Creative healing: Fort Ben Cultural Campus to host annual veterans art festival


For the second consecutive year, the Fort Ben Cultural Campus in the heart of Lawrence will host the Indianapolis-area’s Veterans Creative Arts Festival, set for 3 to 5 p.m. Aug. 25.

Kristina Gmutza is a creative arts therapist with the Indianapolis VA and one of the organizers of the annual festival. She works with Tonya Jackson, a music therapist with the Henry M Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine in support of Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts network.

Gmutza said the local festival is a juried show, and local winners can submit their work to the national competition. National winners are announced in December, according to the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, and are invited to attend the 43rd National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in spring of 2024 in Denver, Colo.

Although winning is great, the festival is about so much more. Jackson said creating art, whether it’s visual, performance, written or musical, is a way for veterans — or anyone — to heal emotionally, mentally and physically.

“A lot of VAs do have music therapists and art therapists. A few have dance therapists,” she said. “That component of the whole person and whole healing and using art to connect with other veterans, connect with yourself and do that hard work.”

Veterans creating art together is especially helpful, she said, “because veterans usually open up more when they’re around other veterans because they understand each other and then when you have a passion for something, it just creates that really wholesome environment and that healing environment for everybody.”

Some veterans use art to express their struggles, she said; others simply enjoy the creative process. Any mode of artistic expression is healing.

“There’s so much research about (it), and there is for music as well,” Gmutza said, “(About) what happens in our brains when we’re doing engaging and creative activities. And I really love the idea that I can just trust the process, that when someone’s doing art with me in a therapeutic setting that whether or not we talk it all through or figure it all out with our words, that whatever needed to happen in our brains has already happened through the art.”

Jackson said feedback she’s received from veterans is: “Finally something that made me feel better that wasn’t a pill.”

Even those who are not skilled can benefit from art therapy, Gmutza added.

“You don’t have to have any art skills, any music skills, any dance skills, any drama or writing skills,” she said. “Therapists have their way of helping you be successful and find a way to open that outlet up, to tap into your natural creativity. I think a lot of people don’t realize they have this natural, innate creativity. Therapists are good at, really skilled at, trained to bring out in people that natural creativity.”

Gmutza said having their work displayed publicly can validate a veteran’s artistic journey. She said two veterans she works with who participated in the 2022 festival didn’t consider themselves artists previously, but now they do. One has had her work displayed in galleries and the other has been successful in the NFT digital art world.

“Besides all the benefits in therapy or mental health or wellness, I think that the Creative Arts Festival really, really helps veterans have this identity and the meaning and the accomplishment,” she said. “And now they’re calling themselves artists or musicians, when they didn’t think they were before. That’s really powerful for me, really impactful.”

CIG COM VeteransArtsFest 082223 1
Mary Hester’s glass fusion decorative bowl was among the artwork on display during the 2022 Veterans Creative Arts Festival. (Photos courtesy of Kristina Gmutza)

Gmutza said the festival has about 65 submissions so far, including paintings, drawings and performances.

“We have a stage performance. The musicians will be performing their music live,” she said. “I think we might have some poetry readings happening this year, too, so that’s pretty amazing.”

To be eligible to display their work at the festival, a veteran must be receiving health care from a VA medical clinic and have their artwork submitted by a staff member of that VA clinic. They don’t have to be receiving therapy. Different VAs present their own art festivals leading up to the national competition, Gmutza added.

She said that prior to holding the Indianapolis-area festival at the Fort Ben Cultural Campus, they hosted the event at the VA hospital. Gmutza said it made sense to move it to Lawrence in part because of the community’s military history as home to the former Fort Benjamin Harrison, and because of its strong arts community led by Arts for Lawrence.

“(The Fort Ben Cultural Campus) is a beautiful space,” she added. “They have this wonderful outdoor space and it’s just really, really well set up for what you would think of as an art festival. And their Fridays at the Fort (concert series) are hopping, I think that’s when I first thought about it is when we I went for Fridays at the Fort and there’s kids on the musical swings and there was a magician there and people brought their dogs and there’s just lawn chairs everywhere and everyone was enjoying the music and people were dancing and (it) seemed like the perfect spot to host host the Creative Arts Festival.”

She said that Arts for Lawrence and the City of Lawrence are great partners for the event, providing chairs, tables and other support.

CIG COM VeteransArtsFest 082223 2
Natasha Mathisrud’s pastel, “Eye on the Future,” was one of the pieces in the 2022 Veterans Creative Arts Festival.

Not just for veterans

The general public is encouraged to attend the Veterans Creative Arts Festival.

“Family, friends, anyone who’s interested in coming to see what local veterans are expressing creatively through the arts are welcome,” said organizer Kristina Gmutza, a creative arts therapist with the Indianapolis VA.

In addition to the artwork and performances, she said there will be several food vendors, and community partners will have informational booths about arts opportunities and resources for veterans.

“So, veterans, their families (and) the community members can get more information about what’s going on locally, both for veterans and just in the community,” Gmutza said.

The festival is set for 3 to 5 p.m. Aug. 25 at the Fort Ben Cultural Campus, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence.