A Time to Heal

This socially engaging project opened dialogue within the community, focusing on healing through visual art practice. During a week-long workshop held at Oceanside Museum of Art, I worked with Armed Forces veterans Rachel Davis, Michelle Vesely, John Wayne, and Christopher Weathers to create mixed media “war wounds” which incorporated letters of hardship and hope that the participants wrote to themselves. I then incorporated these wounds into their large-scale portraits that were taken by J. Grant Brittain. 

Further embellishing these photographs with mixed media, I incorporated imagery and symbolism that might help tell their stories. Among the array of materials used are rainwater from Vietnam, tears, saltwater from the Pacific Ocean, and holy water. I rubbed these water samples into the paper until they were fully absorbed, causing dappled lesions upon the surface. These sacred waters represent a cleansing, also serving as an anointing for these individuals, for their families, and for those who are hurting still.

This series of mixed media collaborative works were displayed as part of the Healing Journeys exhibition series at Oceanside Museum of Art, before traveling to MiraCosta College. View our video.  Also, view our Q&A. (password: together)

Ba Ơi (Dear Father), 2017. Gouache, living plants, papyrus, rainwater from Vietnam, release papers from re-education camp, scripture from Song of Solomon and Psalms, tears, textile, and tree bark on digital image printed on Arches watercolor paper 44 x 60”

From 1975 to 1979, my father-in-law, Phơưl Vân Thạch, a high-ranking official of the South Vietnamese Army, was imprisoned in one of the many re-education camps in Vietnam. This photo was taken during his capture. Gaunt and marred, his gentle hands still carry the eminent strength that upholds his loyalty and his name. From 1979-1982, he and his family escaped on foot from Vietnam, through Cambodia, and into Thailand, where they arrived at the refugee camp before stepping foot onto American soil. 

I marvel at the profound love that ignited our predecessors with the courage to fight for a generation that did not yet exist. I’ve recreated Bác Phơưl’s "war wounds" by rubbing rainwater and tears into the paper with my fingers as an anointing, expressing the immense gratitude for all he has done for our people, for our generation, and for those who will go on to inherit these freedoms.

The words Dear Father are repeatedly hand-painted in Sanskrit as a cloak that calls out to our Fathers.

Cynthia Occelli said, “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn't understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” Although these afflictions set out to maim, they’ve only broken open the fissures that have made space for seeds to nestle and for new growth to occur.


She is Water, 2017. Collage, feather from Mother’s rooster, gouache, graphite, holy water, ink, Pacific Ocean water, thread, tree bark, on digital image printed on Arches watercolor paper, 30 ½ x 44”

Michelle brushes her “war wound” upon the cheek as war paint, preparing for the battles that she is willing to fight.

To more deeply connect with Michelle’s story, I rewrote the narratives shared in her own hand-written words. Her words lead me adrift in free writing, which resulted in a series of love letters—one letter written to us from the perspective of our pain, one from the perspective of our wounds, and one from the perspective of water. Written in white ink upon the white ground of the photograph, these words might go unnoticed, like the quiet scars that are left by our mended wounds.

“What is stronger than the human heart which shatters over and over, and continues to live? We were born with the weakness to fall, but we were also born with the strength to rise. Although there are things that attempt to rip us in half, we hold the power not to turn their words into a knife and cut ourselves. We shall not look for healing at the feet of those who have broken us. Sometimes the apology does not come when it is wanted, and when it comes, it is neither wanted nor needed. She is water. Soft enough to offer life. Tough enough to drown it away.”  - Michelle Vesley


Cry. Touch. See. Life., 2017. Eucalyptus leaves, gouache, holy water, Pacific Ocean water, paper, pressed summer lilac, textile, thread, tree bark, and wool on digital image printed on Arches watercolor paper, 30 ½ x 44”

With a green thumb and a passion for horticulture, watching things grow in his garden has helped Chris heal. Eucalyptus leaves spring forth in this portrait, lending Chris the wings that uplift him to a more peaceful state of mind and a calmer heart. By threading a sample of summer lilac from his own portfolio of pressed plants, Chris physically mends his "wound".

“My wounds are healed through the creative process, through working to deconstruct the ego while exercising compassion and empathy for the suffering inherent in the human condition. Working on this project helped me to appreciate the therapeutic aspects of group work, cross-pollination, and the openness that allowed for the sharing of self, sharing of experiences and of ideas free of judgment. The community should know I am grateful to have had this experience and am fortunate to have met and to have worked with everyone involved.”    - Christopher Weathers


From These Ashes, 2017. Acrylic, blue jay feathers, holy water, ink, Pacific Ocean water, paper, scripture from Genesis, sea lavender, textile, thread, and wool on digital image printed on Arches watercolor paper, 30 ½ x 44”

Rachel’s dedication to environmental work is expressed in the materials that she incorporates in her wounds—blue jay feathers, sea lavender, wool, and other natural fibers. In healing, she describes herself as hoping for and aiming toward the “freedom to fly”. She sprouts the monarch butterfly wings that are prepared to take her there.

“This project was a valuable opportunity to think, to connect, and to share with others. Art encourages us to express our emotions rather than keep them inside, and through this process, it promotes healing. For me, the process is transformative. It is about gathering understanding, creating our own energy, and putting it into something new.”    - Rachel Davis


War, Freedom, and the Truth, 2017. Acrylic, bank notes, holy water, ink, Pacific Ocean water, textile, thread, tree branches, watercolor, and wool on digital image printed on Arches watercolor paper 30 ½ x 44”. Collection of Oceanside Museum of Art, Oceanside, CA.

John is an creative, expressive, and open individual. As I studied his markings, I found images that might symbolize fear, pain, and suffering. I felt compelled to wash them away by rubbing them out with holy water and Pacific Ocean water. Some of the images that were wiped away include a serpent’s head that was ready to strike, the point of contact upon which two fighters afflict one another, and the head of a black widow.

The Persian poet Rūmī said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” In response to this, John states, “Light is truth. It is the lying and the darkness that are the mechanisms of injury, in regards to the wound.”


As displayed at the Oceanside Museum of Art

MiraCosta College.jpg

As displayed at MiraCosta College, Oceanside, CA


A Time to Heal was made possible through a partnership between Oceanside Museum of Art and MiraCosta College, and through the generous support of our community partners: Chrome Digital, Community Engagement, Grand Central Art Center, J. Grant Brittain Photography, MiraCosta Veterans Services, and The Artist Odyssey.