Veterans Art Show Unveiled at Willoughby Plaza

“You can see the results of this project are extraordinary,” says DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, before a crowd of U.S. military veterans and Downtown Brooklyn workers. She is singing the praises of Willoughby Plaza’s new art installation, “There is No Us Without U,” a movable exhibit of works by veterans taking part in the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System’s (NYHHS) art therapy program in Bay Ridge. “It’s really an example of the best New York is and the best it can be.”

Brought in on equally eye-catching display cases designed by Architecture Research Office, the installation is part of the DOT’s new Urban Art Program, aiming to move portable art shows to spaces across the city. The artworks now on display are large collages – tributes to the personalities, spirit, and hardships of the veterans who composed them.

Pointing out images of food in his piece, Marine veteran Chumagali Ali, who was wounded in Vietnam, says “When we came home, we had no idea about the political unrest. We just wanted to get back, sit down, and have a burger.”

The cathartic power of making art is crucial to the success of the VA Healthcare art therapy program. The veterans’ high spirits - joking for the media, taking pictures in front of their pieces - are testament to the program’s emotional impact.

“It’s something special, art therapy,” said NYHHS art therapist Beryl Brenner. “You dig so deep into the soul of people, and you really can see the amazing power in their work.”

The art acts as a means not just of having veterans communicate their experiences and emotions to the thousands of passersby that walk through Willoughby Plaza every day, but also as a way of bringing veterans together. Standing next to his collage, Vietnam Air Force veteran Sheridan Dean explains that he is sending photos of the display to his friend and co-artist, Navy veteran Ferdinand Sabat. Sabat moved to Florida before the show was commissioned, but the two remain friends.

“Everyone’s coming from very different backgrounds, and everyone has their different point of view,” said Desert Storm and Iraq veteran Carlos Cifuentes. “We work to find a middle ground together.”

“There is No Us Without U” will remain on display at Willoughby Plaza through August, when it will be moved to a new public space within the city. For more photos of the unveiling, click here.