A powerful portrait series featuring Veterans and their struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder opens this weekend at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus.
Depicting The Invisible: Portraits of Veterans Suffering From PTSD shares the experiences of Veterans with more than a dozen six-foot by six-foot works on canvas. Each one combines a photograph, paint, collage, and text to tell the story. Previously on display in New York, Florida, Washington D.C., and Tennessee, the exhibition opens Saturday April 3 at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus. Artist Susan J. Barron spent two years collecting the stories of Veterans, but she almost walked away from the project when tragedy struck.
"It was a Veteran named Damon Zeigler and right before the show was to open in New York, I got a call from his mother that he committed suicide," Barron said. "That was a very dark time for me. The other Veterans reached out to me and said - you can't walk away, this is why you are doing this project because this happens 22 times every day. This is just the first time you knew somebody that this happened to. We know hundreds of people. This is why we gave you our stories, because these stories have to be told. That really redirected me into this project 110 percent."
Rena, another Veteran in the series, shared the story of being raped by a star soldier and how she felt that no one would believe her. Barron reads the rest of Rena's story:
"I am sworn to do my duty as a medic, but I cannot bear to save this guy who raped me. The worst part of our society is that we don't believe women when they come forward. Why would we want to make up something so bad about ourselves? Of course they're not lies."
"An incredibly brave, powerful woman telling her truth," Barron said of Rena. "I look at her portrait as an intersection of Veterans service and the Me Too movement. We just have to encourage more women to come forward and tell their stories. That's the only way we can put a stop to military sexual trauma."
Barron notes that PTSD takes various forms and presents different symptoms and challenges for each individual Veteran. She's found that most feel forgotten or invisible when they return home. Lt. General Michael Ferriter, president and CEO of the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, agreed and added that Veterans long for a connection to others.
"This disconnectedness reveals itself in many different ways," Lt. General Ferriter continued. "Sometimes it's in the workplace. They come to work, do their thing, go home, and think no one here understands. Other Veterans are homeless, and they're not connected to anyone. Other Veterans have split up with their families. So the number one thing we can all do is to reach out to a Veteran and just give them a call. I called a guy this morning and said give me a situational report and tell me how you're doing. They probably want a friend and a comrade and a good listener rather than a solution."
Barron hopes her work sparks that connection for viewers on an emotional level but also a practical one.
"I hope it can inspire people to step up and make a difference," Barron said. "There's a lot of organizations out there doing great work. Many of them are listed as part of this exhibition. People who might go through who need help can call. People who want to make a difference can donate or volunteer."
The portraits are also helping other Veterans who are struggling. Barron shares an example from one of the earlier showings.
"A young man was walking around and reading every single portrait," Barron recalled. "He came to me and said I've been having really dark thoughts. He said I went to the VA this morning with thoughts of suicide, and they said all I can do is lock you up - a just call back on Monday kind-of-response. He got into a taxi and heard an ad on NPR for my show. He just felt that somehow God was telling him to go see that show. He was really moved by it. At that time, the founder of Freedom Fighters Outdoors was with me viewing the show. I introduced them, and she said you are not alone anymore. You have a family. He got hooked up with Freedom Fighters Outdoors. The gallery owner said I've had a lot of shows here, but I've never had one that saved a life."
That encounter and the project as a whole reflect something she learned from a teacher.
"I once had a painting professor that said you only have a certain amount of paintings that you can make in your lifetime, so make every one make a difference," Barron recalled. "So that's what I keep trying to do, make a difference."
Susan J. Barron's Depicting The Invisible: Portraits of Veterans Suffering From PTSD will be at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus through January 2. Barron's documentary film will accompany the displays, and the museum plans to host a series of interactive events tied to the exhibition.