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"Arts and Skills" for Veterans

Mar 31, 2010 11:04 AM | 1 comment

Learning New Skills, 1945

In 1944, as more and more American soldiers were returning home from war, the American Red Cross established a new volunteer sector: the Arts and Skills Corps.  This program is included in the Eagle's post-war publication, Staging Area Brooklyn.  It states that the Corps "resulted from increased awareness of the therapeutic problems of convalescents.  Skilled and craftsmen, wearing the Red Cross uniform, helped men fill the long hours of convalescence with activities ranging from sculpture to photographs, programs that kept minds and hands busy in the fights against boredom and mental and physical stagnation."

But the Arts and Skills Corps fought against more than boredom and stagnation.  For many veterans, particularly in Brooklyn, returning home to an active and enthusiastic homefront after witnessing war first hand was a tough transition.  In June 1944, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt witnessed the impact of the therapy provided by the Arts and Skills Corps at a hospital in Washington, D.C.  Afterwards she wrote, "I am very glad that the Red Cross is carrying on this work and hope that the program will be developed in all mental hospitals."  While the First Lady's wish to serve every hospital was not fulfilled, the Corps did its best.  Between 1945 and 1946 over 6,000 volunteers participated in 105 hospitals across the country. 

Getting it out of his System, 1945

In Brooklyn, the Arts and Skills Corps operated out of Sea Gate Naval Hospital and Fort Hamilton Training Station, where volunteers served not only their hometown boys, but also servicemen from all over the country.  This young veteran is from South Dakota.  A closer look at his sculpture and the caption of this photograph gives a glimpse into the severe traumas the Red Cross was working to heal:

"Pharmacist's Mate 3d Class William Magee, who has seen Japs die on the point of a bayonet, finds modeling the incidents in clay a means of ridding himself of horrible memories."

Getting it out of his System, 1945 (close up)

The Eagle helped bring attention and support to the Arts and Skills Corps by hosting an exhibit in the Eagle Building in the spring of 1945.  At Work on Exhibit, 1945

To Their Taste, 1945

In addition to temporary art displays, patients were on hand to demonstrate their talents.  Seaman 2nd Class Charles Moran showed-off his painting ability for young visitors (Moran received an "art champion" award at the close of the exhibit).  The Eagle also offered daily lessons and exercises featuring special guests.  The photo below, titled "Stop, look and whistle!", shows a group of sailors sketching two different types of models from the famous Conover Modeling Agency.

Stop, Look, and Whistle! 1945

Future Pin-up Girl, 1945

Also in 1945, the Brooklyn Red Cross received a generous donation from the Putnam Family estate: the deed to the family house at 70 Willow Street.  Recognizing the importance of post-war art therapy, the Red Cross converted the newly acquired building into an arts and skills training center that was run by Mrs. A. Robert Swanson, chairman of the Arts and Skills Corps of Brooklyn.  The basement was used to store donated materials for in-hospital sessions, and the first floor was converted to hold two offices and two studios that could accommodate activities ranging "from ceramics to painting to making shell jewelry to plastics and typography."  Lectures were also provided to veterans on "various new developments" in the arts.

70 Willow Street, built c.1850

As the war came to an end, the spotlight on the Arts and Skills Corps began to fade.  The Red Cross' residence at Willow Street seems to have been short lived.  The Times reported an art show there in 1948, but by 1955 the building was once again residential (and its most famous resident - from 1955 to 1965 - was Truman Capote).  As late as 1950, I was able to find signs of the Arts and Skills Corps operating in Brooklyn, but even then the Times described a "serious shortage" in arts volunteers. 

Today, various forms of art therapy are available to veterans, but not through the Red Cross.  Local hospitals and veterans associations have their own efforts, although the general consensus is that there is always a need for more creative outlets for our returning veterans.  Brooklyn Boy at Exhibit, 1945


3/13/2012 9:37:45 PM #

Was happy to find this article. I am an artist who lived in Brooklyn for about 18 years before moving to the SF Bay Area, where I have been working on a project with SFMOMA that restates the Arts & Skills Corp.

Allison Smith