Submitted photo Veteran Sean Casey (right, holding his print) poses with his artist, Megan Pollack.
5/27/2015 7:30:00 AM A picture is worth a thousand words With the help of art students, Chrisinger continues work with vets
By Andy Hildebrand
When Rhinelander native David Chrisinger began his work with veterans in 2013, his goal was simple. He wanted to help his boyhood friend Brett Foley transition from the military back to civilian life. At first that took the form of late-night emails and phone calls, simple conversations. Over time, as he read more and more about the immense challenge returning home can be for veterans, Chrisinger began to see his own family history, most notably his grandfather, through a new light. Two years, a 50-mile run and countless hours of research and fundraising later, Chrisinger is more dedicated than ever to the cause. He teaches a class at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point geared toward helping veterans adjust to college. Chrisinger considered the class's first semester, which took place last fall, a huge success. Entering the spring semester, he knew he wanted to add an extra piece to his class that would help tie it all together. That's when an idea struck. "I met Yvette Pino, the founder of the Veteran Print Project, when Brett Foley and I were fundraising for The Mission Continues (an organzation that helps veterans use the skills they learned while serving after they return home)," he said. "Yvette had gone through The Mission Continues and she was the only fellow that lived in Wisconsin, so I met up with her at one of her shows in Madison. She told me about the things her project was doing and what their mission was." Chrisinger knew it was an ambitious idea and would take a lot of coordination on his part, but there was no question the result could be incredibly rewarding. "It's a really cool idea," he said. "It's pairing veterans with artists. The veteran tells a story and then the artist illustrates that story with a fine art print. I saw some of the examples that she and other artists had done, and I thought it was such an interesting way of connecting people and also documenting the stories and the history." He contacted Pino and told her what he had in mind. She immediately agreed to lend a hand and just like that, the ball was rolling. Next, Chrisinger had to reach out to some of his contacts at the university. "I reached out to the print-making professor at UWSP and I pitched him the idea," he said. "Little did I know, his wife, who's also a professor in the history department, has done lots of functions like this in the past. They were both really excited about this idea." Now that he had all of his ducks in a row, the only task that remained was to pitch the idea to his students, which Chrisinger said made him most nervous. "A few weeks into the semester, I had Yvette visit my class," he said. "She pitched her program and her idea. I was pleasantly surprised by how interested the students were. At first I thought they might think, 'Oh great, I have to talk to some 21-year-old artist and I don't want to do that.' Maybe they hadn't even told their families these stories yet. We had to pitch it as an opportunity to connect with someone on campus and in the end, they'll get this really cool print." Next, the pair made a trip across campus to fill in the art students. "Yvette visited the artists and told them about the program," he said. "I think they were nervous about it. These are really important stories and they could be really hard to tell. It's a big responsibility and they were worried about doing the stories justice." At least some of their nerves were put at ease when the two groups finally met up so the veterans could tell their stories. "We arranged a meeting between the students and they talked for an hour or an hour and a half," Chrisinger said. "Some people even got to be decent friends in that time and exchanged numbers. Some of the students brought pictures of themselves when they were in the service, or brought some kind of memento they had come home with. They told all sorts of different stories about what happens at war and what happened when they came home. They talked about funny things that happened and sad things that happened. They talked about moments when they really thought they had proven themselves. They told a variety of stories." When the meeting was over, both groups returned to their regular schedules. While the young artists worked on their renderings of the stories, Chrisinger said his class was learning how to put them on paper. "Three months went by and all this time the art students had been working on the prints and trying to figure out how to illustrate the stories," he said. "In the meantime, I was teaching my students how to write their story. The story they ended up telling the artists, we wanted to put down on paper." In early May, the two groups met again, this time to unveil the work they had done. Chrisinger said it was fascinating to see the different ways the artists chose to illustrate the stories and the reactions from the veterans. "On Monday, May 5, we did the reveal, when the artists showed their prints to the veterans for the first time," he said. "There was some really amazing work done. The way we facilitated it was we hung up all the prints and each artist came forward in front of the group to explain what they were trying to accomplish with the print and what they were trying to illustrate, the things they picked up on and the things in the veterans' stories they found most interesting. With some of the prints, you weren't really sure what they were going for, but then you'd hear the story and completely understand." The final products were impressive and the veterans were eager to take them home, but Chrisinger said the true prize was the relationships they built and the way the project made them feel more connected to campus. "My students were really proud of the prints that they got," he said. "They were asking when they could take them home and where they could get them framed. I think it was a really cool experience all the way around. The veterans learned people do care about them and their stories. When you get out of the military and you feel isolated and alone, you're not with your guys anymore, it's really easy to think no one cares and no one is paying attention. We've been at war for a long time now. This reminded them that people actually do care and want to listen to what they have to say." It wasn't just a meaningful experience for the veterans, however. Chrisinger said the project helped educate all parties involved. "It was also a benefit to the artists, because a lot of them don't know veterans or have a veteran in their family," he said. "It opened up their eyes to some of the things (the veterans are) going through and have experienced in a way watching the news or reading an article can't really do." It was a memorable way to cap off Chrisinger's second semester teaching the class and he hopes it may play a role in its viability. With budget cuts looming, he said he's afraid the Veteran Print Project may be the final work he does at UWSP. "Some people from (UWSP) came and that was great because other people on campus get to see what we're doing," he said. "Our class is on the chopping block because of the budget cuts happening in the UW system, so it was great to show people what an amazing experience it was for the students. It was encouraging to see all the support for what we were trying to do. You can see it in my students that they feel more comfortable and better connected on campus. All the research shows that if people feel comfortable somewhere, that's where they'll stay. Our main goal is to help these guys get an education, graduate and go out to be productive members of society." Whether he's allowed to continue his work in the classroom or not, there's little doubt Chrisinger's dedication to veterans will go on in some way or another. Just as it started years ago, the mission continues. Andy Hildebrand may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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