Military veterans’ participation in a five-month workshop culminates in a public exhibition and catalogue at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center in Denver.
DENVER, CO—Veterans deal with their memories of military service in a number of ways, and not surprisingly, creative pursuits rank high as an outlet for expression. Five years ago, the Colorado Photographic Arts Center realized it could fill a need for Denver-area veterans and established the Veterans Workshop Series, a free five-month program of informational sessions, hands-on learning, and portfolio creation for anyone who has served and has an interest in photography.
The culmination of the workshop series is an exhibition of the veterans’ work at CPAC in Denver’s Golden Triangle art district. Relational Ground/Personal Projects by Veterans runs from January 14 through February 12, 2022, and will offer the public a wide-ranging look at photographic projects that are not necessarily connected to military service. Nonetheless, all the photographers let their experiences directly or indirectly permeate their work.
CPAC executive director Samantha Johnston says each year the workshop attracts between nine and fourteen veterans, some of whom have never picked up a camera. Four instructors take turns presenting classes that zero in on finding a focus for expression and subject matter, as well as technical skills using digital SLRs, composition, lighting, editing for a portfolio, and marketing the finished products. The most recent classes were conducted in person as well as on Zoom.
Breakout sessions are an important part of the mix, Johnston says, “To understand them as individuals and to know where they’re coming from and the experiences they have had.” Not all workshop participants have seen combat; those who have served in conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
Westminster, Colorado-based artist Devon Wiggers is part of this year’s class, and he spoke highly of the mentorship he has received as he tries to place more of his work in area exhibitions. A former Navy Seabee, he says the one-on-one time with the instructors pushed him to an entirely new level of photography. Wiggers’s photos in Relational Ground use his study of mycology (mushrooms) to comment on the historical roles of women and to elevate mushrooms as symbols of life and death.
Art has helped fill a void in his life, Wiggers says, adding, “Photography and other art mediums have been instrumental in trying to find my place in the world and come to terms with the impact of my choice to serve. Learning to communicate my thoughts and ideas visually has been so very important.”
Johnston recalled one participant whose work is directly tied to his military service, and poignantly so. Brandon Tennery, who took the workshop in 2020, says in his artist’s statement that it was therapeutic to photographically depict the physical and emotional turmoil resulting from deployment in Afghanistan. In self-portraits, he shows not only his struggles with suicidal thoughts but also his road to recovery with the help of his service dog.
“We just want to create a space where everyone feels safe in sharing, and they’re comfortable putting their pictures out there,” Johnston says.
A look at the Veterans Workshop Series webpage reveals the variety in chosen subjects: street scenes, landscapes, aerial views, portraits, slice-of-life, documentation, still lifes, and experiments with composition and focus.
“We really want them to investigate what they’re interested in, what’s exciting for them, what’s making them want to get out of bed in the morning and make those pictures,” Johnston says, adding that lead instructor Frank Varney, who has taught photography for more than thirty years, starts the workshop with an extensive slide show to spark ideas.
Camaraderie among the participants is a key element of the workshop, Johnston says, citing how alumni keep in touch through Facebook and occasional get-togethers. They form bonds initially because of their shared experience in the military, but the bonds solidify because of their shared love of photography, she says. CPAC helps the participants get in touch with the Denver-area photo community at large as well. For many alumni, the goal is to turn professional.
In addition to garnering numerous sponsors over the years, the program works in partnership with Denver’s VFW Post #1 and the national nonprofit Task Force: ISO, which creates ways for veterans to find purpose and healing through photography.
Through May 24, 2022, CPAC is accepting applications for the next workshop series.
In the meantime, many of this year’s nine workshop participants are featured in the Relational Ground catalogue accompanying the exhibition. Johnston notes that the prospect of an exhibition—complete with an opening reception—raises the stakes for the photographers. “At first, it’s kind of scary,” Johnston says, “and they wonder, ‘How am I going to get there?’ We’ll help you get there—the guidance and support are built in.”
Relational Ground/Personal Projects by Veterans is on view from January 14 through February 12, 2022 at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, 1070 Bannock Street, Denver. An opening reception is scheduled from 5 to 8 pm on Saturday, January 15.