American Legion Auxiliary — February 2013
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Blind Ambition
Madison Maves

Out of the Darkness

NATIONAL VETERANS
CREATIVE ARTS FESTIVAL
GOLD MEDAL WINNER

JIM STEVENS ACTED AS THE EYES OF THE ARMY FROM 1968 TO 1979. WHILE SERVING A TOUR IN VIETNAM, HE WAS PART OF A SIX-MAN TEAM THAT WENT DEEP INTO ENEMY TERRITORY TO COLLECT INFORMATION. DURING A COMBAT RECONNAISSANCE MISSION IN 1970, STEVENS WAS SHOT IN THE HEAD.

Twenty-three years later, residual shrapnel stole his eyesight. Stevens had returned to civilian life; he was teaching English and Employment Law at the University of Colorado, had a family, and was enjoying art as a hobby. Stevens’ art included drawing, sculpting, and scrimshaw – carvings done on bones or ivory. While preparing lesson plans on the computer, Stevens was suddenly overcome with a migraine, and words started disappearing from the screen.

His vision blurred and suddenly darkened until he could see almost nothing. For years, Stevens had been plagued with migraines caused by the bullet fragments in his head. This particular migraine caused a stroke to his visual cortex. Stevens permanently lost all but a pin dot of sight.

Within a year of going blind, his wife left the family, he became a single parent of two young daughters, and he lost his job and the confidence to continue his art.

Stevens succumbed to loss and anger. In a fit of rage and desperation, he destroyed most of his unfinished art — precious paintings, drawings, sculpture, scrimshaw — with a baseball bat.

“I had to fight this war twice,” Stevens said when he recalled the battle he had to face after going blind.

For the first seven years after losing his eyesight, raising his young girls was about all he could focus on. “I was a pretty miserable individual,” he recalled. Stevens said he had to accept the fact that to have a life, he would have to reinvent his life. Helping his daughter cope helped get him on his way. While Stevens struggled to adapt to his new life, so did his oldest daughter. He decided to enroll her in martial arts in order to learn some self-discipline. It worked so well that Stevens’ other daughter encouraged him to try it as well.

It was then that he turned to martial arts to help him overcome his anger. For the first seven months, his sensei (martial arts instructor) helped him learn to listen and recognize the direction of the slightest sound as well as judge the distance between him and his opponent. This allowed him to learn how his opponent moved and how to defend himself.

After two years of intense study, Stevens earned the rank of brown belt and professed he was ready for competition — but his instructor told him he also had to be ready to leave his cane at the door and compete on even terms with his sighted opponents or not compete at all. Entering the competition, no one was aware that Stevens was blind — not his opponents, the judges, or the audience. After a series of brutal fights, Stevens was left with a broken nose, three cracked ribs, a torn left rotator cuff, a dislocated left knee, and a championship trophy. His 18-year-old opponent didn’t learn he was blind until after the tournament.

Today, Jim Stevens is the only legally blind man to win the men’s fighting competition in the Martial Arts Tournament of Champions. In addition, he achieved the rank of black belt in just four years.

His sensei told him that martial arts is an art as well, and that art teaches art. He encouraged Stevens to go home and start creating, sculpting, painting, and drawing again. Stevens has enjoyed art since childhood when his grandmother taught him to draw with a piece of her charcoal and sketching paper. He honed his skill as an adult when he studied with master sculptor Ed Dwight. Stevens experimented with lenses that allowed him to work using the mere pin dot of vision he had left.

“At the same time my sensei recommended getting back into my art, the VA recreational therapist, Ron Davis, was pestering me to get back into art as well,” Stevens said. He had always enjoyed art as a hobby but never considered its therapeutic value. After getting a few pointers from Davis, he finally decided to start again.

When he tried his hand at art again, his daughter demanded he try his best and not quit until he carved a wizard in ivory for her.

Stevens went back to his scrimshaw. Although it’s not easy for anyone — blind or sighted — he thinks it’s the perfect art for him because he etches small dots into ivory and all he can see is a pin dot anyway.

“Sometimes I would get so frustrated, I would throw a piece across the room,” Stevens said. “My daughter would pick it up and bring it back and remind me I promised not to quit. It took me two years, but I carved that wizard,” Stevens beamed with pride when recalling the moment he completed the piece. It remains the only piece he refuses to sell.

Eventually, he started creating pieces as gifts for family and friends. Using a variety of specialty lenses, he kept working and re-learning the craft with limited eyesight, a major challenge for any artist. After a long learning process and finally being satisfied with his work, Stevens agreed to do a commissioned piece. “I was scared to death,” he said.

