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The Artists of IMPART

Artwork from the IMPART Ceramics Exhibit.
Artwork from the IMPART Ceramics Exhibit.

IMPART Ceramics Exhibit
Through January 5
Opening reception: Tonight, December 12, 6:30–8:00

There’s a new ceramics exhibit in The Art League Gallery this month, and if you’ve seen it, you surely wanted to know more about the artists behind it.

The IMPART Ceramics Exhibit represents a unique group of student artists and a special outreach program. The I.M.P. in IMPART stands for Injured Military Personnel and A.R.T. stands for, well, art. The IMP artists from the Warrior Transition Unit B, Fort Belvoir, along with their families and friends, have been taking ceramics classes at the Madison Annex for about a year. This exhibit is a rare opportunity to share some of the artwork they’ve made.

“Some folks have really found a voice in clay, and we decided to put on an exhibit for them,” said Blair Meerfeld, chair of The Art League’s ceramics department.

The program started in 2011, when Suzanne Bethel, then The Art League’s Deputy Director, approached Blair with the idea to create a new Art League program to serve the local community of Injured Military Personnel and transitioning veterans at Fort Belvoir. The idea was to use visual arts instruction as a catalyst for personal enrichment, improving fine motor skills, relaxed social engagement, and expressive catharsis. And it seemed a natural fit to start such a program in the Ceramics Program.

Letter From Home by Jonathan Meadows.
Letter From Home by Jonathan Meadows.

The program got off the ground later that year after Carla Amerau joined the ceramics department as a new associate artist. As retired military, Carla was able to guide the process and act as a liaison with Fort Belvoir.

It started with demos in a Fort Belvoir common room, trying to attract attention from one person at a time. It was tough going at first, but “once we got them coming, they were hooked,” Blair said.

“Some folks have really found a voice in clay.”

One day during a demo, Blair said, a young man asked to try his hand at the potter’s wheel. He had made pots back home in Idaho before his tour in Iraq. His participation during that demo lent some credibility to the idea of “trying it out” for others in the Warrior Transition Unit, and with people now bringing their friends from the base, the program continues to grow through word of mouth.

“Every week it is a topic of discussion in WTU B Company — I wish Wednesday was every day so we could do pottery!” said Sergeant Will Roberts, a recent participant in the program.

Clay artwork from the exhibit.
Clay artwork from the exhibit.

The IMPART students that come from the Warrior in Transition Unit are injured soldiers who are transitioning between their injury and moving on to return to their unit, or a new job, or retirement. These soldiers often have free time between medical appointments and their assignments so the Events Coordination Office sets up things for them to do, such as this Wednesday ceramics class.

It’s not a typical ceramics class, though. Students are building back their motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and muscles, and dealing with stress disorders. The term isn’t limited to the usual nine weeks, either — they can stay for a month or a year, however long they’re at Fort Belvoir before they move on.

“It’s different from anything else I do for The Art League,” Blair said.

Coming Home by Jonathan Meadows
Coming Home by Jonathan Meadows

The ceramics classes have therapeutic benefit because they’re relaxing and they give students a creative opportunity to express and work through issues they have in their lives. That outlet for creative expression is one of the main goals of the program. “Even making a bowl probably helps,” Carla said.

Working with clay is also beneficial for dexterity and vision problems, Blair said.

“Every week it is a topic of discussion in WTU B Company.”

At this point, the IMPART classes at Madison have an average group of six to nine people coming each week, including soldiers and the friends or family who come with them. Most people are working on ongoing projects from week to week, and any new students can start learning how to sculpt with clay or throw bowls on the wheel. Most students have never done anything with clay before, Carla said. They’re just looking for a continuing, creative experience.

Classes are about three hours a week, but students keep in touch during the week. When you get a text asking if a piece is fired, or if it’s dry yet, it’s a good feeling, Blair said — a sign that people are engaged with the program.

The Art League’s IMPART program isn’t limited to the ceramics studio. Since its inception, the program has expanded into a great collaboration between The Art League, Wounded Warriors, and the USO. Using the USO national Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir Hospital, The Art League provides visual arts experiences on Monday afternoons for in-treatment PTSD military patients. These IMPART participants have taken painting and photography classes, attended portrait painting demonstrations with Rob Liberace, and have learned to mat and frame their artworks.

Art League instructor Rob Liberace gives a painting demo at Fort Belvoir.
Art League instructor Rob Liberace gives a painting demo at Fort Belvoir.

What’s next for IMPART? Suzanne Bethel, who became The Art League’s executive director in 2012, offered this: “We’re working on a plan to add new independent class scholarships for Injured Military Personnel, and their techs, starting in early 2014. Stay tuned …”

The Art League is proud to be extending its mission to this community and to be offering this special program to Wounded Warriors. For more information about the IMPART program and how you can support it, click here.

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