Healing battle wounds with art

Artist Aaron Thomas is leading a workshop created expressly for veterans.

Aaron Thomas (right) celebrates completed works by participants in his recent “Painting for Veterans” workshop. [Supplied]

Home » Arts & Entertainment
Posted April 15, 2023 | By Julie Garisto

Expanding the intersection of art and service has become a life mission for Aaron Thomas.

The Army combat veteran has experienced the front lines of Middle East war zones and has devoted his civilian life to serving the community and his creativity, most recently as an instructor of the recurring free class “Painting for Veterans” at the Mary Sue Rich Community Center at Reed Place, 1821 NW 21st Ave., Ocala.  

The next session convenes Wednesday, May 3, from 6 to 8 p.m. and continues every Wednesday until Aug. 30. Participants will learn basic painting skills and techniques for making their own one-of-a-kind artwork. Workshops are free but limited to 20 adults. All supplies are included.

“We keep it loose and fun,” Thomas said of the workshop. “At the beginning of the class, usually we make introductions. We don’t necessarily focus on any of our trauma or anything, but participants are more than welcome to talk about it. …. We just pick a subject or something to paint for that day and just basically hang out with like-minded people, fellowshipping.” 

Born and raised in the Ocala National Forest, Thomas grew up “way out” on the outer edge of Marion County by County Road 42 and Forest Road 8, near the Lake County line and Umatilla. 

His talents as an artist emerged in his teens at Lake Weir High School. After graduation, he served as an infantry team leader in the initial invasion by the U.S. Army, in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Over the years, Thomas has worked hard on acquiring coping skills to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder from the loud explosions and perilous situations encroaching on him while in battle.

Painting, he said, is his happiness and therapy. He tried attending college after his deployments but dealing with being in a roomful of strangers and trying to focus on his studies presented challenges caused by his PTSD.

In the past decade, Thomas has immersed himself in the arts community, which has helped him deal with his trauma-related agoraphobia. He made supportive, lasting friendships. As an artist, he’s constantly experimenting with styles, from abstract to figurative, and considers himself “prolific.”

”Untitled” by Aaron Thomas

“Teddy Sykes gave me my first easel,” he said of the artist who was just named the festival chair for Fine Arts For Ocala. “I now have work all across town. (I have)  paintings at the Literary Council, the Keep, the Mutiny, and in galleries.”

Thomas’s workshops for vets started as an idea a couple of years ago by longtime friend and arts supporter Lisa Midgett, who encouraged him to share his empathy and talents with other veterans in the community. 

“Ringpop” by Aaron Thomas reflects the artist’s recent exploration of darker imagery.

The benefactor/NOMA Gallery owner had been workshopping an art-meet-health nonprofit and knew Thomas had the right stuff to help veterans harness their creativity as a coping mechanism and a pleasant, fun way to relieve stress. 

Fast forward to today, and Midgett’s vision has been realized as Arts in Health Ocala Metro, a community resource populated by artistic talent across the genre spectrum.

Arts in Health Ocala Metro (AIHOM) began as an initiative of the David and Lisa Midgett Foundation in partnership with the University of Florida Arts in Medicine Program. AIHOM seeks to bring artists and community members together to experience the positive effects of the arts on well-being.

Thomas, who has trained at UF for the program, considers creating art a potential lifeline for vets and wants to help others learn how therapeutic painting and making art can be while dealing with debilitating stressors. 

“The training itself was fun,” Thomas said. “I learned about the actual impact and numbers, statistics on how art can impact our wellness, how powerful art is in healing people.” 

According to the Art Therapy Association, visual arts offer veterans suffering from PTSD a nonthreatening alternative to compose, in images, what is inexpressible to them with words.

“It’s also just really about your approach to it,” Thomas said. “From what I’ve gotten back thus far, everyone has been really happy and pleased with it.”

If one could find an upside to trauma and how it hardwires our brain, providing support to others in dire circumstances can often come easier to people with PTSD than dealing with anonymous crowds of strangers. Thomas concedes that helping others in crisis, in many ways, comes easier to him partly because of his innate drive to help others, of course, and partly due to his combat experience. He has worked in jails and with law enforcement and spent the past seven years working in child protection, around four of those years as a family advocate for Kids Central. 

“I was in a high-risk unit, so I dealt with a lot of child molestation cases, like the really, really heinous things, child deaths, severe abuse. I spent a lot of my time at the police department, sheriff’s office with the detectives, with Kimberly’s Center. You know, we’re back in the interview rooms while they’re interviewing the kids and, yeah, I help put away a lot of bad folks.”

Two decades after his tours of duty, Thomas is healing now as a busy, prolific artist. He wants to pay his fulfillment forward and one day take his services on the road so he can reach veterans in need where they live. 

“I’ve always wanted a mobile art studio,” he shared, “something that hopefully we can do one day.” 

For more information, visit aihocala.org.


Painting for Veterans

Presented by Arts in Health Ocala Metro

6-8 p.m., Wednesdays, May 3-Aug. 30 

At Mary Sue Rich Community Center at Reed Place

1821 NW 21st Ave., Ocala

To register, visit ocalafl.org/recpark

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