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Veterans Antiquities: Building a brotherhood 

click to enlarge As part of Veterans Antiquities' mission, dependent veterans are assigned piecework projects such as creating birdhouses from scrap wood and license plates.
  • As part of Veterans Antiquities' mission, dependent veterans are assigned piecework projects such as creating birdhouses from scrap wood and license plates.

It's about disposability, isn't it? To treat a person like an object, use her up, cast her aside. Send her off to war, turn her into a fighting machine, then stash her away when she's no longer of use.

And so it goes with objects, as well. In an economy ruled by single-use and planned obsolescence, only eccentric DIYers bother to make their own stuff (or repair what's broken), and raw materials by the ton still end up in trash heaps.

What then is the lesser evil? To live off the grid, wasting not and wanting not, tending to one's own garden (to slam together three cliches)? Or to pick a battle against that system, without entirely abandoning it, by standing up for those misfit toys, those misfit fighting boys?

I'd have to scrap this article right about now if the guys behind Veterans Antiquities hadn't decided on the latter. To stick around, to stand up for themselves, to advocate for their fellow vets - and to repurpose what's been cast aside in the march toward progress.

They're doing it from a storefront on 46th Street, right along the Monon Trail, using space donated by the nearby Doc's Architectural Salvage. The store is, in one sense, a showroom for work by veteran artists, some who've worked for years at their craft, other who picked up a paintbrush only after returning from active duty.

But peek around the front desk and you'll come across a workroom filled with scrap wood, license plates, old uniforms. Another part of the Veterans Antiquities mission is to involve unskilled veterans in creating useful objects from easy-to-use templates, from birdhouses to clutches.

"It's about marrying skilled and dependent communities," according to Chuck Mack, a founder of Veterans Antiquities and owner of midtown bar/restaurant Moe & Johnnys. All while using reclaimed materials as often as possible. Reclaiming wood, reclaiming lives.

A quick tour

Mack's taking me on a tour through the space, greeting his buddies and comrades. We walk through a breakroom (for when veteran employees' "synapses aren't quite firing"). We stop in a corner of the front "showroom" stocked with art supplies and a kiln (kids can come to work on pieces while mom or dad is attending a workshop). And we head out back to a water-logged warehouse - the drainage is a little iffy on the property - fully equipped with woodworking equipment where trained employees can knock out jobs (such as an order for 43 reclaimed tables for the new Broad Ripple restaurant Taverna).

Walking with a determined gait (his hip was blown to pieces stateside during Vietnam-era training exercises), and with a manner that's convincing, ingratiating and probably no-BS if you push him, Mack razzes Tim Hildebrandt, a multimedia artist who's been instrumental in putting together a production process designed around the needs and abilities of unskilled vets. They've known each other for some time: Hildebrandt painted the murals on Moe & Johnny's walls.

Circling the showroom's displays, each devoted to a single veteran artist, he introduces me to Vance Wilson, a 30-something Iraq vet who's in his first year of studying furniture design at Herron. Wilson, who's been doing carpentry for more than 15 years, has skills well beyond the average first-year student. A lamp made from a golf club would probably look great in your dad's den, but I'm more taken by a more modern design incorporating both blonde and brown woods, as well as a line of jewelry made from circuit boards.

Wilson is behind the organization's Sewing for Life project, which reminds me a bit of People for Urban Progress's Dome Bag project. Only instead of using reclaimed roofing or signage, Wilson and his fellow vets are making clutches, laptop bags, cell phone pouches and other bag-based products out of discarded uniforms. The templates already on sale have a rough-hewn charm. Some models pair camouflage with tie-dyed fabrics to achieve a swords-to-plowshares feel - one side representing war, the other peace.

Wilson and Mack are working on involving unskilled workers in the Sewing for Life project. And not just veterans. Mack is, above all, a community-builder, and as of mid-September, he was concluding an agreement to involve the employees of Noble of Indiana (which works with adults with developmental disabilities) and Goodwill Industries (which works with the "poor," as Mack sums up) in the project. All would be paid on a piecemeal basis, like all unskilled employees working at Veterans Antiquities. Production will begin at the 46th Street store, with plans to move to a larger location if the project takes off.

Others circulate through the store this afternoon. There's Mark Smith, a veteran's advocate (oh, the stories he can tell you about government and veteran's affairs chicanery) and multidisciplinary artist whose vivid battle scenes, rendered in ink with washes of intense color, compare favorably to Joe Sacco's war-zone graphic novels.

