CHELSEA — For Matthew Hodges, art is therapy.

The U.S. Army veteran from Bath said he has had mental problems in the past, but he uses painting and playing music as way to escape. He spent just a few years in the military, but he’s been an artist for more than six decades, and he knows that being passionate about something like art can be therapeutic.

“I was severely mentally ill for a long time, and I decided to quit smoking and drinking and wasting my life,” he said. “The outlet I chose way painting and artwork, and it brings out the joy in my life.”

He said he knows his work isn’t the greatest, but he said just seeing progress from one piece to the next is enough to keep him grounded and enough to keep him focused on moving forward and not on the problems from the past.

“There’s always something valuable in each piece I do,” Hodges said. “My next piece is my best piece. That’s how I look at it.”

Hodges was one of several veterans who participated in the creative arts show in the theater at the VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus on Thursday. The show was an informal extension of the Maine Veterans Creative Arts Competition that the veterans center has held each winter for the past 13 years.

“We’ve started to add to our creative arts (program) because veterans have asked for more opportunities to show their work,” said Courtney Oliver, one of Togus’ recreational therapists. “They want more chances to get together, and a lot of our veterans are looking for a way to get out and socialize with other artists who are veterans.”

The contest in March, put on by Togus and the American Legion Auxiliary, featured more than 70 entries in the creative arts division, which includes pottery, photography, assemblage, painting, quilting, drawing, creative writing and more; and about 30 in the performing arts, including music, drama and dance.

On a wet Thursday morning in late July, the walls of the lobby of Building 210 were covered with original paintings, drawings, photographs and other pieces of artwork submitted by veterans. There were watercolors, pastels, acrylic airbrushed art, a couple of sculptures and some photos.

Hodges, 65, was holding court talking with visitors and Togus staff about his work before the show officially began. He’s been painting since he was about 5, and he chose to display five pastel paintings based on photographs he took of scenes from around Bath. There was a painting of Reid State Park, a painting of the view looking out his front door and pastel re-creation of a watercolor painting of a canoeist by legendary painter Winslow Homer.

“I’ve always admired Homer and his seascapes,” Hodges said. “I love his stuff and all of his watercolors.”

He said it usually takes him no more than two hours to do a small pastel painting. He likes to paint right after seeing the image or taking the photograph. It helps him.

“Once I get the idea, I want to go right at it,” Hodges said. “I want to get it all done in one sitting.”

Hodges grew up learning to paint while a young boy going to school in a one-room schoolhouse in Iowa. Each week, an art teacher would come from town to Hodges’ school, and Hodges said he was so impressed by the teacher that he decided to become an artist.

“I’ve been at it on and off for 60 years,” he said. In college, Hodges — who has been in Maine for 27 years — used to do large-scale charcoal sketching using nudes, but he said he doesn’t do that anymore. “I’m more refined now.”

Elsewhere in the Togus building’s lobby, Valerie Lovelace, of Wiscasset, was showing off her acrylic airbrushed pieces that left many people observers stunned that they were paintings and not photographs.

Lovelace, a Navy veteran who spent 20 years as an electronics repair specialist, put signs next to each piece that said “This is NOT a photograph” because the images are so realistic. Fellow artist Neal Caron, who said he’d happily be Lovelace’s agent, said the work was incredible, and he was especially fond of one called Eye of the Tiger.

Caron, of Oakland, had several paintings and drawings on display, including an oil painting of a deer and a graphite drawing of a tiger. He said his artwork and poetry — which he sometimes writes in the middle of the night — provide him an escape from life. 

“I lose myself in the art and in the words, and it is therapy for me, and I can see how it can be for others,” he said.

One of the most recognized group of veteran artists is the Midcoast-based Windy Ridge Band. The group — Beth Revels, Jim Chard, Frank “Woody” Woodard and Steve Davis — have performed all around the country and have won national veterans arts awards stemming from their role as the unofficial opening act of the annual veterans arts competition at Togus.

The band first began playing in the early 1980s when Woodard and Chard met through mutual friends. Revels, of Topsham, joined the group about 22 years ago, and she said there was an instant camaraderie because of their veteran status.

“We all have similar experiences despite being from different branches of the military,” she said while waiting to perform at Togus. “Having something like that in common makes it easy to get along.”

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