CHELSEA — U.S. Army veteran Herb Macomber said he suffers from chronic depression and chronic pain, but when he’s sewing or quilting, those feelings disappear.

“It lets me focus on something else,” said Macomber, who entered a small quilt with an elephant pattern into a contest Wednesday. “You look at guys, especially veterans, and tell them you quilt, they’re going to (question what you said), but it works for me.”

Macomber was one of nearly 100 veterans who participated in the 2017 Maine Veterans Creative Arts Competition in the theater at the VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus, the federal hospital outside Augusta.

The contest, put on by Togus and the American Legion Auxiliary, featured about 50 entries in the creative arts division, which includes pottery, photography, assemblage, painting, quilting, drawing, creative writing and more, and almost 50 in the performing arts, including music, drama and dance.

Courtney Oliver, one of Togus’ recreational therapists, said the creative arts are important to a veteran’s care.

“It gives them a (creative) outlet and helps them relax and deal with trauma or pain or depression (in a way) that isn’t just medication,” Oliver said.

She said some of the veterans do things they already know, but the recreational therapists work with their patients to help overcome barriers.

“If they feel like they need a creative outlet, that’s something we definitely help them with,” Oliver said. “Once everyone finds their outlet, that’s what you’ll see here.”

Stanley Munson, of Belfast, was blinded permanently more than 36 years ago when he drove his vehicle into the back of a truck as a U.S. Army solider in Germany. He said creative writing has helped him deal with his significant brain injury in more than just practical ways.

“When I talk, I’m sometimes long-winded and lose track; but when I’m writing, when a thought enters my head, I can always go back,” Munson said. “I hated writing in school and wanted nothing to do with it, but as stuff started popping into my head, I started writing it down.”

Munson said he’s written children’s books, books of poetry and how-to books and is working on an autobiographical book of poetry.

“It’s allowed me to put a lot out there about my story and how I dealt with stuff,” Munson said. “My hope is that somebody will read it, because it’s just been a good outlet for me.”

Throughout the performing arts competition, veterans, representing every major conflict since World War II, took the stage and shared their story in the form of a song, a comedy routine or a story. The show opened with the Windy Ridge Band, which has won several awards at the national competition the last three years, who performed three songs throughout the afternoon.

Then World War II veteran Richard Seaman told the story of how he was the lone survivor of a B-24 plane crash in 1944. And in a humorous moment, fellow World War II veteran Leroy Peasley asked Seaman how old he was. When Seaman said 92, Peasley said he had him beat because he was 93.

Peasley and Seaman then shook hands and embraced in a moment usually seen only on TV or in the movies. The audience appeared to be moved by watching the two veterans. Peasley then proceeded to play harmonica and the guitar during a 10-minute medley about his life and story.

Emcee Gary Crocker said music, humor and the creative arts are tremendous ways to heal the wounds of war.

The lobby of Building 210 featured pieces of pottery, drawings, paintings and other artwork submitted by veterans hoping for a chance to move on to the national competition. Omer Gagnon, a Marine Corps veteran from Limerick, had two pictures drawn with crayon, as well as a large assemblage piece called the “Care of Soul,” which looked like a carousel with more than 100 figurines, hand-painted and assembled by Gagnon.

He said the piece took him about three years to complete, but it was really something he’d been working on his whole life.

“I’m 64, so I’d say it took me about 64 years to get to the point where I was capable of doing this,” he said.

The retired college arts professor said the creative arts are a salvation for him.

“It allows me to get focused, and it gives me something to do with my hands so my mind’s not racing,” he said. “I figured out how to focus my energy and got into the arts.”

Gagnon said he’s proficient in many media and said new experiences with different media takes one down different roads of thought and provides different challenges.

“After you learn something, you realize your responsibility and you just keep pushing and pushing,” he said. “I’ve done pretty well (selling my art), and really, it’s saved my life.”

Steven Rothert, of Farmington, is a Navy veteran and education counselor at Togus who lost his hearing doing Naval demolition work. He has painting with watercolors for more than 20 years and has had his work on display at military installations around the world and in local galleries.

He said he always wanted to paint, and after taking four lessons at the behest of his wife, he fell in love with the medium. When he was on active duty during the Persian Gulf War, he was able to find time to escape the melee of activity aboard a ship or at a base and just paint.

“Everyone has a happy place,” he said. “I could bring the good moments with me to replace the bad moments.”

He submitted a watercolor of a steam engine with a nurse holding two loaded pistols, walking in front of it. He said it represents and honors many of the nurses he got to know while in the Navy and working at Togus.

“She could be an Army nurse or a field nurse, but she’s locked and ready to go,” Rothert said. “This is sort of a tribute to all the nurses I knew.”

Oliver said she expects to have about a dozen winners that will represent Maine in the national competition, which will be held in late October in Buffalo, New York.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

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Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