Lana Gillaspie doesn’t mind if you peek inside her journal. Sometimes her words are crystal clear and pop off the pages. Other times they’re a little smeary. You might be able to pick up a word here, an idea there, but the responsibility to complete the story often falls to the reader.
But Gillaspie’s deepest thoughts aren’t best deciphered from her personal book of memoirs—a hardbound tome filled with paper pages. Instead, Gillaspie would prefer you turn to her artwork.
Beginning from a kernel of an idea she might discover through journaling, Gillaspie spins her private meditations into beautiful works of art.“Sometimes there might be a word in my daily journaling,” Gillaspie said, “or a sentence that lets me create a story or a poem.”
With a group of approximately 120 military veterans, Gillaspie recently traveled to La Crosse, WI, for the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, hosted by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. The event marked the culmination of a year-long competition in art, music, drama, dance, and creative writing for veterans with disabilities. Solidifying her place as a Renaissance woman, Gillaspie, who has multiple sclerosis (MS), has won medals in dance, drama, group prose, group comedy, and solo poetry.
“I did a solo for a national event about being diagnosed with MS,” Gillaspie said. “I wrote about how it made me feel, and what I did afterward. I didn’t let MS run my life.”
Gillaspie, who estimates between 2,000 and 3,000 people were in attendance at the time of that solo poetry performance, admits she was trepidatious about baring her soul.
“I was really, really hesitant to perform that solo because it’s not for everybody’s ears,” Gillaspie said. “I was apprehensive to let everybody know that I was vulnerable and how much I hated MS. But I went ahead with it. My thinking was that the more people become aware of MS, the more they might help out and donate and find out even more about it.”
Established in 1989, The Creative Arts Festival provides an annual medium through which veterans like Gillaspie can share their voices or emotions. Liz Mackey, director of the festival believes such experiences can be powerful and healing.
“A lot of times you might be telling someone else’s story as well as your own,” Mackey said. “Maybe your story is similar to someone else’s circumstance but they couldn’t express it in the same way. We’re helping establish connection each time somebody sees why a veteran created a piece of artwork, each time someone hears the story behind a piece or performance. Someone might say, ‘I can relate to that. You just expressed what I’ve been feeling for so long.’”
Sometimes, however, the feelings expressed in and evoked by the veterans’ artwork are ones they’d rather forget.
“Some of our veterans have nightmares related to their traumatic experiences,” Mackey said. “One of our veterans literally uses art to face the demons he sees at night. He’s able to paint or carve the faces. That was our Best in Show art piece this year. It was incredibly moving.”
Though Gillaspie admits she hasn’t always been attracted to artistic expression, she recalls that it took only a weekend for her perspective to change. In 2005, when she was in the hospital receiving treatment for her MS, Gillaspie was given a bead kit by her recreational therapist. In no time at all, Gillaspie had completed the entire kit. She wanted more. In her very first festival competition, Gillaspie nabbed the title of “Best in Show”, sparking a long string of successes at the Creative Arts Festival.
According to Mackey, Gillaspie’s discovery of, and immersion into, creative expression is far from unusual for veterans.“A lot of people don’t dabble in the arts until somebody introduces them to it,” Mackey said. “Some of our veterans with physical disabilities use the arts as a form of rehabilitation. Through the physical motor rehabilitation process of working on a craft kit in an occupational therapy clinic, or lacing a wallet, they’re producing something useful and functional. Then, maybe, they’ll dabble in something else, like poster art or painting or drawing. They enjoy the process while they’re involved in the therapy.”
Gillaspie has won some of her strongest acclaim and notoriety for her skillful wheelchair dancing, complete with choreographed moves and turns. Her performances have often been awarded top prizes.
“People think I’m stepping with my feet,” Gillaspie said of her technique, “but I’m just using my wheels as my feet. In certain parts of the music, I’m twirling around or maybe going backwards or forwards, trying to get in rhythm with some music. It’s harder to choreograph dancing because of the wheelchair.”
Harder, but not impossible. As a wide array of artistic possibilities opens up before veterans with disabilities, often alleviating some of their medical concerns, many come to love the arts so much that a creative life continues well past completion of their therapy.
For veterans who, like Gillaspie, don’t regularly participate in adaptive sports, artistic expression is a crucial part of life and fulfillment after disability. “You’ve got to have some sort of outlet somewhere,” Gillaspie said. “I enjoy participating.”
Gillaspie notes that, outside of its creative and therapeutic benefits, involvement in the arts solidifies the importance of setting goals, meeting them, and then setting even higher goals.
“You can still accomplish things no matter what your limitations are,” Gillaspie said. “A lot of people dance in wheelchairs, even with partners. It’s totally do-able. Some people think they have limitations, but that’s what limits them. I look at it as, ‘I’m not disabled, I’m differently abled’.”
Mackey believes the positive attitudes illustrated by people like Gillaspie are powerful and nourishing forces in communities that don’t have much exposure to, or experience with, people with disabilities.
“Our main goal for our program is to educate our community about the arts,” Mackey said. “It’s important people know how useful the arts are in the lives of veterans, whether they have physical-motor challenges or mental health issues. The arts are a big part of treatment, and are very effective treatment.”
Gillaspie’s decision to immerse herself in the arts has proven to be a powerful, lasting and cathartic one. It’s a decision she hopes might prompt others to follow similar paths as they decide how to confront their disability.
“Attitude is a choice,” Gillaspie said. “It’s totally up to the individual to decide, what attitude am I going to be in today? I didn’t sit around a lot before I got MS. I played sports and was involved in a lot of activities, so why wouldn’t I stay busy now?”
by Josh Pate