Art therapy helps heal scars for local vets

Robert G. Mull

Therese Gaughan MacKinnon enlisted in the Army in 1989 because it seemed like the best option for her  at the time.

After taking time off to complete her military training, MacKinnon was enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as a dance and music major. A classically trained pianist, she dreamed of going to New York City and becoming a full-time musician. But midway through her fall semester, her idyll was shattered.

Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, and the United States, along with the United Kingdom, France, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, rushed to Kuwait’s aid and expelled the Iraqi forces in what became known as the Gulf War.

MacKinnon was called to duty, which she immediately answered. Setting aside her studies, she deployed to the Persian Gulf. When she returned two years later, her university told her that since she had missed out on so much, including her final exams, she wouldn’t be able to continue her studies there.

She decided not to give up on her dream and moved to an Army National Guard unit in Troy. But soon she realized that what she had seen during her time in the war wouldn’t leave her. It stayed in her and she didn’t want to acknowledge that part of her life or that she was even a part of the military anymore. No matter how much she repressed them, memories came back to haunt her.

Years later, at a poetry reading when she heard another veteran perform, something in her changed.

“She said something in her poem, and it made me freeze,” said MacKinnon. “And it was like I was speaking, telling part of my story, and I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t believe it was so similar. And her poem was so profound. So, I decided, I’m going to talk to this veteran.”

The veteran, Penny McGinnis ran an art therapy group for veterans at the Joseph E. Zaloga American Legion Post in Albany.  It was there that Therese Hikari was born.

MacKinnon chose ‘Hikari’ as her artist name because it meant light in Japanese. It was also a nod to her mother’s Japanese heritage.

She has been making art since she was a child, but only very recently started using it as a part of her recovery. MacKinnon began art therapy in the beginning of 2020, and has finally been able to acknowledge her past, by putting a veteran sticker on her car.

“This has been the healthiest year I’ve ever had as an adult, because it’s real, but it doesn’t have to bind to me anymore.”

Other veterans also acknowledge the power of art therapy. Mary Jo White, also a veteran of the Gulf War, found solace in art and in knowing that there were other people going through the same thing that she had.

“It’s been very, very good for me,” said White. “There’s really no judgement. And we’re all there and supportive of one another and helping each other learn how to do different techniques and not every technique is for everyone, but you certainly can pick things out of it and enjoy other people’s joy as they’re finding that they can come out of things like this.”

Christine Mikolajczak began art therapy when she was at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Campus of the VA Hudson Valley Health Care System in Montrose, Westchester County. She joined the service in 1984, graduating from the Naval Technical Training Center in Meridian, Miss. She was stationed at the Pentagon at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and with the chief of naval operations and later under the surgeon general of the medical command. However, while in the military, she was sexually assaulted on two occasions.

Mikolajczak then quit the military, making the difficult decision to retire early.

“I loved my job. And I miss it to this day,” said Mikolajczak. “It gave me great satisfaction and basically fit my personality. But then that happened and that kind of ruined everything. So that’s why I got out. I wish it didn’t happen.”

She then began art therapy for her trauma. Art had always interested her and she found it to be one of the most effective forms of therapy.

“It’s extremely helpful when it comes to what happened to me. And it just provides therapy that I can’t get with anything else. And you can just do whatever, there’s no rules really. You can just create whatever art comes to mind,” said Mikolajczak.

Art has gone from a form of therapy to a full-time vocation for many of these veterans. Their art has been displayed in galleries across the region as well as in veteran’s memorials in Washington D.C.  They use a variety of mediums from oil paints to photography and their art ranges from abstract to expressionism.

Mikolajczak has her work displayed at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt museum at Hyde Park. Her work has been displayed at the New York state Capitol, Arlington Cemetery and at Dulles International Airport in D.C.

Mackinnon had her work in a show at the Art Associates Gallery in honor of Women’s History Month last year, and both these artists will have work displayed at the Military Women’s Memorial at the Arlington Cemetery.

“This gives you a voice,” said MacKinnon. “The most important part is sometimes we need to hear ourselves to really feel heard. And I think the bottom line here is we hold space for each other, so we can be heard, and we acknowledge that. Just by simply just being.”

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