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As a medical specialist in the military, Mark Smith experienced first-hand the reality and consequences of war. He accompanied both combat and human-itarian missions during his deployment in Iraq. “It really is something much more than you see on television, to have to spend an hour with a woman who may have lost her son or daughter, to hold the hand of a soldier who had to make some tough choices and maybe he lost a friend, to be there to have to encourage young men and women to keep fighting.”
Back home, out of the combat zone and out of uniform, the memories lingered.
Meanwhile having finished his 8-year stint in the military, Smith decided to pursue an MFA (masters degree in fine arts). He was never far from a drawing pencil in childhood, and he’d demonstrated a talent for visual art in his student days. As a soldier, not only had he been immersed in a non-Western culture, he was stationed for an extended period in Europe, with its museum treasures, historic architecture, and ancient ruins. Smith has an intellectual bent and he wanted to explore the social and psychological dimensions of art in his graduate studies. In 2008 he started a Goddard College program of his own devising in the anthropology of art.
At the same time he found himself deeply compelled by the emotional and therapeutic rewards of his own art process. “When I picked up the pen and started drawing again, I deliberately wanted to use art as a way to understand my own experiences. I kind of free associated with art to alleviate the pressure inside of me.” He says this self-expression also gave him a more objective perspective on the impact of war. When you can put thoughts and feelings on paper or canvas, “you see that part of you outside yourself.”
It was a logical leap from there to Smith’s decision last year to start his internet site on combat veteran expressive art. The website, www.expressiveartworld.com, displays his own work as well as that of other individuals who’ve experienced war from a soldier’s point of view. He hopes to enlarge the number of veterans (of U.S. conflicts, and those currently serving) featured on the site. The intention is to embrace all kinds of creative expression, he emphasizes, not just visual art.
Smith’s own art frequently employs mixed media. “That’s charcoal, pen and ink, and gouache and watercolor, all mixed together.” He points out that the work “does illustrate some horrors of war, but that is specifically meant to remind us of the seriousness of the consequences of things.” His focus on people, at the center of his imagery, conveys the human side of violent conflict. As Smith talks about his time in the Middle East, it’s evident that his interactions (aided by interpreters) with Iraqi men, women and children -- “just talking to people in the most drastic circumstances” -- were key experiences for him. “I got the feeling that we’re all human beings, we all want to live a peaceful life.”
Living a peaceful life became very difficult for Smith in the aftermath of his departure from Iraq and completion of his military service. After a few years he noticed some problems. “I had a terrible time sleeping, then I started having some anxiety and some panic attacks. All these things I didn’t understand. I was trying to deal with it on my own not knowing I had a problem.” He says things became more severe as the months went by. “Finally when I started limiting myself as far as where I would go or what I would do, I decided to get some help.”
He credits the success of his ongoing recovery to “some really good people here at the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC) in the Indianapolis VA hospital.” Despite the challenges of coping with PTSD (post- traumatic stress disorder) Smith is optimistic. “I just encourage other people with disabilities to pursue their dreams and not give up on their true bliss… There are other people out there that care.”
Smith has settled down with his family in Brazil, Indiana, where they relocated from California. “I have a wonderful wife and four great kids.” “The cost of living is reasonable here, there are excellent schools -- it’s beautiful here.”
Goddard College has a residency-based MFA program that requires only limited time on campus in Port Townsend, Washington. Indianapolis is close enough that he can donate some time there to work with veterans who are in a medical setting. Under the auspices of Help Hospitalized Veterans, he works to facilitate the expressive avenues of craft and art for these patients.
How does Smith plan to use art as a career? A major goal is to work one-on-one with vets and people with disabilities, to offer instruction, foster creativity, and be a mentor. Smith is getting trained to qualify for a certificate in art therapy. In February 2011, two of Mark Smith's works were chosen for inclusion in the Art of the American Soldier exhibit on the National Constitution Center Web site. To view the pieces type Mark Smith in the Search Box.
On a more public level, he would like to continue to promote the art of veterans and people with disabilities through the website and perhaps “a [nonprofit] organization such as ArtsWORK Indiana.” He envisions the establishment of an archive and creation of exhibition opportunities. Along with the ongoing growth in the numbers of veterans represented on his site, he would like to enable them to sell their work online.
As far as the sale of his own art, Smith acknowledges he needs to know more about the how-to’s. He exhibited his work at Brazil’s Masonic Temple in November. He’s had showings in university and hospital settings, and even created a design used on a military coin. However he has not sold any of his art (though “I’ve given away tons of it,” he says.) He would like to do so.
He's clear that finding buyers is not as important to him as sharing his creative vision and that of others who have faced challenges. Smith will bring attention to these hidden creations, “so that anybody can go and look at it and feel something.” His exposure to other cultures, he explains, taught him that art can have a social value – it’s more than a commodity or a decorative object. “I really believe that art can serve a broad function.”