The Earl Project presents veterans with creative outlets: ‘It doesn’t make you seem like you’re alone’

Soldiers march off the field before a K-State football game against Oklahoma State in Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Nov. 5, 2016. (Emily Starkey | Collegian Media Group)

Sunlight beams in through the open door as Virginia Davis looks down at the table, perusing the room where she and eight or so other friends have gathered to converse and create pieces of art they wish they didn’t feel compelled to make.

It’s a warm Saturday afternoon, and there are two tables set up in this small annex of the Manhattan Arts Center. At this one, where Davis stands, a few people—some students, some teachers—sit in folding chairs working on different designs.

Kyle Van Vogelpoel has singed holes in an old Dungeons and Dragons character sheet. Victor Andrews is busy writing on his old Army patch. Davis has contributed to art on two navy blue pieces of cloth. One has boot imprints on one side, on the other, four words: “You will die I’m sorry.”

When the project is finished in a few weeks, all these pieces will be sewn onto a small-scale replica of the Bayeux Tapestry—a 230-foot embroidered cloth that depicts the events leading up to the invasion of England by William of Normandy in the year 1066—and, ideally, the military veterans and their family members gathered here for The Earl Project will feel some degree of gratification through their art.

The idea came from Geraldine Craig, a Kansas State art professor, whose uncle Earl Molzen suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from his time serving in World War II. Craig liked the idea of teaching art to veterans, so she successfully applied for a grant from the Mid-America Arts Alliance and the National Endowment for the Arts which provided the funds needed for supplies: cloth, glue, scissors, foil, candles, pens, pencils and more for these “burn-out” workshops.

They’re aimed at teaching veterans and soldiers “simple but evocative methods in creating images and stories with fabric and paper burn-out techniques, conceived as emblematic of the psychic burn-out that many soldiers experience,” per an official release.

The first session took place on Saturday, but for those in attendance, it is already serving its purpose.

Van Vogelpoel, former cavalry scout in the Army deployed to Iraq twice, came home doing things he hadn’t before he left. He’d be watching a movie, and if the DVD buffered or skipped, he would hurl the disc across the room.

He’s come a long way since then, he said, and this workshop is making things even better.

“Having this openness to talk helps,” said Van Vogelpoel, now an art teacher at Rock Creek High School in St. George, Kansas. “Even if you don’t want to admit it, you don’t want to go there. Nobody wants to ask for help. We want to be that strong individual. When you finally do ask for help and you make that first step, the rest of it is pretty easy to keep going forward.

“Having an active community does help you open up a little bit more,” Van Vogelpoel added. “It doesn’t make you seem like you’re alone.”

At the table adjacent to Van Vogelpoel, Alex and Lori Cruz of Junction City are working on their own projects. The two have been married for 10 years now. They met online, playing the video game Lineage II. Lori’s father was in the military, but the only veteran in this couple is Alex. He is 19 years removed from being employed as a mechanic in the Navy.

But things came to a tipping point in 1999, when Cruz learned the ship he worked on was being retrofitted to allow more room for female enlistees. He remembers his thought process.

“‘What’s it going to be like?’” Cruz remembers thinking. “‘Am I going to get in trouble for small things that might happen?’”

His four-year enlistment was nearing its end anyway, so he decided to depart the Navy in search for another line of work. He met Lori soon after. The two married and eventually moved to Junction City. They’re close, but there’s one thing Cruz doesn’t like discussing with others: his military experience.

“It’s not that America is terrible with it. They believe in the service and what veterans and people who are serving now have done,” Cruz said. “But a lot of the times, to me, the question is, ‘Do they really want to hear about it?’ They understand that we served and everything and what we’ve done, but do they really want to hear about it?”

Cruz isn’t much of a talker anyway, he said, so his reluctance to retell his experiences in the armed forces doesn’t bother him much. But it is a conscious thing. He would rather talk about something else.

That’s what makes an event like this so special, he said.

“It’s a common ground for us,” Cruz said. “It brings a lot of opportunities for people to talk about what they used to do, and other people understand it.”

Not everyone in this open, lively room left the military on such graceful terms.

Andrews isn’t particularly tall, but he’s a Hulk of a man: a stocky figure with well-defined muscles that would give away his military experience if he wasn’t already so eager to share about it.

He’s here with his wife, Arobelle, and he’s struggling to complete his project. It isn’t his fault. A four-year member of the Army as a platoon sergeant, he suffered three brain injuries in Iraq that eventually led to his discharge in 2012.

Since then, he’s had trouble with anything artistic, anything requiring “abstract thought.”

“Unless someone lays it out, I can’t think outside the box,” Andrews said. “It’s hard to explain to people, because a lot of people say, ‘Oh no, you’ve just got to try.’ It’s like, no. I literally can’t do it. So me coming to stuff like this, it’s nice, because there’s someone to guide me through what I should do, how to go about it.”

Now, Andrews gestures to his old patch and offers what is perhaps a microcosm of the reason these veterans and their relatives chose to spend their Saturday afternoon finding ways to express themselves, even if (or maybe because) they don’t turn out perfectly.

“Even though I can’t think in those abstract thoughts,” Andrews said, “I tend to make nice little errors while I’m doing the project. But I find out that those errors are kind of what I want it to show. I couldn’t figure out how to do that, until I’m like, ‘Oops, that happened.’

“Then I was like, ‘Oh. That’s actually what I want.’”