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Penfield, N.Y. – Earl Lenhard remembers it distinctly: During the Vietnam War, he served two years, eight months and 14 days with the Army.
Friday, though, his focus was on a different topic.
“I have not even tried to paint anything since I was in high school,” he said, “and this is a side of me that I didn’t know existed. And nobody else may enjoy this, but I think this is just short of a Picasso.”
Sitting with his wife Mary Jane – who was also painting the scenery around her – he explained his work.
“It’s a great combination of the beautiful scenery of the sky,” he said. “The part of the tree that’s dying is representative of the challenges we’re dealing with COVID, and yet there’s still life surrounding that dying tree.”
The past few months have brought about changes for all of us, especially for veterans like Lenhard. In his case, he and his wife have been able to grow closer because of the pandemic.
“We both work full time,” said Mary Jane, “and lately we haven’t been able to work, so I think we’ve really started to enjoy each other’s company more.”
“We’ve actually found more, 20 or 25 different things that we’ve listed, that COVID actually added to our lives, rather than subtracted from it,” said Earl, “and I think everything’s going to be different now, but in many respects I think we have a great potential of having things better than they were before.”
But for many veterans living through COVID-19, connections like the ones shared by Earl and Mary Jane might not be as close at hand.
“Veterans tend to isolate as a coping skill, for the most part,” explained Kinga Kondor-Hine, a clinical coordinator with Warrior Salute Veterans Services, “and with the coronavirus raging, they’ve had to isolate even more. And so, although we’ve done everything we can through the telehealth resources, it’s been a challenge with some of our veterans who are very isolated.”
That’s what makes special events like one held Friday at Warrior Salute’s outpatient clinic in Penfield all the more important. Veterans like Earl and their loved ones gathered for a day of painting.
They weren’t alone. Members of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra joined the group, playing soothing tunes amid a day of painting.
“Painting in Nature” gives participants a chance to express themselves through art. The art therapy is accompanied with a bit of music therapy, courtesy of the RPO members.
Rebecca Gilbert, principle flute for the orchestra, says it all started when a friend – an art therapist for Warrior Salute – contacted her.
“She reached out to me to find out if we’d love to play music for the veterans at this healing art center,” she recalled, “and we were so grateful to do that.”
But this is more than just a day spent outside. Kondor-Hine says, for veterans, this can be a healing environment.
“Music therapy is a huge portion of intervention with veterans,” she said. “So, whether it’s active drumming or soothing music, it allows for an ease and a release that can happen.”
“With music and art,” she continued, “there’s this portion of treatment where you have to move your body, along with listening and being in nature, and the more you can move, the more whatever’s going on with you is going to end up on the canvas. And so, when you put the music, the sound and the movement together, there’s a beautiful end result of artwork.”
Because of COVID, the event had to be moved outdoors. That’s not a problem, said Kondor-Hine, as nature can help open up a veteran’s environment, especially those who have been more reclusive during the pandemic.
“By having it in nature, it allows for symptoms of post-traumatic stress to dissipate more a little more easily,” she said. “We don’t have that boxed-in feeling of being stuck in a room like we have been.”
Earl Lenhard agrees that events like this are crucial for a veteran.
“Being with other veterans in situations outside of the service allows us to remember that we are somebody other than what we were,” he said, “and share a camaraderie that is very special, because a veteran is a veteran is a veteran, no matter where they’ve been, what they’ve done.”
The veterans and their families might not be the only ones benefiting from “Painting in Nature”. The pandemic has brought about its own challenges for members of the orchestra. But, along with those challenges come silver linings, explained principle harpist Grace Browning.
“It’s been heartbreaking not to be able to play in Kodak Hall with the whole orchestra,” she said. “But the silver lining is that we’re rethinking what our purpose is here, and our purpose is really to provide music for the community in any form we can. So, whether that’s live-streaming from our living rooms or playing for small groups under 50, socially distantly, we’re just finding creative ways to keep the music alive.”
The end result is finding more time for moments such as the one Friday with Warrior Salute – giving back to a community that has supported them throughout the ordeal.
“We all feel incredibly lucky to get to perform for these veterans who’ve dedicated their lives to serving their country and our communities,” she said. “It’s really the least we can do to come and see them and perform for them and honor them.”
It’s a gesture Earl Lenhard appreciates.
“There’s nothing, for me, nothing better in this world than music,” he said, “and to be exposed to something as special as that group from the philharmonic, just ties everything together. Ties our painting, ties the universe, ties everything we’re doing into one great operation.”
There are still many unknowns for our world amid the pandemic. Yet, just like in his painting, Earl hopes positive change can come from all of this.
“I’m hoping more and more of us will take the time to think about what we’re doing, what we’re saying, what we’re thinking,” he said, “and be a little more kinder to each other and to the universe around us.”
The RPO will be represented at two more upcoming events hosted by Warrior Salute. Kondor-Hine says the organization hopes to expand the program by taking it to a park in the future, or incorporating a hike.
If you are a veteran – or if you know of a veteran – who could benefit from Warrior Salute’s programs, you can contact the organization by calling (585) 364-3171 or by clicking here.