John Zuniga barely left the house with his wife and three children, and when he did, he wore dark glasses and ear plugs to block out bright light and loud noises.
Nothing seemed to help the disabled veteran with his depression, mood swings and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Then Zuniga, 40, of O’Fallon, discovered pottery.
For the past two years, he’s been making large vases that look like something out of a fine-art gallery. He recently got his own potter’s wheel and kiln.
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“It relaxes me,” he said. “It calms me down. I don’t really have feelings like joy or happiness, but it fills my time. I’m working with my hands and using my mind.”
Zuniga is one of several metro-east veterans who drive to Fontbonne University in St. Louis on Friday nights and Saturday mornings for free art workshops sponsored by a small, non-profit organization called Visions for Vets.
The idea is for veterans to find healing through drawing, painting, sculpture, and even metalsmithing. Graduate students and other artists volunteer as teachers and mentors.
“My purpose is to save lives of veterans and try to remove the suffering,” said founder Scott Beaty, 58, of Arnold, Missouri, who served 20 years in the Navy. “I’ve been through it, and I don’t want anyone else to have to go through it by themselves.”
Beaty hopes to expand into the metro-east, which has a disproportionate share of veterans because of Scott Air Force Base. He’s looking for volunteers, sponsors and a facility.
Zuniga served in the Air Force from 1995 to 2009. He still has chronic back pain from carrying heavy gear in Iraq, but his mental condition has improved dramatically since he became a potter, he said.
“Art has consumed my life. It has centered me. It has given me a purpose. It has given me something to wake up for.”
Visions for Vets workshops take place in the Fontbonne sculpture studio, where Beaty earned a master’s degree in art after being discharged from the Navy.
One corner is dominated by his thesis project, an 18-foot-tall statue of a man chained to an antique gyrocompass, symbolizing the challenges of navigating civilian life. A World Trade Center cross marks Sept. 11, 2001, his last day in uniform.
“I was getting my retirement pictures taken in my dress blues, and we looked up at a big-screen TV, and the second plane was flying into the towers,” he said. “We knew we were under attack.”
Today, Beaty’s “uniform” consists of denim overalls and flip-flops, a bushy salt-and-pepper goatee and hair tied back in a ponytail.
On Saturdays, Beaty and his girlfriend, Christy Jones, 61, arrive at Fontbonne well before the workshop begins to get coffee brewing, unload supplies and clear a table for home-cooked breakfasts donated by businesses and organizations.
“I spend a lot of time cleaning,” joked Jones, 61, who also works for the American Red Cross. “People need the coffee, and they pull it out before its done, and it goes all over the place.”
On a recent Saturday, about 25 veterans and volunteers trickled in the studio door and took their places at tables and easels, anxious to get back to their art projects.
Marj Santhuff, 53, of St. Louis, was filing rough edges off a bronze Humvee statue about the size of a tissue box. She’s recreating one of her missions in An Najaf, Iraq.
Her advance unit had been sent to “lay down fire” so U.S. tanks could pass through the city without being hit by rocket-propelled grenades. A gunner put a hole in a brick wall, filling the air with sand and dirt and making it hard to see.
“(The sculpture) helps me get out some of my feelings and show my family and friends so they can understand what I did over there,” said Santhuff, who served in the Army National Guard for 22 years before retiring in 2005.
“You can talk to people, and they don’t grasp what we did, but if you have something to illustrate, it’s easier.”
Visions for Vets has an unspoken rule: If people feel like talking about their military experiences, they can do it in an atmosphere of support and understanding.
If they just want to make art, that’s fine, too.
“Everybody here has some kind of disability, but we don’t give a damn,” Beaty said. “It doesn’t matter. We’re family. We’re all in this together. We help each other with our issues.”
On this Saturday, Bob Wunderlich, 69, of St. Louis, was standing at an easel, deep in thought, paintbrush in hand. He peered over glasses at his oil painting of an Egyptian pyramid, his face framed by long white hair.
Del Marion, 67, of East St. Louis, watched quietly for a few minutes while sipping coffee then struck up a conversation. Both men served during the Vietnam War.
Wunderlich showed Marion the National Geographic photo that inspired his piece. He’s been working on it several weeks.
“This is fun,” said Wunderlich, who served in the Air Force from 1970 to 1974. “You’re learning something, and you’re kind of letting loose of some of your problems. And it gives you the feeling that you’re accomplishing something. It gives you a satisfaction.”
Marion served in the Marine Corps from 1967 to 1972. He was “shot up pretty bad” during a firefight in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, he said. He received a purple heart but felt little appreciation from the American public.
“I got shot with an AK-47 in my right arm,” said Marion, wearing a black Vietnam ball cap. “I went over there right-handed, and when I came back, I had to do things left-handed. I went over there as a kid and came back a grown man. Vietnam changed my life.”
Marion went on to work in law enforcement, serving as police chief in East St. Louis and Brooklyn, city councilman in East St. Louis and director of public safety in Washington Park.
But he always struggled with anger issues, he said, and it took a program like Visions for Vets to help him take positive action.
Marion has experimented with oils, watercolors, acrylics and pencils and won several awards for his paintings. But his biggest reward is time spent with fellow veterans.
“It’s a way of relieving stress and communicating with people who know how you feel about things,” he said. “Some of them were in (Vietnam) at the same time as I was there and experienced some of the same things that I experienced.
