When Matt Peace unexpectedly got discharged from the Navy due to downsizing in 2012, he wasn't ready to be a civilian again. The most difficult aspect of the transition, he says, was adjusting to a less-regimented lifestyle.
"You wouldn't think it's such a big deal, but it really is," Peace says, standing in front of a work of mosaic art he's making as part of his paid internship at The Rainforest Art Project, a Barrio Logan-based program that develops arts projects for schools and community organizations. "You're so used to the crazy grind of it all . It's so hard to be calm about situations because you're just so used to being busy."
Peace, though, is unique among young veterans—a population known for being difficult to engage. Unlike most ex-military men and women his age, upon discharge he immediately tapped into reintegration programs. He scored the internship at Rainforest Art by hooking up with the Travis Manion Foundation, which also introduced him to Combat Arts San Diego, which provides art classes and other cultural programs to post-9/11 veterans.
Peace, a talented painter, recently collaborated with Combat Arts founder and artist Elizabeth Washburn and other vets in creating a large-scale canvas mobile mural that travels to outreach events hosted by the organization.
Washburn—who started Combat Arts by offering free art classes to vets after being motivated by a story about Camp Pendleton Marines who died in the Iraq War troop surge of 2007—loves the way the public responds to Peace's painting and other works created by vets.
"I get such a strong positive public response," she explains. "The art is like an intermediary to understand what these guys are going through without them having to have sensitive conversations with people they don't know."
Wanting to expand public access to the art created in her program, Washburn recently launched a fundraiser for the Veteran Mural Project, a program that, like the popular Murals of La Jolla project, will work with communities to mount vinyl, billboard-style murals on walls of local businesses.
From 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 6, at Barracks 17 Event Center (2710 Historic Decatur Road in Point Loma's Liberty Station), Washburn will discuss the work of Combat Arts alongside other organizations taking part in a public symposium focused on providing arts-and-culture programs to veterans. Washburn hopes both the symposium and the Veteran Mural Project will help erase stigmas surrounding vets.
"It shows the public, these are just regular dudes," she says. "Look at Matt—he's such a great, high-energy guy. They're all just people who want the same things you do. They're not crazy. They're not going to fly off the handle. Having that intimate interaction between the public and their art is a good thing— people can get rid of some of the stereotypes."