Artists in Arms

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Photography by Justin Taylor

December 30, 1965, at 8:30 p.m.,” Kenneth Martin recalls with precision. That was the moment he lost control of his Plymouth GTO on a freeway in Detroit, just seconds before the car flipped and his body was ejected. He survived, but suffered a broken neck and leg, and spinal cord injuries that rendered him quadriplegic at 21 years old.

“That’s when the paradigm shifted,” Martin says, who at the time of the accident was just beginning his career as a welder at the Ford Motor Company. “Everything changed.”

Yet to observe Martin today at 73 years old, settled in his cozy home in Carver Heights with his wife of 47 years, Theresa, is to see that he has lived, and continues to live, a very full life in spite of the injuries that confine him to a wheelchair.

What saved him? Art. And now he uses his gift to save others.

Kenneth Martin and Sgt. Eric Sanders

Every Saturday, Martin offers free art classes to veterans through the Jepson Center as part of a Telfair Museums’ community outreach program, I Have Marks to Make. On Tuesday afternoons he’s at the Savannah Vet Center, doing the same. And for the past decade, much of his art has been displayed in an annual exhibition at the Jepson, also titled I Have Marks to Make. The show, which closed in January, featured work by people of all ages with disabilities or in rehabilitation from injury or illness. 

Martin is quick to point out that he did not serve in the military, but his connection to those who face physical, emotional and mental challenges after war is clear: They’re all working their way back to life, however altered that life may be. And art helps them take the first step toward healing, just as it helped him.

Martin never picked up a paintbrush prior to his accident, but under the guidance of his therapists back in Michigan, Martin found that painting helped him regain some use of his hands. Today, painted canvases cover every square inch of the walls in his home, and lean against the sofa in stacks of three and four. Most of the work is his expertly rendered oil portraits, others are from the vets he’s taught over the past six years. Whenever a name comes up in conversation, his wife Theresa hops up and flips through the canvases to find the work they’ve made.

Shirley Coppet with her art featured in I Have Marks to Make exhibition

The process of creating art helps some vets open up about their experiences, spurred by unexpected connections. Martin recalls how one Marine was mixing green paint when he realized that the color reminded him of the khakis they wore in Vietnam. This led to another memory of fighting off the Bengal tigers that would run toward battle in search of food. “He had to fight off the tigers to get his guys,” Martin says, shaking his head at the unthinkable.

Like the experiences that propel his students toward art class, Martin’s task is rarely easy. He recalls the first class he ever taught at the Veteran Affairs, when only a few men showed up. “They came in there like, ‘What is this guy gonna tell us?’” Martin says, laughing. “I said, ‘Look, guys, my job is not to make you a Rembrandt or Picasso. My goal is for you not to be intimidated by white paper and paint. If you can go through combat, you can do this stuff,” he says with a laugh. “They backed off after that.”

Lawrence Brown with his art featured in the I Have Marks to Make exhibition

Sgt. Eric Sanders, 24, of the 3rd infantry division of Ft. Stewart, Georgia, has served in the military for five years and has one year left on his contract. He met Martin at Armstrong State University, where both men attend classes. They bonded immediately over their passion for art and their desire to share it with vets. This spring Sanders will graduate with a bachelor of fine arts in visual art.

“I was talking about how I wanted to open an art studio for vets, and Kenneth said, ‘We need to talk,’” Sanders recalls. “We sat down for several hours and hashed out our different goals, and that’s how we ended up working together, first at the VA and now at Jepson.”

Sanders’ age and service give him a unique—and important—perspective about the challenges vets face. “There’s a culture shock that comes with trying to reintegrate into a civilian world,” notes Sanders. “With these classes, a lot of the guys at Jepson find that military community again. The art helps them, but the sense of community helps them, too.”

Though Sanders hopes to pull younger vets into the program, he acknowledges the difficulty in doing so. “When you’ve been told you’re a badass, you’re a killer, it’s tough to reach out for help,” Sanders says. His solution is to launch a nonprofit art studio catering to vets of his own generation. “I’m not going to brand it as ‘help’ or ‘rehab’ or ‘therapy’—these words are instantly a turnoff,” he explains. “But if you say ‘Hey, do you want to make some cool art?,’ then they’re on board.”

With around 25,000 vets, Savannah seems the ideal location for the studio Sanders imagines, and he sees a real need for it, too. “There are so many of the 3rd ID here who saw the initial invasion of Iraq,” he says. “They’ve been out of the service for over a decade now, but they’re still carrying those scars.”

Artist Jonathan Lang

Some of those experiences have been channeled into art for the I Have Marks to Make exhibit, which Harry DeLorme, Telfair’s senior curator of education, launched in 1994, first at Telfair Academy and then at the Jepson, to tie into the museum’s therapeutic outreach programs.

“Some of the work may just be scribbles, really,” says DeLorme. “For some folks, just making those marks or getting back to making them after a traumatic injury or illness is a big step.”

I Have Marks to Make was also inspired by Katherine Hartwig Dahl, a prolific artist who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1988. Dahl transformed what could have been a career-ending event into a series of paintings that documented her return to art—and to life. In 1995, her first major new work, Marks, was purchased for the Telfair Museums’ permanent collection.

“Year after year, there’s always a moment during this exhibition that brings me to tears,” says DeLorme. “There’s so much pride when people see their work. It’s an incredible feeling.”