) – Photo by Michael Hawley. “I came out of the hotel I was staying at on my honeymoon, and there was a kid riding a unicycle through the street. It was perfect timing.”

Your primary purpose is to give a voice to veterans to express themselves through art. Do you have a secondary purpose?

The VAF has two purposes: to promote veterans’ art (and expression) and art therapy. We wanted to do both equally, but because of monetary and space constraints, our focus shifts. We have social workers, art therapists, artists, and fundraisers who volunteer with us. This past year, we had more shows. In 2016, we’re returning to art therapy – thanks to a generous grant from the state and the Greater Hartford Arts Council.

In the 1940s and 50s, it was common for our artists to have served in the military. In contemporary culture, the artist and the warrior usually seem to be diametric opposites. Do you think that’s the case?

I’d heard somewhere that around 12 percent of our population served in some capacity during World War 2, and now it’s less than 1 percent fighting our wars. I would say that’s the reason we don’t see as many veteran artists. Modern combat veterans are underrepresented in politics, business, and almost every facet of life. We are often overlooked because there are so few of us. However, these are the few men and women who have deployed multiple times, exponentially increasing the likelihood of PTSD.  

I find artists welcoming of veterans. Veterans want to be listened to, to be heard, or counted, not dismissed. Artwork is another language; it reveals the soul beneath. Stop saying thank you and listen for a moment. “Thank you” is overrated, but listening isn’t.

Veterans would feel out of place in any setting, unless they’re around other veterans. We share a common language, history of trauma, etc. We are unique, but in some ways, civilian artists are too. Many of them were outcasts and shunned for expressing themselves.

I’ve known many vets who claimed no artistic talents, or appreciation. Whether you sing to yourself in the shower, read a book, take photos with your iPhone of cats, or paint murals, it doesn’t matter. I’ve known barely literate war heroes who write poetry. Everyone’s an artist; they just might not know it.

What can the general public do to help veteran artists?

Seek them out, promote their work, hang their art, buy their art/music, to start with. Sponsor their work through grants or donations. If anything, just listen to them, their stories, and get to know them. Move beyond thanking to supporting veterans.