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Peace of Art

A local veteran painted to cope with post-combat stress.
Now he hopes to help others do the same

By TERRY LEE GOODRICH  1/6/2007
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER

When he was a 6-foot-4, 250-pound high school freshman competing in football and track, Phil Volk did not broadcast his passion for art.

He did not flaunt it, either, during his eight-year stint in the Army.

Phil Volk

But after he was discharged in 1997, creating art helped the Desert Storm veteran deal with post-combat trauma.

"I believe I've been able to exorcise somewhat those things other people keep bottled up," said Volk, 36, a former counterintelligence agent who is jail supervisor for Bedford.

Gulf war veteran Phil Volk of Bedford stands among some of his work. His art for Veterans program could start by April.

Now he plans to help other veterans and their families with an art for Veterans program sponsored by Bedford-based ARTSNET, a nonprofit serving Northeast Tarrant County.

Studies by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments show that many veterans have readjustment problems and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from war.

"This war right now is so much more intense than what I went through," said Volk, a former sergeant. "I can't imagine how those who serve are able to come back and reintegrate. I remember what a shock it was being back after being in the theater of war, where you didn't know what was going to happen from one day to the next -- seeing dead bodies and knowing that the only difference between you and them is one second, one bullet.

"I didn't pursue art to rehabilitate myself, but that began to happen when I did it," he said. "My spirits began feeling lighter, and some of the uneasiness was taken away."

Volk's art is on display through Jan. 16 at the Fort Worth Public Library. He has also shown his work in galleries and art cafes.

He said he will volunteer to help at the upcoming Art for Veterans sessions. He is searching for art therapists willing to donate time, although some participating veterans may prefer simply to create art. ARTSNET will provide space and is seeking donations for art supplies. The program will likely begin before April, said Karin Newell, ARTSNET president.

Volk took art classes as a youth. After graduating from Cumberland Regional High School in Seabrook, N.J., and joining the Army, he studied art history and philosophy at Chaminade University of Honolulu while stationed at Fort Shafter, Hawaii.

He served in the Army from 1990 to 1997, including stints in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq.

After his discharge, he moved to Bedford, working as a security guard and retail manager.

He took a job as a Bedford detention officer in September 2004 and was promoted in August to supervisor and facilities coordinator.

In his spare time, he creates large surreal acrylic paintings, many of them 3 feet by 4 feet.

Among the subjects depicted in bold colors are profiles of people, body parts, a flag, a torch, a lightning bolt, a raised fist -- even knights and bishops from a chess game.

His work sells for between $400 and $5,000.

"You get art analysts who not only see art for the aesthetics but look at what the artist may have been thinking," Volk said. "I think a lot of times, the artist may not realize what they are doing is symbolic."

If Volk did not have art as an outlet, "he might be pouring himself into a bottle," said his wife, Lisa McNamara. "Instead, he pours himself into a canvas. In his life, he's very military, but he can be free in his spirit when he paints."

Volk said that some soldiers may be uneasy with the terms art for veterans and rehabilitation because "that doesn't go along with the macho side," he said. "But I want them to feel welcome and not fear they will be under the microscope."

Newell said art programs exist for veterans elsewhere in the country, but "as far as we could tell, it's nonexistent in Tarrant County."

"This is something we've been wanting to do, and with Phil being an excellent artist, it's a perfect fit," Newell said. "The urgency is there with the guys and gals coming back from the war."

Volk said becoming an artist has been liberating.

"In school, peer pressure can make you do what you don't want to, and it can also make you not do things you want to do," he said. "Now I look at it like I've been in a war, and I'm going to be what I want to be."

If you go

"The Casualty Series" art exhibit by Phil Volk
Fort Worth Public Library Gallery
500 W. Third St., Fort Worth
9 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; noon-6 p.m. Sundays
Free
817-871-7701 library; 817-283-3406 ARTSNET

IN THE KNOW

Post-traumatic stress

One in 6 soldiers returning from Iraq suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2003 national study. Six of 10 said they were unlikely to seek help, in part because they feared it would hurt their military careers.

Just over 15 percent of male veterans who served in Vietnam and 8.1 percent of women were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in a 1986-88 study by the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Survey.

As many as 30 percent of troops who fought in Korea may have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of every 20 World War II veterans suffered symptoms such as bad dreams, irritability and flashbacks.

In 2004, 25,000 World War II veterans were still receiving disability compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder.

SOURCES: Veterans Affairs Department, The New England Journal of Medicine, Defense Department and the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Terry Lee Goodrich, 817-685-3812 tgoodrich@star-telegram.com

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