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Healing Through Art: 22VA Takes Holistic Approach To Veterans' Struggles

There's no how-to guide for re-adjusting to civilian life after returning home from war. 

For many veterans, coping with the physical and emotional damage involves years of professional treatment, or resorting to self-destructive coping methods like drinking, drug use, and even suicide to escape pain.

A Peoria group tries to create a space for community and healing for veterans through art. 22VA is named for the 22 American veterans who take their own lives every day. 20-year Navy veteran Michael Ragan founded the group.

Ragan said the holidays are the hardest times. That's why 22VA hosts a winter art exhibition at the Peoria Public Library. It's a chance for artists to channel what they feel in a healthy way. 

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Credit Tim Shelley/ WCBU
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Ragan said he thought his art was too twisted. He said his style combines broken pieces to create something new and beautiful. His first, unsigned submission to an art show in 2012 won an honorable mention.

His next entry was about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He named it "Headaches" because he wasn't ready to talk about his experiences.

But someone understood.

"The guy who was judging the competition that year was a Vietnam veteran. And he said 'somebody in this room knows what it's like to wake up inside my head.' He said this piece was very moving. And I want to say this piece was called 'Headaches,' but I think it's about PTSD," Ragan said.  He started recruiting fellow veterans for 22VA not long after. 

Michael Ragan's sculpture, "PTSD."
Credit Tim Shelley/ WCBU
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Michael Ragan's sculpture, "PTSD."

For Vietnam veteran Mark Varichak, carving is his form of expression. He started when he was a Boy Scout. After he joined 22VA, he picked up his boyhood past time again.

After snakes die at the Peoria Zoo, their bodies are refrigerated for postmortem analysis. Varichak got the teeth for this pipe through his friendship with the zookeeper at the time.
Credit Tim Shelley/ WCBU
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After snakes die at the Peoria Zoo, their bodies are refrigerated for postmortem analysis. Varichak got the teeth for this pipe through his friendship with the zookeeper at the time.

Among other things, he's carved a 1950 Chevy coupe, a piano with a hand-powered wooden crank that pounds the player's arms on the keys, and a briarwood snake pipe embedded with real snake's teeth. 

"When you're creating art, any kind, your mind is focused, which is a boon, you know, for you and for the art community. I mean people, if they like your work, it's fine, and if they don't, hey, you got it out of you, and you've enjoyed creating something," he said. 

Other veterans are into "found art" crafted from ordinary objects. Tom Boylan was a Navy deep sea diver who served on submarines in the 1960's and '70s. He said those experiences made him an environmentalist, but not a tree-hugger.

Boylan exhibited a piece he built out of materials he collected along the Illinois River. A worn clock is draped over a net filled with salvaged trash. Boylan calls it "Time Is Running Out." The junk strategically pokes out of the mesh.

"That's an old hub. And I had to rig it up and balance it obviously a little," Boylan said as he pointed out the individual components his art. "And I made sure the straws came out. This is classic. This Styrofoam takes a while. It'll break down, but not like the plastics. So I put a bunch of stuff on it. And I put a tail on it. That's for me."

A sketch of a 400-pound Bengal tiger Randolph Prunty briefly encountered in the jungle during his Vietnam War service.
Credit Tim Shelley/ WCBU
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A sketch of a 400-pound Bengal tiger Randolph Prunty briefly encountered in the jungle during his Vietnam War service.

Other artists dabble in several forms. Randolph Prunty is a Vietnam war vet who does everything from dioramas to colored pencil sketches. He now handles veteran's assistance issues for Woodford County.

He says many loved ones ask him how they can help their sons or daughters after they return home from active duty. He had some advice.

"Just talk. Just...if you can get 'em to talk. If it's art, if it's something, get 'em interested in something. And then the healing will begin with that," Prunty said.

There are also artists in the group who run Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous classes. Ragan says some even give tattoos to help those less artistically inclined tell their own stories in a visual form. 

"I think that this is a way of helping people express themselves with art as a therapeutic way. It doesn't take drugs, medication," Ragan said. "And it also is not one of the bad things, the drinking, the going out and brawling and fighting, which some of us still do. But there's actually art here that's about that, too."

Ragan recently quit his job with the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs to dedicate more time to 22VA, which is now a certified non-profit. He's purchased a farm near Germantown Hills, which he's named the Hope Ranch. He's converting it into a peaceful oasis for veterans and non-vets alike.

Tom Boylan's old diving helmet.
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Tom Boylan's old diving helmet.
Out of the Wood by Tom Boylan
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Out of the Wood by Tom Boylan
Drawing by Air Force veteran Larry Morrell
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Drawing by Air Force veteran Larry Morrell
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Tim Shelley / WCBU /
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Paintings by Stormy Monday
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Paintings by Stormy Monday
Tim Shelley / WCBU /
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