During his 13-year career in the U.S. Army serving in the line of duty, Wesley “Wes” Davis was inspired to study psychology. A few years after being discharged in 2013, Davis combined his professional training and love for art into a nonprofit art instruction model for veterans. The nonprofit program, dubbed by Davis as Bedlam Arts, is based in Pierce County and is designed to help combat veterans heal, overcome, and re-integrate into society after service.
Davis uses visual art instruction to build confidence and creativity in students, while also leveraging a safe setting to foster an environment where former soldiers can openly share feelings, experiences, and fears with people they relate to and trust.
Designed to help soldiers navigate a transition that can often be extremely difficult, Bedlam Arts also gives Davis a channel to serve those standing on his left and his right.
How has art influenced your life?
A middle school counselor introduced art into my life. She was helping me cope with my parents’ divorce and got me doodling. She connected me with an art teacher to keep nurturing my talent, and at 15, I won first place in a contest. I ended up taking Advanced Placement and studio art classes throughout high school.
I jumped back into my art in Iraq, painting in the barracks, but it didn’t really grow legs again until I left the military.
I was helping at a veterans’ resource fair and bumped into an old college professor. She invited me to join her at the Tacoma Veterans Center counseling veterans. I taught an art group there for a year, but family circumstances forced me to leave, and that’s when I started Bedlam Arts.
While serving in the military, you studied psychology. What made you gravitate toward this discipline?
I studied psychology because I wanted to find out what was wrong with me.
In the military, I was in the field until I got to Tripler Army Medical Center, where I worked in logistics. My personality wasn’t all that friendly, so my sergeant major put me with other combat veterans, just so I could hang out with the guys I understood.
A noncommissioned officer urged me to go to the education center. I had no intention of attending college, but ended up taking Psychology 101 at Chaminade University, and it hooked me.
Why are you drawn to the psychological welfare of veterans?
In my opinion, veterans are the sheepdogs of our society. When I see them, I know they are still carrying a burden to protect, defend, and maintain responsibility for others. It’s a big weight.
I’ve dedicated my life to teaching veterans how to work with their strengths. Our combat training is like a river that never stops, so if we can learn how to put a rock here or there, it helps us navigate better through society.
I think veterans experience things differently. The roles they’re put into within the Army cultivate the need to protect and defend. There’s always a higher expectation and a mission to accomplish. They’re trained to be hyper-vigilant and then have no idea how to re-engage when they come home. They struggle with relearning how to be vulnerable enough to talk about the hard stuff, and when they get pulled back into a safe (group), they usually start talking about issues.
Describe Bedlam Arts and its mission.
I like to think of Bedlam Arts as having a mental health focus under the guise of art. We guide under traditional mental health principles, but use artistic principles as the technique.
Pierce County has one of the largest veteran populations in the U.S., and it’s a big community in need. Bedlam Arts helps to provide creative outlets for veterans and military service personnel that will help them build life skills, address issues, and so on. We bring different veteran cultures together, give returning soldiers a soft landing, and set a stage for healthy intermingling.
How does the creative process help a veteran heal?
Putting the veteran in front of a canvas is much like an artist that gets stuck in the creative process. Helping them learn “how to do something” by putting the brush to the canvas gives them an attainable challenge and an outlet to help them get unstuck.
Several clients have had tough life events. When the Bedlam Arts group accepts them openly, the connections just start happening organically. Eventually, the stories start to come out, then others listen and relate, and it’s a domino effect. There’s nothing clinical. It’s all just a natural process within a safe environment that helps members comfortably work through life issues.
How many participants do you have in your programs, and how often do your groups meet?
In Tacoma, we have about 15 regulars. That group has grown steadily since 2015, and we meet every fourth Saturday. Every Thursday, I also work with 10 people on The Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the Warrior Transition Battalion facility. I’ve also started a new group in Lacey, with six participants that meet every fourth Sunday, and a stone sculpting group that convenes every third Saturday.
How do you secure funding for the programs under Bedlam Arts?
Funding for Bedlam Arts comes mostly through private donations people make on the website. That helps us resupply art materials and equipment. I have also raffled off my artwork, and we’ve tried doing drives and soliciting donations through social media.
How is success defined within the Bedlam Arts culture?
Bedlam Arts is a strengthening program, not a replacement to therapy, so we view success somewhat differently. It can be seen through people coming back, because they want to finish something or engage. Some will even bring other veteran friends with them.
After five or six sessions, we also start to see physical changes. It could be a new job, dating, or more appreciation for themselves. In fact, when clients come just to be there and don’t feel like they “have to paint,” it’s a sign of success. They’re simply acknowledging the environment is a safe place to share.
Are there new features and practices you’d like to incorporate into the Bedlam Arts model?
I’d really like to get Bedlam Arts to a point where there’s a group for every medium — watercolor, graphite pencil, glassblowing, writing — anything and everything. I’d also like to capitalize on our clients’ trained leadership strengths in addition to their artistic talents.
I want it to be a healing program for veterans from Seattle to Olympia and hope to raise enough money to obtain and maintain a physical location or purchase an Airstream that can be turned into a traveling studio.