“A lot of them have been wounded like me. They have the same ups and downs. They’re on the same playing field.”
Beaty also is a disabled veteran. He shattered a knee in a submarine accident while serving in the Navy from 1978 to 2001, and that caused problems with his other knee. Then he became addicted to pain pills and anti-depressants, he said.
Beaty eventually got off drugs, but he’s outspoken about the government’s handling of veterans with physical and mental disabilities.
“We’re medicating our veterans,” he said. “We’re sending them home so doped up they can’t even think or have a dream. They live in poverty, and then they commit suicide. Twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide.
“That’s why we’re going back to the old days. (Visions for Vets is) an alternative grassroots effort of veterans helping veterans. We all know what it feels like. Congressmen don’t have a clue. Senators don’t have a clue. Businessmen don’t have a clue. We understand it because we feel it.”
The roots of Visions for Vets go back to 2013, when Beaty was still a college student. He won first place for sculpture in a national Veterans Affairs art show in Nevada and met veterans whose lives had been “saved” by art.
Beaty began volunteering as an art teacher at Jefferson Barracks medical center in St. Louis then went solo to escape government “demands and limitations.”
He formed the non-profit organization in 2015, and veterans have been “making magic” ever since, he said.
“I have people who come here, and they have to go outside and cry. It’s not because they’re sad. It’s because they’re happy. There’s so much goodness coming out of this program.”
Volunteers include David Jackels, 70, of Ballwin, Missouri, who spent 20 years in the Navy before earning an art degree. He loves sharing his knowledge with fellow veterans.
“They don’t want sympathy,” he said. “They don’t want help. They want to go someplace where they’re accepted, where they can actually accomplish something on their own.
“There’s an expression that, ‘You give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, but you teach a man to fish, and he’ll never go hungry.’ And that’s what we do, here.”
Visions for Vets turnout ranges from 30 to 35 veterans on Friday nights and 20 to 25 on Saturday mornings.
For some, it’s a lifeline.
“This keeps me from committing suicide,” said Brad Martin, 48, of Affton, Missouri, who served a year in the Navy in the late 1980s and suffers from bi-polar disorder.
“I know that would hurt my friend, Scott, and my kids. I look forward to (the art workshops). It’s the only thing I look forward to all week. I get depressed, and my medication causes pain in my joints.”
Martin has found his niche making small bronze statues of Western gunslingers and other characters.
The program provides Will Seymour, 42, a disabled veteran from House Springs, Missouri, with rare human contact. He usually stays holed up in his house because of post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain from multiple injuries.
In art workshops, Seymour has discovered a knack for blacksmithing. He loves to make Japanese-style knives and swords.
“You can come here and laugh,” he said. “You can come here and cry. You get hugs and handshakes when you walk in the door. When you’re not here, people miss you and call and check on you. They genuinely care. With the V.A., it’s just a job.”
Seymour served with the Army from 1995 to 2001. He’s found it hard to transition from military life, where soldiers support and look out for each other, to civilian life, which is more individualistic and competitive.
Visions for Vets bridges the gap.
“Here, you’ve got that same camaraderie and brotherhood,” Seymour said. “But instead of learning how to fight, you’re learning how to create beauty through art. Basically, you’re doing a complete 360.”
More than 64,000 veterans live in St. Louis County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2011 to 2015. There are nearly 50,000 in St. Clair and Madison counties, a much greater percentage of the population.
Such statistics and the willingness of some Illinois veterans to travel to Fontbonne for art workshops tell Beaty that Visions for Vets needs to expand into the metro-east.
Marion is trying to help him find a suitable facility, as well as volunteer teachers and mentors and sponsors to pay for art supplies and other expenses.
“We’ve got guys on this side of the river who can’t always get a ride,” Marion said. “They need someplace closer.”
My purpose is to save lives of veterans and try to remove the suffering. I’ve been through it, and I don’t want anyone else to have to go through it by themselves.
Scott Beaty on founding Visions for Vets
Howard served in the Army from 1971 to 1978, but it was glaucoma that caused him to go blind.
The grandfather of 15 has explored several art mediums and now is hooked on pottery. His current project is a small casserole dish.
“It’s therapeutic,” said Howard, who wears dark glasses while shaping the clay. “It’s a challenge. I’ve loved art ever since I was young, but I never had time to paint or do anything I’m doing now. It’s just a passion. It helps me. It’s just a peaceful place.”
One of Howard’s mentors is Amanda Bushey, 23, of Fenton, Missouri. She’s a Webster University student with a part-time job teaching art to mentally disabled adults.
Bushey eventually wants to be an art therapist who works with veterans full time.
“They give so much for our country, and a lot of them have issues coming back,” she said. “Art is an expressive way to say something that maybe they can’t verbalize.”
At a glance
Here’s what you need to know about Visions for Vets:
- How to participate: Military veterans from all branches and conflicts can show up for art workshops from 6 to 10 p.m. Fridays or 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays in the Fine Arts Building sculpture studio at Fontbonne University, 6800 Wydown Boulevard in St. Louis. Activities are free.
- How to support: Contact Scott Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-800-5902. He’s looking for a metro-east facility for workshops; art supplies or money for art supplies; volunteer teachers and mentors; and sponsorships to provide meals or help with other program needs.