WEYERS CAVE, Va. — Gillian Henderson found a home in the military.
But less than four years later, it was taken from her.
After enlisting in the Army in 2003, she was discharged in December 2006 as a specialist after she developed a neurological disorder and autoimmune disorder. As a result, she’s been on crutches for more than a decade.
But about 18 months ago, Henderson, 33, of Palmyra, began expressing herself through painting.
“The paintings help because I don’t really fit in the civilian world,” she said. “I kind of lost everything that I was when I was pushed out of the military, and so the paintings are an area that I can sort of find parts of me again, which is something that I’ve been struggling with for years.”
About six months ago, she began working with War Paints, a Harrisonburg-based nonprofit that encourages veterans to create works of arts and then provides a platform to sell them. The organization has about 30 veterans and first responders producing and selling art, with all proceeds going to the artist.
On Feb. 27, Henderson joined four dozen others in attending a lecture given by War Paints founder Rusty Noesner at Blue Ridge Community College. The audience then visited the college’s art gallery, where the showcase “War Paints: Honoring Veteran Creativity” will be on display until April 6.
Several of Henderson’s paintings are on display in addition to dozens of metal sculptures and other veteran art.
The university matched a $3,000 grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts to put on the exhibit, as well as fund a six-week metalworking class last fall for eight or nine veterans.
Noesner, 33, originally of Fairfax County, served in the Navy from 2008 to 2014. After suffering two brain injuries in combat, he was sent for treatment to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
There he first discovered art therapy and a love for painting and photography, a passion he brought to the Harrisonburg area in 2014.
For Noesner, art is “tremendously focusing,” he said. Veterans can track their own progress as they improve their artwork.
“It’s good for the veteran in that they can put their work up, but they don’t have to talk about it,” he said. “No one’s forcing them to explain themselves through their art. It’s just there to be observed and reflected upon.”
Wiley Perry, BRCC’s welding and machining program manager, taught the school’s metal-working class for veterans. Perry had them create a portrait out of metal scraps, a branding iron and a metal hand or fist — all as a means to get them to express themselves.
As a former Navy welder, Perry said, he was able to connect with the veterans throughout his class.
“The welding lessons just opened the door for their creativity,” he said, “and they were able to kind of put away some of the fears of the unknown — and once they had some instruction, just start experimenting.”
War Paints and BRCC are planning to offer more classes for veterans in the future, Perry said.
Freshman Nathan Pettit, 19, attended the lecture and stopped by the gallery. His father served in the Army for 22 years, he said, and he wants to connect him with War Paints. His dad’s generation believed in keeping their emotions to themselves, he said, and may benefit from taking up a craft.
”(Noesner’s) extensive background and his field craft and just his experience overall in being able to provide the help that some other veterans might need desperately,” Pettit said, “I guess is a very reassuring thought.”
The gallery allows the veterans to show viewers that they have more to offer than just their profession, Noesner said. One of his goals through War Paints is to help them reconnect with their civilian selves, something many struggle with after returning from combat.
“I think it’s a window to understand that veterans themselves and first responders are multifaceted humans,” he said. “There is more to them than the identity of service.”
For more information, visit warpaints.org.