KC Cares: Monkey Brain Art

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Karen Love makes adjustments to her fluid art project at a Monkey Brain Art class July 11. // Photo by Beth Lipoff

For Gary Walker, art was the only thing that could calm his mind while dealing with the PTSD he has as a result of his time in the Air Force. Now he and his wife, Trish, are reaching out to help others who may have trouble dealing with trauma experienced on the job.

Their non-profit, Monkey Brain Art, focuses especially on veterans and first responders. The name comes from the Buddhist idea of the monkey mind—one that’s unsettled or restless.

They kick off each free art class with some mindful meditation, stationing volunteers to watch the doors so that participants will feel comfortable closing their eyes and letting their guard down.

Participants try a new medium of art each week, over the course of nine weeks. It can be anything, from coloring with crayon to pouring paint and making fluid art.

Having that variety makes it easier for people to find what works for them. Trying something new with the group also allows them to build a community with each other. Though the classes just started last year, they’ve already worked with more than 200 people.

Right now, the classes happen in four different places around the KC metro including the American Legion in Smithville, St. Michael’s Veterans Center, the Veterans Affairs Honor Annex, and the Veterans Community Project.

One of the things they like to emphasize at Monkey Brain Art is that you don’t have to have any artistic skill or experience to be part of the program.

“We don’t want people to think, ‘I can’t go because I’m not an artist,’” says Trish Walker.

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Instructor Casey Ballantyne demonstrates how to make a fluid art painting as participants Misty Metzinger and Karen Love watch during a Monkey Brain Art class July 11. // Photo by Beth Lipoff

There are some ground rules for the classes, including not telling war stories. The classes are meant to be a safe space to open up and relax, and this helps avoid triggers that might exacerbate another person’s anxieties.

“We all have PTSD, so we recognize when somebody is going through stress or anxiety. We try to do everything we can in our courses to lessen the amount they will have,” says Gary Walker.

Many of the teachers are also veterans or first responders, so they understand the issues participants may be having.

Kara Silvey is an Army veteran who took an art class earlier this year, and this fall, she’ll be teaching a piano class. She sustained a traumatic brain injury in the line of duty in 2009 and is always looking for ways to deal with the difficulties she faces as a result of that injury.

“I call it my arsenal. You just put all these things in your toolkit, and you pull them out when you need them. You didn’t have to be an artist to sign up, so I thought, ‘I’ll try anything,’” she says.

Although an art class was outside her comfort zone—and one of the only classes she’d taken since her injury—she’s glad she tried it.

“I was really impressed by the welcoming spirit that each of the volunteers has. The overwhelming feeling I got from every single class was that they would tell us, ‘We’re here for you. We’ll hold space for you. We’ll meet you where you are,’” she says. “Those are huge things, because I have a lot of pain almost every day with headaches and a neck injury, and I spend a lot of my time managing my pain, and a lot of times that involves hiding it from people. When I walked into  a Monkey Brain Art class, I knew those were the kind of people I would never have to hide what I was feeling to fit in.”

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Karen Love tilts her canvas to change the image of her fluid art project during a Monkey Brain Art class July 11. // Photo by Beth Lipoff

Before her injury, piano is what helped her calm her mind. But after her injury, she couldn’t play.

“All pathways between my brain and my hands had been disconnected from that injury. I was devastated, because I lost the one thing that would bring me peace and calm. It was my escape,” she says.

After ten years, she managed to reconnect those pathways and is now a teacher. When she decided she wanted to give back and help the community she’d found through Monkey Brain Art, she wanted to do it through music.

“By relearning and reconnecting all those pathways in my brain, I was able to see improvements in my speech, my cognition, and my memory. Putting that all into place really helped my recovery. That’s what I want to share with others, is that there is a healing power in music, and it is really good for your brain,” she says.

Usually, there are between 10 and 14 people in each art class. The photography classes are smaller, and the music classes taught by Silvey will also be smaller.

Other class participants have gone on to sell some of their art, even without having prior experience. You can find some of them at the KC United Art Festival at the World War I Memorial Oct. 8.

Gary Walker has been pleased to see the effect art has had on himself and others.

“The change we’ve seen in me has been unbelievable, and now we get to see it in other people. It’s just special, when someone comes to you and says, ‘Listen, you guys saved my life.’ And I’m like, ‘We didn’t save your life. Art did. You saved your own life. We just gave you the tools to start working on it,’” he says.

Monkey Brain Art has worked with numerous veterans’ organizations in town to provide classes and help them offer an art component as part of their services. Going forward, he wants to reach out more and collect art supplies for houseless veterans to use.

For more information on volunteering or teaching, visit monkeybrainart.org

Categories: Culture