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Giving Veterans a Lens for Expression

USF Contemporary Art Museum part of statewide initiative developing arts-based experiences for military veterans and their families

Instructor Jim Reiman working with local veterans participating in the USF Contemporary Art Museum's Breaking Barriers workshop. Credit: Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications

Amy Bagley spent 15 years in the United States Army.

During her two terms in the military (‘83-’96, ’01-’03), Bagley served all over the world, starting her career as an army administrator and later as a computer programmer. Now, more than a decade after retiring, she’s learning a lifelong goal alongside fellow veterans thanks to the University of South Florida.

“I’ve always felt like my spirit has wanted to take pictures,” Bagley said. “So, when I found out about this opportunity at USF, I jumped at the chance to take part. It’s really been wonderful.”

Amy Bagley, U.S. Army veteran. Credit: Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications

Bagley is one of 15 local veterans taking part in Breaking Barriers, a three-part workshop developed by the USF Contemporary Art Museum (USFCAM) in collaboration with the School of Art and Art History.

The series began with a five-week photography course taught by instructor Jim Reiman of The Art Institute of Tampa. The course explored the tools and processes for creating photographic images; specifically, portraits. Students learn every aspect of picture making – from conceptual skills to photography and lighting techniques, as well as digital post-production methods.

To activate transformative learning and provide language for visual experiences, participants will also take part in a facilitated discussion of the current exhibition at USFCAM using the Visual Thinking Strategy during the second phase of the workshop. The workshop will culminate with a December exhibition featuring work developed by the veteran participants.

Organizers with USFCAM say the program was designed as a way to provide community support for local veterans through an educational and arts-based experience. And while Breaking Barriers is not art therapy, the program, as well as art in general, can have a substantial effect.

Dolores Coe (l.) and Leslie Elsasser (r.), with the USF Contemporary Art Museum, developed Breaking Barriers as part of a statewide initiative to engage veterans with local museums. Credit: Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications

“We know that the making of art, the actual involvement in creating, has real impact and is potentially a powerful tool for a lot of people, including veterans, in a lot of different ways,” said Dolores Coe, curator of USFCAM’s Art in Health program and the workshop’s co-organizer. “So, we wanted to explore that art making component.”

15 local veterans participated in the workshop, which will conclude with an exhibition of their work on Dec. 12 & 13 at the USF Contemporary Art Museum.

Coe, along with co-organizer Leslie Elsasser, USFCAM curator of education, developed the program through support from the statewide initiative, Museums on Call. The initiative aims to explore achievable partnerships between communities and the museums within them. USFCAM, along with 2 other museums across the state, were charged with developing programming for local veterans. The idea is to create these pilot programs that can potentially be used as a framework for other museums across the country.

For Bagley, the workshop provides her a place to not only learn something she’s wanted to but gives her an outlet for expression. After medically retiring from the military, Bagley, like many other veterans, has struggled with a mental health disorder. She says photography has given her a creative means of communication and an area where she can focus her energy. It’s an outlet she thinks could help millions of other veterans struggling to reintegrate into civilian life.

“I find it a privilege to be doing this with fellow veterans,” she said. “We served our country and had rewarding military careers, but there’s still so much many of us want to do. These types of programs help us achieve that.”

Selections from participants’ portfolios will be on display in an exhibit at the USF Contemporary Art Museum Dec. 12-13. The exhibition is open to the public.

To learn more about the exhibit and the USF Contemporary Art Museum, visit their website.

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