By GAYLE WILSON
A couple in Lunenburg hopes to paint a brighter future for veterans by offering them a creative outlet and an opportunity for some additional, post-military income.
Janna Graham and Seth Congdon are aiming to have their Whisper Wind online art gallery up and running within the next month or so. They plan to open a physical studio, where veterans as well as former first responders can come to create their art and enjoy camaraderie, on their property outside of Lunenburg by next summer.
“We see the need of, the lack of support that’s there for people that are getting ready to, or are in the middle of, or have already transitioned out of the military. Because we were going through it anyway, we felt where we could be useful,” says Graham.
According to Graham, her husband is her “motivator.” Congdon, a former corporal, left the military in 2014 with a medical discharge after 15 years in the infantry. “With his transition out of the military, it’s not a smooth process,” recalled Graham.
A teacher by trade, last year she began fine-tuning the concept of the gallery and studio within the Mashup Lab program for entrepreneurs. In the course of her business research, she surveyed a number of veterans, first responders and prison guards.
“The two things that I kept seeing, especially from the military ones, [were] they were afraid of not having friends, and they were afraid of not providing for their families, or for themselves. So there’s a huge fear when people are transitioning.
“I think when people are retiring anyway, there’s a lot of unknowns. But there’s a huge fear of, ‘This is my identity. I am a soldier. I do this well. And now all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Okay, I’ve been told I can’t do this any more. Now what?’”
As a former drama and art high school teacher in New Brunswick, Graham saw the therapeutic value of art. “I know that it’s a great form of just getting expressions, emotions out that you can’t put words to,” she says.
Graham maintains that art is a good outlet for unspent energy and emotions that might otherwise get funnelled into destruction. Moreover, she insists, anybody can be artistic: “You just have to find your right medium.”
Congdon agrees. “Professionally, there’s nothing that translates very well from, you know, pulling a trigger, to regular, every day life. So you kind of feel like I’m under-qualified for anything normal. And, I’ve done so much, kind of, the opposite of art … so much strife, upheaval, whatever, stress.”
Whisper Wind will be an online art marketplace, where veterans can showcase and sell their work, with a consignment fee that Graham says will be considerably lower than what traditional galleries charge. Her intention is to seek out grants and develop other commercial areas of the business to help support the charitable approach of the online gallery and studio for veterans and former first responders.
In the 560 sq. ft. studio space they’re developing on their property, they intend to have a kiln, two pottery wheels, woodworking equipment and a clean space for painting. The idea is to have a “safe space” for creating for people who may have an operational stress injury (OSI) or post-traumatic stress.
Graham emphasizes that the service will never be traditional therapy. “It’s never, you know, let’s talk about your struggles and all of that. But it’s that, ‘We get it. We get that you might need an extra break. We get that you can’t do large crowds. We don’t have to talk about it, but here’s the space where we can support you through expression.”
The studio won’t be open to the general public, or publicized widely beyond the veteran and first responder communities, “because that defeats the purpose of privacy with our artists,” she adds. At the same time, they envisage the space as offering veterans and first responders a place of camaraderie, where a coffee club atmosphere may develop and perhaps one night a month an activity such as darts may be organized.
“First responders in general. I mean, you’re looking after other people all of the time. You’re engaging with other people all of the time. And then all of a sudden, you’re left by yourself. At the end of a career, you feel by yourself,” says Congdon explaining the need for a safe place for companionship.
Congdon is no stranger to art. His parents, Tony and Marilyn Congdon, are artists who owned the former Black Duck art and craft shop in Lunenburg. He had dabbled with painting in the past, but shifted his focus entirely when he enlisted. “In the infantry, there’s not much room for painting,” he says.
Prior to retiring from the military, he had served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and was teaching infantry recruits in Gagetown. He was surprised to discover how many former military personnel turned to art of one form or another.
“I had no idea how many troops switched gears in the same way I switched gears. And began creating things, whether it was with their hands, whether it was with their minds. Or their writing. Or their creating physically. There were tons of us.”
But it’s not surprising that they do so.
“All of those thoughts, and all of those memories, and all of those experiences that you’ve just been getting day by day, they all flow… into a font. And then, if you don’t know what to do with it, like Janna said, it can be powerful and destructive, or it can be focused and valuable.”
Moreover, Congdon suggests the imagery and experiences military personnel encounter is not all ugly, and often hauntingly beautiful. It’s that which he has chosen to keep uppermost in mind.
“If I didn’t focus on the beauty of a dark situation, it would drive me crazy.”
While in Afghanistan, he found himself flying over “Grand Canyon-style beauty, grandeur that there were no roads to get to. … You see parts of a country that just take your breath away.”
Another time he heard the song of an unseen young goat herder echoing through snow-capped mountains. “And he would harmonize with himself.”
Congdon might like to share that through an art medium some day, but for now he’s just as happy to relish the moment in his mind’s eye along with the peace that it brings to him.”It’s one of those perfect memories that stands out just as much, or more, than any of the bad ones,” he says.