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New program aims to help St. Louis veterans work through trauma by making art

Artists First executive director Sheila Suderwalla helps Vietnam veteran Mike David with a charcoal project.
Artists First
Artists First executive director Sheila Suderwalla helps Vietnam veteran Mike David with a charcoal project.

Mike David came home from Vietnam in the early 1970s with two Purple Hearts and a feeling of doom after spending a year in combat on a squad known as a “killer team.”

“All six of us were in constant fear for our lives, every moment of the day,” he said.

It took David a decade to start dealing with his PTSD with the help of friends and meditation. He wishes he’d had more creative opportunities to heal, like a new program offered by a Maplewood organization called Artists First.

Artists First invites St. Louis veterans to work through their PTSD and problems associated with traumatic brain injury using paint, paper and clay. The program offers studio space, supplies and instructions, but not art therapy or counseling.

David said he enjoys making art but mainly goes to help other veterans open up about their trauma.

“To say, ‘Why don’t we come over here and do some art and hang out with some veterans and maybe drink some coffee?’ sounds pretty good,” David said.

Sheila Suderwalla heads up Artists First, a non-profit formerly known as the Turner Center. The institution has served artists with a wide range of disabilities for years, and added veterans to its mission after focus groups and community surveys showed support for the idea.  Participation in the actual program costs $5 an hour but Suderwalla said no one will be turned away.

“We know that the creative process can aid in the healing of trauma and reduce anxiety,” Suderwalla said.

Suderwalla plans to connect local veterans with the larger St. Louis community through events like public art shows. She hopes these efforts will help destigmatize mental illness and give artists a chance to earn money by selling their work.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL


Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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