CHELSEA — Combat medic Shawna Barnes experienced a lot during her time in the Army. Since leaving the service in 2011, Barnes has found sculpting therapeutic as she battles numerous medical conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and a neuromuscular autoimmune disease.

“I use it as occupational therapy, and because I’m 100 percent disabled and can’t work, it gives me something to do and a new passion in life,” said Barnes, who entered a sculpture of a pigeon carrier dog into a contest Wednesday. “I’m down in my studio, and I just get lost in the clay.”

Barnes was one of nearly 60 veterans who participated in the 2018 Maine Veterans Creative Arts Competition in the theater at VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus, the federal hospital outside Augusta.

The contest, put on by Togus and the American Legion Auxiliary, featured 73 entries in the creative arts division, which includes pottery, photography, assemblage, painting, quilting, drawing and creative writing, and about 30 in the performing arts, including music, drama and dance.

Courtney Oliver, one of Togus’ recreation therapists, said the creative arts are important to a veteran’s care. This year’s contest – the 13th held at Togus – was the largest and had two-thirds of the participants taking part for the first time.

“We’ve been working closer with the Maine Arts Commission, Colby College and the Harlow Gallery (in Hallowell), so word of mouth is certainly helping,” Oliver said. “Veterans are telling other veterans about the program, and it’s only going to keep growing.”

Barnes’ sculpture of an Airedale terrier – “Big Wook the Pigeon Carrier” – took her 60 hours to complete with clay, acrylic paint and pastels. The piece is part of a series of sculptures called Animals of War that came about after a conversation with her husband about wanting her art to spark conversation. Her husband said it’s a way for her to connect with other people.

“I started sculpting and realized I love it,” said Barnes, of Knox, who also teaches an art class at retreats hosted by the Travis Mills Foundation. “I have a story written in my head of what I want.”

Throughout the performing arts competition, veterans representing every major conflict since World War II took the stage and shared their stories in the form of a song, poem, performance or story. As has become tradition, the show opened with the Windy Ridge Band, which has won several awards at the national competition the last few years.

One of the earlier performances was original poetry written by Stanley Munson, a returning participant who won a gold medal at the national competition last year. He was emotional as he began reading a poem called “A Soldier’s Mom,” and Oliver had to finish reading it for him.

Munson, of Belfast, was blinded permanently more than 37 years ago when he drove his vehicle into the back of a truck as a U.S. Army soldier in Germany. His creative writing, including children’s books and books of poetry, helps him deal with his significant brain injury.

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, which will be held in October in Des Moines, Iowa. One of the pieces was an assemblage depicting the Togus community garden by its caretaker and veteran, Harold Massey.

Army veteran Melissa Chason of Saco entered a collage made up of screen-printed still photos of veterans; a ceramic bowl; and a sculpture of her Army footwear, including combat boots and high heels.

“When you think of combat boots, you don’t usually think of women,” Chason said. “But we’re here now, and I wanted to show that.”

Herb Macomber, an Army veteran who suffers from chronic depression and chronic pain, submitted a piece he sewed and quilted honoring the memory of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He also entered a denim messenger-style bag he made from a pair of old, size-50 jeans he wore before he underwent weight-loss surgery.

Togus Associate Director Dan Dücker told the audience before the event that organizers will continue to reach out to community partners to make the event an even bigger success.

“I think we’ve only just begun,” he said.

Jason Pafundi can be contacted at 621-5663 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jasonpafundiKJ