A group of people - young and old, male and female - gathers in the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center every other week because they share two things in common.
Not only are they veterans brought together by their shared experiences, but they are artists who come together to share those experiences not only with each other, but with the world through a variety of mediums.
Nick Frick, a peer support practitioner for the VA, started the group about three years ago as both an artist and a combat veteran himself. The group has 20 regular members, but Frick said about 100 veterans have participated over the years.
Mirror photo by Beth Ann Downey
Leu Poorman of Altoona, an Army veteran, works on his artwork during an art appreciation group meeting at the James E. Van Zandt VA?Medical Center.
"I thought it'd be something nice for the veterans to come together and have some unity, like they once had in the military," he said. "It's a chance to express yourself, because once you get in the military, you wear the same clothing, you say, 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir.' You're not creative, the chance to express yourself is not there."
The program was originally developed as part of a treatment program for veterans referred by their doctors. But now, it has expanded to accepting self-referrals as well as those with no previous artistic experience.
Though not all members of the group take part because of a certain diagnosis, Frick said it has helped some overcome either physical or mental disabilities.
But most of all, the art appreciation group has become a place for vets to "get together" and "have fun," Frick said, unlike others who come back from active duty and risk becoming socially isolated.
"For some of the guys, I just think it gives them another chance to have a sense of accomplishment, just finishing art pieces and having meaningful friendships here," he said.
For Michael D. McGuire of Altoona, an Army veteran, the group has helped give him both the inspiration and the extra push to turn his art into a business. Called McGuire Concepts, the business venture has allowed him to sell everything from his original wood carvings to T-shirt designs.
"One of the big things [about the group] that has influenced me is having people that you consider to be great artists enjoy what you've created, and kind of push you along and feel good about what you've done rather than just someone in your own household or family saying 'Hey, that's really good,'" McGuire, 31, said. "You're like 'Yeah, but you have to say that.'"
The veterans all work in various mediums, but many of their pieces reflect patriotic themes, such as soldiers drawn on a wooden chair or a bald eagle etched in stained glass.
"I think it's just because we're all vets, and certain things mean a lot," said Pamela Gill, an Air Force veteran of Altoona.
Kim Dietrick of Patton, an Army veteran, said she has been drawing since she was little.
But from talking in the group setting, she's watched her art and the art of many others improve.
"Now that I get to see what everyone else does, it's evolving and refreshing, and just gives you a new outlook," Dietrick, 30, said.
Leu Poorman, a former teacher with the Altoona Area School District and an Army vet who served in Vietnam, said it's been "magical" to watch people come along in both their art and their post-combat experiences.
"On a personal level, for me, it gave me a chance to start dealing with some issues that I had waited a long time to deal with," he said. "It made it a lot easier for me to flesh things out. It's sort of neat. The amount I've gotten from this is well past anything I've given."
The art group also has sponsored or taken part in multiple shows in the area, including one in the Blair County Ballpark. Frick said they hope to host a regional art show at the VA Medical Center early next year in order for members of the group to qualify for the National Veteran Creative Arts Festival, which will take place in Boston next year.
Frick added that winning at the national level allows the veterans to go on and do art tours, and provides other opportunities.
"It opens up a lot of doors for the vets," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.