Yogurt containers filled with water sat on a long table covered with a paint-splattered cloth. Nearby were boxes of pastels and watercolor paints. Packages of thick, creamy paper and fresh paintbrushes sat invitingly open.
The table was set up by a window overlooking the Ohio River inside a room in Seven North, otherwise known as the psychiatric unit of the Robley Rex VA Medical Center in Louisville.
Patients entered the room wearing pajamas and non-slip socks. They were invited to paint, draw, color — or just sit and chat. Mike Gibson, who teaches the class, offered each a choice of materials and maybe a picture from a magazine for inspiration.
He bent over the table, assisting a patient with blending pastels. He demonstrated how to add dimension to a sphere by using a lighter color and blending carefully. The patient, who declined to give his name, nodded silently, picking up a white pastel.
Gibson has the experience to lead this class. He is a student at the Kentucky School of Art, planning to graduate in early 2016. He is a U.S. Army veteran. And he’s also a former patient here.
Gibson was always interested in art. He was accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago right out of high school in 1988, but he followed family tradition and enlisted in the Army instead. He was deployed to Australian Outback and later, to the Sinai Peninsula in 1991, at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq.
He left the Army in May of 1992. He had a series of jobs — first cutting grass, then working for the postal service — until he landed steady work at an injection molding factory in Southern Indiana.
During this period, he struggled with his mental health, he said.
“My anxiety levels were so high that I would pass out at work, and they’d have to take me to the hospital,” Gibson said.
He counted five suicide attempts in the years after he left the military, and he often landed on Seven North afterward.
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In 2008, Gibson was laid off from his factory job, and in the process of seeking disability, was officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His VA caseworker suggested he look into attending the newly-formed Kentucky School of Art as a form of vocational rehab.
When it came time to do an internship, he knew he wanted to go back to Seven North and help make “art time” really useful.
“When I was in there, what they considered art time was, we put a plastic wallet together,” Gibson said. “But there was no conversation.”
He taught the class at Seven North as part of Arts in Healing, a program from the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts that sends local artists to healthcare facilities.
Gibson’s VA therapist connected him with Kristen Hughes, director of Arts in Healing. She helped set up the internship, which later turned into a paid weekly job. Gibson is in a unique position to help fellow veterans, Hughes said.
“All he has to do is say that he was in the military and that he was a patient in that unit, and the conversations, they skyrocket as far as what people are willing to open up and express,” Hughes said. “And sometimes it’s, from what the staff tells me, it’s things they’ve not heard. The art gets them talking in a way that the therapy doesn’t.”
Gibson and Hughes both emphasized that he’s not an art therapist, although he’s planning to get a master’s degree in art therapy. Instead, he sees his weekly class as a respite for the patients.
“It’s almost like an hour-and-a-half away from the hospital — like you’re not in there for awhile,” he said. “I don’t want it to be structured as therapy, cause it’s fun to watch the therapy come out of it.”
Emily Watts, the program coordinator for the unit, said Gibson’s presence is helpful.
“Mike offers a sense of calm. He’s just so relaxed, and he’s come from the outside, and he’s able to just bring everybody back down to earth,” said Watts.
Gibson never pushes the patients to talk about their experiences, but he makes sure to let them know that he understands what it’s like.
“One of the reasons I do that is to tell them, hey, I served too. I’ve been in this boat, I’ve been on this floor, and so I hope they can look at me and get a sense of hope,” Gibson said.
After he gets his master’s degree, Gibson wants to create a program to help returning veterans transition back to civilian life using ritual, community service, fly fishing and, of course, art.
It’s the program he wishes he could have had.