Before he knew it, word spread, and Stevens was receiving requests from people all around the world. Today, his work can be found in galleries and collections in the United States, Canada, Europe, South Africa, and Russia. His clients range from private collectors to colleges and museums. “I just kept working and suddenly was too busy to be angry anymore,” Stevens said.

“Creativity is the human capacity to grow, solve problems, and even change behaviors. Through creativity, the arts can and do change lives every day,” Stevens said.

In 2010, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recognized Stevens through the VSA registry list in visual and literary art. When founded in 1974, the organization was named the National Committee — Arts for the Handicapped. In 1985, the name changed to Very Special Arts, and in 2010, it became VSA. Stevens is one of 1,700 artists recognized with the honor from the international organization on arts and disability founded by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith to provide arts and education opportunities for people with disabilities and increase access to the arts for all.

“I’m so very lucky,” Stevens said. “My work is collected all over the world; I have three published books and am listed at the Kennedy Center.”

Although Stevens is an acclaimed international artist, nothing gave him more joy than when he won gold medals at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in 2010 and 2012.

“The recognition from both the art community and the veteran community rolled into one says more than all the private gallery shows I have won,” Stevens said. “Because an enemy bullet took my sight and this was a veterans event, when I won, it was a ‘Yes’ moment.”

Susie Clyde, ALA Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Committee Northwestern Division chairman and NVCAF volunteer, agrees that the program gives veterans a sense of personal achievement and self-confidence. She said the incidents that brought the veterans to the VA programs were heartbreaking and yet heartwarming that they have overcome so much.

“The same recreational therapist that hounded me to get back to doing my art thought I should enter the contest,” Stevens said. “He is a persistent bugger.”

Showcasing his art at NVCAF was a goal Stevens set for himself in hopes that he would eventually be good enough to participate. He said he never could have foreseen all of that success when he started his art again in 2000. “I wanted it but certainly didn’t think I would win,” Stevens said. “Not everything I enter wins.”

“About the time you think you are good, you are put in your place,” he said. “It does wonders to make you go back and try again the second time.”

NVCAF volunteer and VA&R Committee Southern Division Chairman Susan Lee, herself an educator, said that NVCAF gives veterans a goal to achieve. “This program is very beneficial to our veterans,” Lee said. “It helps them be goal-oriented and enables them to share their talents and skills with others — both veterans and the community at large.” Stevens was one of 55 visual artists and 69 performing artists chosen from 3,725 veterans representing 130 VA facilities who originally entered categories within the divisions of art, creative writing, dance, drama, and music. His piece titled “Biafra” won the Special Recognition Physical Disability category.

“Seeing the work here, you can’t help but leave inspired.”

Though Stevens still struggles with certain limitations, there is very little he hasn’t at least tried. He helped launch a website, rewired his home office, and re-roofed his garage — all after losing his eyesight. In the process, however, Stevens also tumbled off his garage, prompting a stern warning from his doctor. “I gave myself a hernia and wound up at the VA hospital. The doctor looked at me and said, ‘Jim, you’re blind. We don’t want you on the roof.’”

Still, Stevens says he is happy with his life. “It has been a long process, but I have finally re-mastered the skills I once had. The art and the quality are finally there again. After years without art, once again, I love what I do,” he posted on his website at www.scrimshawstudio.com.

“Outside of my art, I enjoy my children, my writing, and my continued study of the martial arts,” he said. Stevens, who attributes his success to persistence, offers this advice for the rest of us when the going gets tough: “When you get discouraged, remember what my daughter told me: ‘You promised not to quit.’”

It doesn’t appear that Stevens will be quitting or slowing down anytime soon. Three-time Emmy Award winning screenwriter Paul Cooper recently completed a screenplay about Stevens’ life. According to Cooper, “It’s a story that needs to be told.”

Meet Three Other NVCAF Gold Medalists with Compelling Stories

REBECCA HEISSLER
U.S. AIR FORCE/DESERT STORM

After returning from combat during Desert Storm, Rebecca Heissler’s health deteriorated. The former staff sergeant in the Air Force was diagnosed with brucella, a disease that afflicts many Desert Storm veterans.

Heissler endured two heart surgeries and struggled to hold a steady job because of her health. Her husband frequently took off work to take care of her. Heissler, a dual member, reached out to the American Legion Auxiliary for help and was awarded a grant from the Auxiliary Emergency Fund (AEF).

“AEF came at a time when I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Heissler said. “I didn’t want to ask for help, but we needed it.”

The AEF grant allowed her to shift her focus from house needs to health needs. Shortness of breath had forced the former Air Force Choir member to give up singing. Heissler fought depression. In an effort to have a few hours of happiness, her husband took her to a movie where she heard the song “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.”

“I was on death’s door, and God spoke to me,” Heissler said. She made a New Year’s resolution to enter the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival and has since improved her health and won seven gold medals for singing.

