BRIDGEPORT — Two years ago, veteran Kevin Gray was doing well and working in a printing plant.
Then the plant closed and he was out of a job.
“Here I am trying to make myself marketable again,” said Gray, 52, a former Army medic. “And at this age it’s not easy.”
He admitted the frustration and hardships that led him to the Homes for the Brave, a transitional home for veterans trying to rebuild their lives, still bother him. So when he was encouraged to participate in weekly therapeutic art sessions as part of the Westport Arts Center‘s WAC Gives Back program, Gray, who in May completed an advanced manufacturing course at Housatonic Community College, was skeptical.
He hadn’t done any artwork since he was a kid.
Then he met WAC’s Artist in Residence Jermaine West, a graffiti artist from Norwalk who goes by the name Jahmane. He taught the 25 men in those sessions how to put their feelings, thoughts and ideas into their work using his graffiti techniques — including a Graffiti Black Book that serves as both a journal and sketch pad.
Five weeks later, at a showing of their finished pieces at the Homes for the Brave’s Park Avenue site on Thursday, Gray called the program an “awakening.” For two hours every five weeks, his problems didn’t seem as overwhelming, he said.
“As the weeks went on, they gave us a chance to express ourselves,” Gray said. “In art there is no right or wrong. It was an awakening really.”
His final piece was a collage consisting of people wearing bright colors and smiles.
“I’m not going to go out and put my moniker on the wall,” Gray told Jahmane, eliciting chuckles from people at the showing. “But at least I know when I want to be free, I can express myself in art.”
Jahmane, who has some of his graffiti art displayed on vacant buildings downtown, said all of the men were open to the idea of trying something new.
“I see how each piece reflects each individual,” he said.
Brian Dudley‘s piece was certainly a reflection of his “hustling” past. The Army veteran, who served in the mid-1980s, painted a red, white and blue striped background and placed fancy watches cut out of magazines around the middle.
One watch was placed around a gremlin’s waist to look like a championship belt. In the gremlin’s arms, which were raised up over its head, sat Brian’s name in bubble letters.
“It helped me clear my mind, getting my mind off being out there in the streets,” said Dudley, a Hartford native and recovering addict. “I was like, I’m not doing that … but they kept pushing me and pushing me. And the more I got into the more I started to like it.”
The WAC Gives Back program was developed two years ago as a way to bring art sessions to special populations, like children, the elderly and veterans, who could benefit from it, said Danielle Ogden, the center’s director of education.
The program at the Homes for the Brave garnered more participants than expected. It was so successful WAC plans to extend the sessions with the men past the initial five weeks and will start sessions with female veterans next week.
“We were so proud of how the veterans really put thought into it and reflected on their past, their lives, their journeys and background,” Ogden said.
Elijah Jefferson, a Navy veteran from Bridgeport, said it was inspiring to see Jahmane take the time to share some of his knowledge with veterans. “It establishes a significance for veterans as a whole,” he said.
“I just think it (the artwork) will give others a sense of who veterans are,” she said.