Jeff Crist is new to this game: He started painting seriously in the past year, and his work ranges from big, bright, clanging abstract canvases to a big, bright but more focused piece like his riff on the American flag, which includes a quote from Patton and was painted using a slurry that included oregano and cayenne pepper.

And then there are the guys like Earl Jeffries, who has no more in the way of marketable skills as a visual artist than this reporter, but who makes birdhouses on a piecemeal basis. And non-veteran volunteers like Lilly Mack, Chuck's 22-year-old daughter, who's helping out by teaching social media and computer skills while on summer break from studying at Indiana University.

All are welcome, in other words. And Chuck Mack's the guy who brought in a lot of them.

Members of the Veterans Antiquities team (from top left) Jeff Crist, Lilly Mack, Chuck Mack, Vance Wilson, Tim Hildebrandt, Jerry Savage; (bottom, from left) Earl Jeffries, Mark Smith.
  • Members of the Veterans Antiquities team (from top left) Jeff Crist, Lilly Mack, Chuck Mack, Vance Wilson, Tim Hildebrandt, Jerry Savage; (bottom, from left) Earl Jeffries, Mark Smith.

Benign benefits

Mack was sitting around with a group of friends about five or six years ago, enjoying adult beverages and whatnot. They were talking about veterans benefits. And there were some that Mack, who's been in the VA system for some time now, still didn't know about.

But wait, we ought to go a little further back. A graduate of Wabash College who still heads to homecoming when he has the druthers, Mack signed up for Vietnam when he could see no other good options. He didn't have connections; deferments weren't forthcoming. But his tour of duty came to an end when he was injured in 1969.

He spent months in the Great Lakes Naval Hospital recuperating. He walked out with a 70 percent permanent disability. In short, he was entitled to a bunch of benefits, but the military hasn't historically done the greatest job of explaining said benefits to an outgoing soldier. Or as Mack puts it, "All federal benefits are benign; you have to know about them to apply for them."

Back in the near present, Mack, who landed on his feet and built Moe & Johnny's into a tri-partite food, coffee and beer-serving force, found himself thinking: How can I help vets to empower themselves? And who else is working along the same lines?

Because Mack's not looking to create redundancies. He and the rest of the organization want to partner with the community when possible, to build on programs that are already successful.

Jeff Piper, for instance, has been working with physically disabled vets to create home and garden projects for over a decade through his organization OV'R There Industries. When he joined up with Veterans Antiquities in summer 2012 as director of program development, he brought along with him his design for a birdhouse made from recycled cedar wood and old license plates.

"We pay on a piece-by-piece basis and have a system set up around the fact that we're working with an at-risk population," says Mack of Veterans Antiquities' program for unskilled and disabled veterans. "We can't put them in a workplace environment. There are still some ghosts there for these vets, physical and emotional wounds, struggles with drugs and alcohol.

And so for Mack it's about "building a brotherhood, a place to hang out," where vets can work together, hang out together. And at the same time, that marriage of skilled and unskilled allows the organization to bid for contracts and jobs. "People aren't going to buy a bad product just because it has a good story behind it," Mack says.

A case study

On a broader scale, Mack hopes that Veterans Antiquities can be a model for similar organizations - even a case study so that others might learn from the organization's successes and failures. To that end, he first met with Juliet King, the director of Herron's graduate art therapy program, about a year and a half ago.

"Chuck and I discussed how his program is inherently therapeutic, and how primary goals are to to create a veteran-centric environment, help provide an environment that is conducive to skill building and autonomy, and develop products to sell that will sustain the business," says King.

Veterans Antiquities wouldn't be a good fit as a clinical internship for art therapy students, King says, but she's been brainstorming with Mack on how students might best participate. One option would be to collect data "to see whether or not the systems that Chuck has in place are successful for the outcomes he is looking for," according to King. Another could be "to have art therapy students (or professionals) be a part of the program to intervene if emotional distress interferes with productivity."

"Art therapy," King explains, "has been around since the 1940s, when psychiatrists started to notice the connections between creativity and mental illness in the state mental hospitals ... military personnel were coming home with shell shock and found that engaging in art making and music was a relaxing endeavor and helped to provide more energy."

Still, there remain relatively few qualified persons work locally in the field: "The Midwest, and Indiana in particular, has only 33 registered art therapists (there are about 7,000 of us nationwide) and the awareness of this way of working is limited."

In the end, King says it's unfortunate there aren't more people doing therapeutic work along the lines of Veterans Antiquities, because "art therapy and the creative arts are a very powerful and important way of working, especially with those who have endured trauma."

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