DONALD TAYLOR
U.S. ARMY/KOREAN WAR

Donald Taylor, a former corporal in the U.S. Army, still bears the mental scars of war.

Taylor had a mental breakdown while deployed to Japan during the Korean War and was immediately hospitalized. As part of his medical treatment,he received 36 electroshock therapy procedures. “When I got out, they called it schizophrenia,” Taylor said. “But now, it’s PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).”

Because his record had an incident of mental illness, Taylor couldn’t find a job in his former field of education. When considering his options, he reflected on a time when he was 5 years old. His father gave him a saw, hammer, and nails so he could build a playhouse. He followed his love for woodworking and made it his career. He has made commissioned pieces for people all around the world, including a rocking chair for President Bill Clinton.

“Woodworking was my salvation,” he said. “If I didn’t have it, I might be dead now.”

Taylor has won three gold medals at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, and at 81 years old, cannot wait to enter a piece in the 2013 competition.

ELLIOTT SEPHUS
U.S. AIR FORCE/OEF-OIF

Elliott Sephus, a former staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, was a confident and proud military man. But after serving his country for 10 years, he found it hard to return to civilian life.

Sephus had deployed to Saudi Arabia and Turkey and was selected to tour the world with Tops In Blue, a touring performance ensemble made up of active-duty members of the Air Force. The ensemble is composed of 35 vocalists, dancers, musicians, and technicians.

During his military-to-civilian transition, Sephus found himself homeless and jobless. However, during a routine doctor’s visit at his California VA, he saw a flyer for the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival and decided to make a call.

A recreational therapist encouraged him to attend the audition. He was eventually selected to participate in the 2012 NVCAF as a gold medalist in the music division. Sephus, the youngest 2012 NVCAF participant at age 31, was once again a proud military man.

“It’s been extremely therapeutic being around so many veterans,” Sephus said. “They are so open to share and teach. How could you not listen?” Sephus is currently an actor and box office representative at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.

About the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival

Nationwide, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities use the creative arts as one form of rehabilitative treatment to help veterans recover from and cope with physical and emotional disabilities. Across the country each year, veterans treated at VA facilities compete in local creative arts competitions. These competitions include more than 53 art categories that range from oil painting to leatherwork and even paint-by-number kits. In addition, there are 120 categories for all aspects of music, dance, drama, and creative writing.

The creative writing division is a more recent addition to the NVCAF competition and includes original works in poetry, essay, short story, and personal experience writing. In 2013, the program will include a new category called “Healing Art” for active military personnel receiving care at military medical facilities. A national selection committee chooses first, second, and third place winners among all of the entries. Select winners are then invited to attend the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival each year.

The National Veterans Creative Arts Festival is a week of learning, exploring, fellowship, and celebration of the healing power of the arts. Because the gold, silver, or bronze medal winners are selected in advance, there is no competition at the event itself; rather, it serves as a showcase for the top national winners.

During the week of the event, participants can attend classes in fine, applied, and craft art, all taught by local artists. As part of the Festival, veterans also visit a variety of local attractions including art museums and galleries, as well as other sites of interest to visitors.

Since 2000, the Auxiliary has played a key role in NVCAF as a national presenting cosponsor along with Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition to providing sponsorship funds, Auxiliary departments also provide volunteers who assist with everything from punching meal tickets to stuffing programs to ironing costumes for the stage show. Best of all, Auxiliary members have the opportunity to meet and develop relationships with the veterans who participate.

“It was so gratifying during the most recent festival in Boston to see Auxiliary members visit the veterans’ art exhibit at the Massachusetts State House, congratulate the artists, and attend the stage show performance,” said NVCAF Director Elizabeth “Liz” Mackey. “We are deeply grateful to all American Legion Auxiliary members for their contributions to veterans and the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.”

SUPPORT THE NATIONAL VETERANS CREATIVE ARTS FESTIVAL

Since 2000, the American Legion Auxiliary has played a major role in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival as national co-sponsor with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. This therapeutic benefit of the arts as therapy begins in local veterans medical facilities. It’s a great opportunity for units to work with their local VA hospital or home to support a festival or help get one started. Consult the American Legion Auxiliary’s How to Facilitate a Local Veterans Creative Arts Festival. You can use Poppy funds to host a mini Creative Arts Festival at your post home or local VA facility. There is also a small grant fund to which units or departments can apply to help their local VA facility start a Creative Arts Festival or workshop. The poster shown here can be downloaded in both 11x17” and 18x24” print-quality PDF formats. These resources are available at www.ALAforVeterans.org or by contacting VA&R@ALAforVeterans.org to learn more about this great mission outreach program.

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