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Veteran's Art

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Using Storytelling for Positive Change

Jessa Carlstrom  

When Jessa Carlstrom first came to UMD, her dream was to become an actress. A little further down the road, she discovered her true calling was to help military veterans.

Carlstrom is the co-founder of Warrior Arts Studio (WAS), a 501(c)3 nonprofitin Chicago that works to create long-term opportunities for veterans to use art. WAS helps veterans to tell their stories through artistic mediums like poetry, theater, sculpture, painting, novels, woodworking, and more.

In preparation for her career, Carlstrom attended UMD. She graduated in 2000 with a Theatre degree, emphasis in performance. However, she realized she connected most with directing and producing. Her mentor, Bill Payne, dean of the School of Fine Arts, encouraged her to intern at a Chicago theatre company now called American Blues.

 “At the core of their art, they believed in representing true Americans,” Carlstrom said. “It was great because I had that connection, and it was something I believed in.”

After co-founding a theatre company with some fellow UMD grads for two seasons, Carlstrom reconnected with an old playwright friend from American Blues who had taken interest in working with military veterans.

“This idea of military and studying war has actually been something I’ve been interested in in the past,” she said. “It was just always kind of in the back of my mind. A lot of the plays I’ve really liked and related to have had that kind of background in them.”

She became engaged with the cause while working with the Vet Art Project.

“I really got embedded into the community and committed to the community of helping veterans tell their story and seeing a direct result and an instant result of how art, and how storytelling can make a positive change in somebody’s life,” Carlstrom said. “Even the smallest story can open doors of communication.”

Carlstrom wanted to give members of the veteran community, who she says don’t always have the opportunity to share their story, a sounding board. She was amazed by the opportunity be a part of it.

“Everybody who has come to an event, or who is a family member of a veteran who has experienced this, is ever changed,” she said.

Carlstrom realized she wanted to do something more. Payne introduced her to fellow UMD graduate Matt Olsen, and they discussed her ideas at a workshop.

Carlstrom told Olsen that she wanted to make helping veterans tell their story her life and career. "I told him I want to make it bigger and better and a truly established place for people to come and make art in their own way on their own time without judgment of anything." She asked Olsen if he wanted to help her, and Olsen said yes. From there, she and Olsen worked together to found the Warrior Arts Studio (WAS).

The organization is run solely by volunteers. Actors, playwrights, directors, painters, sculptors, and other kinds of artists donate their time to provide a service completely free of charge for the veterans. Currently, WAS is working to design and raise funds for The Veteran’s Cultural Center of Chicago, which will house the studio and provide space.

“It’s great because it’s going to be an opportunity for us to have more successes of reaching out to people in the community,” Carlstrom said.

Providing a forum for stories that might otherwise remain untold is important to Carlstrom. WAS is not a therapy group. Carlstrom says many veterans appreciate the reprieve from being analyzed. She fondly recalls working with a veteran named Rob who performed two tours of Iraq. One night, the team got together to work on the script for Rob’s play.

“It was probably the best night of, not only working with the organization, but also of watching theatre being created that I’ve ever had,” she said. “Rob told his story in a way that I don’t think he’s ever told it before.”

It was a moving experience for everyone involved. The process of working through the script made helped everyone understand what it was like on those tours.

“[Working with Rob] allowed the actors to tap into the characters they were playing, understanding these men in a combat situation a little bit more. Watching the transformation happen, you can’t really just put words to it. The change is happening inside.”

When Rob’s family saw the play, they talked about meeting a new part of him.

“They said, ‘These are things that we’ve never heard before.’ It helped them to see a part of this person they loved so much that they hadn’t ever witnessed before,” Carlstrom said. “And this level of being able to reconnect with their son, or their husband, or their friend, was all of a sudden able to happen. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

The affects of WAS’s work reaches beyond the veterans, volunteers, and even those in the audience.

“It cycles out because other people witness that and say, ‘My best friend, or my dad, or my mom has military experience. I’m going to go home and talk to them about it,’ ” Carlstrom said. “It’s just this big chain reaction, and it’s amazing how art can help with that.”

For more information, visit the Warrior Arts Studio website.

Written by Maeggie Licht, February 2012

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