WILKES-BARRE — “Three, two, one … Yay!”
After the countdown and before the applause, veteran John Wolczyk gripped an over-size pair of scissors on Friday afternoon and cut a red, white and blue ribbon to officially open “Military Masterpieces,” a new art gallery at the Veterans Administration Medical Center that will showcase the work of residents in the facility’s Community Living Center.
“Where’s Marilyn Monroe?” veteran Cliff German teased as friends, family, VA staff and professional photographers recorded the event with cellphones and large cameras.
If any movie stars were on hand, they were incognito.
The celebrities of the day were the gentlemen who have been taking Friday afternoon art classes with instructor Judith Keats.
“Bill, did you do that?” a nurse’s aide sang out, letting Bill Hastie, formerly of West Pittston, know she admired his watercolor paintings of a cardinal and a sunflower.
“I’m trying to hide,” Hastie said, shifting his weight in his wheelchair as he explained he didn’t think his artwork was all that good.
“It’s pretty!” the nurse’s aide insisted.
“He’s a critic — of his own work,” said Hastie’s daughter, Megan,
Keats, who teaches art at Keystone College when she’s not at the VA, praised her veteran students for being “willing to try something new. Some are in their late 80s or in their 90s and this is the first drawing they ever did,” she said. “One gentleman had a stroke and lost use of his dominant hand, so he learned to use his non-dominant hand.”
“Almost everybody who comes in (to the art class) goes out with joy,” she said with a smile. “This really pulls them out. Art has the ability to do that.”
The veterans chose to paint or draw anything that interested them, from eagles to military jeeps to the kind of fish they might have caught on an angling expedition.
Charles Anistranski, 94, a retired history teacher from Coughlin High School and an infantry veteran, had several color pencil and graphite drawings on display, including a squirrel and a rabbit. He likes to use flowers as a subject, too, because it reminds him of his garden.
“He had no idea he could draw so well,” Keats said.
Hastie, 99, described the art class as a good form of stress relief — and it seems he’s no stranger to stress, having served in North Africa, Sicily and the Italian Campaign during World War II, often “under heavy fire,” and surviving the Knox Mine Disaster of 1959.
Art is “just about the only thing my dad was not involved with before he came here,” Megan Hastie said. “He was involved in public speaking, co-authored the book “Anthracite Labor Wars” with Robert Wolensky and he was an avid gardener.”
Marigolds from Hastie’s home garden have been transplanted to the Community Living Center’s garden, Megan Hastie said. “One of the joys of the day is to go out there and see the monarch butterflies.”
The art program is another highlight of her dad’s life at the Community Living Center, she said, adding it is “a collaboration of the recreational staff with volunteers and donors.”
The program can use donations, Keats said, and anyone interested in helping the veterans tap into their creative potential can write out a check to Voluntary Services, make a notation that it is for the “Military Masterpieces” project, and send it to the VA Medical Center at 1111 East End Blvd.
“This isn’t busy work,” Keats said as she stood before several rows of neatly matted and framed pieces of art. “They’re learning real skills. It’s fine art and that’s why we treat it this way.”
New “Military Masterpieces” from the veterans will be displayed every three months, head nurse Linda Zaneski said. “We are thrilled with this program.”
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT