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Local artist to guide veterans through self-portrait exercise

Acclaimed artist John Kleber in his ARTU4iA studio in downtown Martinez. Kleber has received a grant that will bring veterans to his studio (725 Ward St., Suite C) for an exercise in self-understanding through self-portraits. (KERI LUIZ / Martinez Tribune)
Acclaimed artist John Kleber in his ARTU4iA studio in downtown Martinez. Kleber has received a grant that will bring veterans to his studio (725 Ward St., Suite C) for an exercise in self-understanding through self-portraits. (KERI LUIZ / Martinez Tribune)
By KERI LUIZ
Martinez Tribune

MARTINEZ, Calif. – John Kleber, artist and owner of ARTU4iA, recently received a grant from the Arts and Culture Commission of Contra Costa County (AC5) for a veteran-focused painting workshop. The program is called “About Face: Building Veterans’ Self-Understanding through Self-Portraits.”

Kleber’s idea is to bring in veterans and work with them in creating self-portraits that embody their experiences as soldiers.

“My intention is to try to educate these guys a little bit on metaphors that they can associate with their feelings … how they feel about themselves, about their role in the war if they were in a war, how they feel about themselves as a soldier, and how they feel about themselves as a human being. Give them visual metaphors that they can attach to some of these feelings, then cut them loose on these portraits,” Kleber said.

Kleber’s intent is to give each participating veteran a cocktail napkin size piece of paper and a fine-tip marker, then tell them, “I want you to draw a picture of yourself, just as you see yourself, right there,” he said. These drawings will be transferred to a canvas to be painted on the second day of the workshop.

“Some guys are going to try real hard, some guys are going to draw really stiff. You’re going to get all kinds of things. It’s going to be a really interesting show,” Kleber said.

Through teaching the veterans how to portray those feelings through visual metaphors, Kleber is hoping to bring some of veterans’ experiences to the forefront.

“What I’m hoping I get is the guy that goes, ‘Man, I’m proud as hell that I was in the war. I’m proud of what I did,’ and show him how to visually interpret that feeling of pride,” Kleber said.

Or for the veterans who feel invisible, a visual metaphor would be to put the veteran in city camouflage “so you are in town here, but you can’t be seen,” Kleber said.

Another example is a veteran who is missing his entire left side. “He said, ‘When I walk down the streets, mothers with children – they sidestep me, they go to the other side of the street. That makes me feel horrible.’ These guys are disenfranchised, clearly,” Kleber said. “Hopefully getting them to recognize something about themselves, they’ll be the big winners in all this.”

Well adjusted veterans will benefit too, Kleber said. “They don’t need our help as much as some of these other guys, but you never know. They might learn something about themselves as well. That’s the hope.”

Four two-day workshops are scheduled, two in October, and two in November. The two-day workshops have a day off between them to give Kleber time to transfer the drawings created by the veterans to canvas, which then will be painted by the veterans.

Kleber wants anybody who is a veteran to participate.

“There is no art ability needed with any of this. You don’t have to even be able to draw stick figures, it’s not that tough. We’re going to make it easy for everyone,” he said.

The intention is to have a show in December with the art that has been produced through these workshops.

John Kleber creating a mural in his ARTU4iA studio at 725 Ward St., Suite C, Martinez. (KERI LUIZ / Martinez Tribune)
John Kleber creating a mural in his ARTU4iA studio at 725 Ward St., Suite C, Martinez. (KERI LUIZ / Martinez Tribune)
If the program goes well, and once AC5 is finished with it, Kleber hopes to take this all over the country, then have a big show in the National Portrait Gallery or some place in Washington, D.C. “Someplace big,” he said.

Another aspect of Kleber’s idea is to pair each veteran with a high school student from the journalism department who would sit down with the veteran, conduct an interview and write a story about the veteran.

“As the paintings are displayed, wherever they would be displayed, there would be this story that went along with them,” Kleber said. “The story would be a synopsis of what that guy was all about.”

Kleber said the reason he wanted the writing component was he thought it would be a good idea to “connect the generations.”

“Here you have a guy from Vietnam. Those (high school) kids don’t really know what Vietnam is all about. Even though they get it in the history books, they don’t really know what it’s like,” he said. “So you bridge the gap between these people, and maybe some of these veterans will go away feeling less disenfranchised, the broken ones. And the proud ones would me more than happy to share their stories.”

But the writing component wasn’t added to the grant application that was submitted to AC5. “We wanted to keep it simple,” Kleber said.

The written aspect will be saved for future generations of the program, if it succeeds.

“I’m hoping that something comes of it, and if something comes of it, that’s when I’m going to change it up, and we’re going to make sure that each veteran is paired with a young person to write for them,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be high school students or college journalism students,” Kleber said. “Maybe there’s no age group, I don’t know. But it’s the perfect thing because it allows a young person to get to know somebody from another generation who performed rather an unpleasant task – maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they had a really good experience. Who knows?” he said. “But they’ve got a story to pass on.”

The workshop dates are Oct. 20 and 22, Oct. 27 and 29, Nov. 3 and 5 and Nov. 17 and 19. Veterans who are interested in participating in this free workshop can get more information and register at www.ac5.org.

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