International Art Exhibit Brings Spiritual Healing to Soldiers

International Art Exhibit Brings Spiritual Healing to Soldiers

Arts & Faith

Enduring Freedom:

Sgt. Ron Kelsey created a series of these “Enduring Freedom” prints during his deployment in Afghanistan.

Enduring Freedom I

Enduring Freedom II

Enduring Freedom III

Enduring Freedom IV

As soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan return from war and assimilate back into civilian life, many need emotional-and spiritual-support.

One soldier found a unique tool to help himself and others deal with the traumatic experiences of war: a paintbrush.

In 2009, Sgt. Ron Kelsey had arrived home from deployment in Iraq. A painting major in college, he found he could release the stresses of war on a canvas, instead of taking it out on his family.

As Kelsey began to paint, he found meaning in allowing acrylic paint to drip off an easel onto a floor canvas, forming puddles.

“The drips captured on the canvas became reminiscent of the tears, suffering, and pain I endured throughout my deployment in Iraq,” he said. “The process of creating this series taught me to see the influence of the Creator upon the created in every act of art creation-I experienced peace beyond human understanding.”

Kelsey found so much relief in painting, he wanted other solders to experience that peace too.

At the time, Kelsey was the military liaison for the arts for the International Arts Movement (IAM), a community of artists and creatives who look for ways to fully integrate art, faith, and humanity. Kelsey decided to organize IAM's first military exhibit at the Ft. Drum military base in New York, inviting soldiers and other artists he knew to exhibit art, as well as using some of his own work.

From that first exhibit in 2009 grew his current traveling art exhibit, Reflections of Generosity: Toward Restoration and Peace. The exhibit has traveled to Katterbach and Heidelberg, Germany, each show pulling in more soldier artists and attendees. Next up is the Ft. Worth military base in Texas.

The success of the exhibits also spurred Kelsey to found the organization Reflections of Generosity, a worldwide collaboration of artists that encourages soldiers and their families to find spiritual healing through the arts. Reflections of Generosity has since been recognized by the Chaplain Corps of the United States Army, which awarded Kelsey with an Army Achievement Medal.

Each Reflections of Generosity show features sculpture, video, photography, mixed media, opera, and other forms of art, created by soldiers as well as international artists such as Mako Fujimura, who founded IAM, Jay Walker, and Sandra Ceas. Exhibiting with such famous artists helps soldiers feel like they've “made it,” Kelsey says.

Kelsey invites military chaplains to each exhibit, and much of the art carries spiritual overtones. He regularly features five depictions of Christ, as well as a piece of soldiers in war, which “puts new meaning to that suffering, comparing them to Christ on the cross,” he said.

As soldiers walk through the exhibit and listen to soothing music, they are exposed to images of war and suffering, which often opens up scars from previous deployments, Kelsey said. He includes peaceful images among the images of war. At each exhibit Kelsey and artist Sandra Ceas pray over hand-carved doves that they place around the building housing the exhibit. Soldiers are encouraged to take the doves home and pass it on to someone in need.

“It's encouraging to see soldiers who normally carry a weapon in war replace it with a peaceful dove in their hand,” he said.

Kelsey, who's now based in Kandahar, Afghanistan, said he's seen this healing up close, particularly with one soldier who had been dealing with PTSD. The sergeant saw the soldier give away his own artwork at an exhibit, and something clicked.

“For him, it was handing out peace, giving another solider something that's going to give them peace,” he said. “For him that was life-changing.

“This really allows an opportunity for God to touch them,” he said. “That's my hook, ultimately the ministry brings them to a point where they can receive Christ.”

Kelsey, who's served in the military for 14 years, also tries to reach out to soldiers struggling with suicide. Suicide in the military has rapidly increased, to a tragic rate of one suicide every 18 hours. Kelsey hopes Reflections of Generosity can help transform and heal soldiers from the traumatic experience of war.

“God gave us art, music and writing as a way to not only cope and overcome tragedy and war, but also to define it,” he said.