By Josh Whitener
Patriotism has always been a passion for art instructor Eileen Schwartz, and a huge part of her love for America is showing appreciation to service members who’ve dedicated their lives to serving their country.
That’s why she recently joined forces with Charlotte-based nonprofit Flags Across the Nation and the Matthews Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resource Department to show appreciation to veterans through something new and unique: free art classes.
The Art for Veterans program premiered at the McDowell Arts Center last month, and the center will host a new series of classes beginning July 11. Classes take place every Thursday through Aug. 1 (with the exception of July 25) from 2 to 4 p.m. All classes take place at the McDowell Arts Center, 123 McDowell St., and students can register online at www.matthewsfun.org under the “McDowell Arts Center” tab, or by calling 704-321-7275.
The month-long program offers free art classes to all veterans, guiding them through a series of drawing, visualization and painting exercises for two hours each week. Materials are provided free of charge, and all veterans who sign up for the classes receive a free Matthews Artists Guild membership.
“(The classes) give the veterans an opportunity to develop new skills and techniques, and (veterans) also have the opportunity to create art that will (result) in a new direction for them,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz, who teaches all of the classes, begins with a short series of drawing and visualization exercises before diving into painting techniques. From there, students begin painting sessions that total six to eight hours.
Schwartz also gives the veterans optional assignments to do at home.
Jim Jarrett, a Coast Guard veteran, enrolled in the classes to take up a hobby he was always interested in but never pursued. After taking the classes, Jarrett purchased a “very nice” easel and embarked on a journey of creating his own paintings at home.
“I always had a desire to paint. I have some (artistic) talent, but never did anything with it at a younger age,” Jarrett said. “It’s been very helpful for me to develop a new hobby and do some new things for myself that I always wanted to do.”
But the classes go beyond teaching students how to draw and paint, Schwartz says. The program also offers veterans – especially those who’ve experienced the horrors of war – a chance to heal.
“We want to have them exploring, discovering something on a new creative level that opens some spiritual doors or healing doors if they need healing,” Schwartz said.
Something Schwartz has found to be very effective is a “freestyle drawing exercise,” where veterans close their eyes and simply move their marker across the paper by what they feel.
“I wanted them to remove their thoughts as much as they could … challenge them to do something differently than they normally would,” Schwartz said.
Jarrett, who focuses on a mixture of realism and impressionism and loves painting things like colorful Caribbean houses and flowers, said the classes have been relaxing and therapeutic for him.
“You realize how relaxing art can be,” he said. “The hustle and bustle of the world goes away. It’s therapeutic for sure, and a great sense of gratification … It’s a positive type of hobby.”
Schwartz also teaches classes for children and adults with disabilities, and said she plans to combine artwork from those sessions with Art for Veterans work for a show sometime in the spring of 2014.
In the meantime, she’s encouraging more veterans to get involved in the classes, and urging current students to return for future sessions.
“There’s no catch to this (class),” she said. “They really are free to all veterans. It’s just our way of saying, ‘Thank you for your service.’”
For more information or to register for classes, go to www.flagsacrossthenation.org or www.matthewsfun.org, or call the McDowell Arts Center at 704-321-7275.