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Features - Posted March 27, 2015 10:45 a.m.
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Photo by Heather Ladd

The Entrance to Recovery: How one veteran’s artistic vision brightened the local VA Center

When Amarillo’s Thomas E. Creek VA Medical Center opened one of the newest buildings on its campus in 2012, U.S. veterans approaching the newly built Center for Therapy and Recovery saw an imposing, dreary, concrete wall as they entered.

Except one veteran. Local artist and former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger John Eder saw something else entirely: a canvas.

So he volunteered to paint it. Beginning Sept. 10, 2014, and finishing several months later on Dec. 16,
Eder applied his artistic vision to the two-story, L-shaped wall. The result is an entrance that makes both the artist and the administration proud, and a testament to the therapeutic nature of both creating and viewing art.

“It can be daunting coming to a mental health facility for the first time,” says Dr. Scott Woods, the staff psychologist and local recovery coordinator for the Amarillo VA Center. “The feedback we’d gotten from veterans was that [the entrance] had looked gloomy. That it was like a jail.” Due to the requirements of the surrounding landscape, the 21,000-square-foot mental health building had to be constructed with a tall, narrow entryway. A slanting gray wall loomed over the entrance.

“It wasn’t attractive,” admits Barbara Moore, the VA public relations director. The VA has a number of original art works throughout the facility and the administration knew something was necessary to improve the entrance. “But no one had the right solution at the time,” Moore says.

Enter John Eder. An Army Ranger platoon leader who served a harrowing combat tour in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, Eder arrived in Amarillo after the war and built a career in the financial services industry. But for three decades, he suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “In 2003, I was diagnosed because I had this horrible flashback,” he says. “It was at night. I woke up and was in the middle of something that had happened [in Vietnam]. I couldn’t get out of the experience.”

The flashbacks weren’t new. He’d had several since Vietnam, including one right after the war when a backfiring car sent him diving across a sidewalk in downtown Amarillo. But this one was the worst by far. Spurred into action by its terrifying impact, Eder sought out counseling from the VA. After a few years of group therapy, he entered a more immersive, 7-week residential program in Arkansas in 2007. He returned to Amarillo after that session and decided to retire.

A few weeks later, Eder’s wife, Vicki, encouraged him to take up Chinese brush painting. “We were at Barnes and Noble and she had me look at this art kit,” says Eder, who took a few art classes in high school and college but had lost interest over the years. “I told her, ‘I ride mountain bikes and road bikes and play golf and rock climb. I don’t need another hobby.’”

But something about the kit, complete with brushes, ink sticks, an ink stone and more, captured his attention. He bought it, began investigating and experimenting with the ancient art of Chinese brush painting and, in his words, “fell in love with it.” The art became not only his passion and therapeutic outlet, but his business as well. Eventually Eder opened Shining Sword Studio & China Art Gallery at The Galleries at Sunset Center, where he teaches classes and creates his delicate paintings.

In the meantime, Eder had also become an active participant in the local Veterans Mental Health Council, an independent group that partners with the VA to promote its recovery services and offer feedback. Dr. Woods meets with the group monthly and had gotten to know Eder through their interactions. “Mr. Eder has certainly demonstrated a heart for other veterans in promoting recovery among his peers,” Woods says of the artist. “He wanted to use part of his own recovery – which has been the artwork – to create a more warm and welcoming environment.”

Concerned about the cheerless gray entrance, Eder sketched out a simple, colorful mural as a solution. With permission from the VA, he led the Council in applying for a $2,000 grant. When that grant was approved, the artist used the money to purchase paint at Home Depot. “They helped me select the colors and mix the paint and hauled the scaffolding for me,” he says of the national home improvement retailer, which prioritizes community projects that involve veterans. Home Depot donated use of the scaffolding and an industrial ladder for the project.

Volunteers from Home Depot helped Eder paint the first layer of base coat on the first day of painting, then returned at the end to help Eder seal the finished project. But everything else came from Eder’s brush and artistic mind. He painted the outdoor wall for nearly four hours daily over 21 days. Blessed with great weather, Eder often painted until dark.

Initially, Eder thought the wall’s size and outdoor environment would be the biggest challenge. But the creative and technical process proved a bigger test of his skill. It turns out painting a two-story mural with rollers and large brushes has few parallels with the delicate minimalism of Chinese brush painting. “I had no clue that I could do this,” Eder says. “By the time I had finished I had become an artist.”

He ended up expanding his original sketch to include a connecting 30-foot section of wall slanting to the southwest from the top of the building. “I had to improvise as I went down that far wall. I painted a mountain and a waterfall and a funky tree and some trees on the mountain and the poppies. The east wall is similar to what my design was but the whole other thing I painted as I went.”

Now that the mural has been completed, Eder hopes the colorful scene inspires veterans entering the Center for Therapy and Recovery. “It’s designed to be something that is positive and uplifting,” he says. “Something bright and better to look at. Maybe they can critique it but I haven’t had anyone who hasn’t appreciated it.”

Dr. Woods says artistic expression – from photography to painting to writing – can be meaningful in veterans’ recovery. In his therapy sessions, he often points to the mural as an example, using it to encourage Eder’s peers to find their own means of self-expression as they recover a meaningful life. “It’s become a conversation piece,” the psychologist says. “Now we can use that to talk to others about what might be meaningful to them, what might assist them in their recovery.”

From the administration standpoint, Moore says she and other VA staff members are thrilled at the result. “It’s not anything any of us could visualize on our own,” she says. “It makes the main entrance to that facility unique and it’s very well done. That people took time and resources to make this one thing a little bit better is very honoring to veterans. It’s quality stuff. John does a great job and it’s good art.”

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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