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War Paint: Roderick Radford and the Artists of the VA Domiciliary

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Through Thanksgiving, the City of Cleveland will be displaying in the City Hall Rotunda the artistic work of veterans from the VA Domiciliary at Wade Park. The Domiciliary is a unique partnership between the Volunteers of America of Greater Ohio and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. On the VA Medical Campus, the 122-bed Domiciliary provides an assortment of rehabilitative care and treatment services, primarily for homeless vets and those with chronic substance abuse problems. Art therapy has proven to be a successful outlet for many of the vets in residence there, and after checking out the art when the display debuted last Friday, we caught up with Roderick Radford, a 52-year-old Army vet whose paintings are featured downtown. Radford, looking lean and sharp in a beige sportcoat, spoke with Scene in the art room on the VA campus.

Sam Allard: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Roderick Radford: I'm actually from Cleveland, born and raised here. I spent 10 years in the military, in the Army. Postal worker. Married, three children. What else would you like to know?

SA: How about your military service? Were you overseas?

RR: I did two tours in Korea, in '84 and '88.

SA: Refresh my memory. What was going on in Korea at that time?

RR: At that time? Nothing. The Olympics were there in '88, but no wartime issues.

SA: So what were you doing over there?

RR: Let me see if I can simplify this. I had this big technical name: Nuclear biological chemical specialist, so basically I was the sergeant of the company who trained the rest of the company in those aspects. I was the commander's right hand man.

SA: Sounds pretty-

RR: High tech? It was.

SA: Did you defuse any bombs?

RR: No, no, no. No bombs, just chemical stuff.

SA: And how long have you been in the Domiciliary program?

RR: I've been in the program since the first week of August.

SA: And what about the art therapy program?

RR: I started that, really, the first month I was here. They encourage us to do it, to give us something to do other than what we're here for, but it's all optional.

SA: And has it been...therapeutic?

RR: Very.

SA: Had you been an artist before?

RR: I didn't do art really, but as a kid I liked to color in coloring books. I'd forgotten about that until I came here. I was kind of resistant at first but then I said I'd give it a try. And when I got in here, the time went by so fast it was just like, "Wow, I'm not ready to leave." And then I looked forward to coming back week after week.

SA: Are there classes? Or is it more free-form?

RR: It's free form, do whatever you like. [Art therapist Laurel Larsen] makes suggestions, but it's really up to you as far as what area -- if you want to paint something or draw something.

SA: Tell me about the work on display at City Hall.

RR: It's a selection of people's work who are here now, and people who used to be in the Dom. I have two down there. One, they call it a Mandala [a Sanskrit design representing the universe]... the other one has "Why does love hurt" and the hurt has yellow tears dripping off of it. Love does not always feel good... I feel like it's pretty easy to interpret that one. You see it and think, "Okay, someone's going through something." It could be any kind of hurt. It doesn't have to be relationship-related.

SA: A feel like a lot of the artists have probably been hurting in some ways.

RR: Yeah, lots. That's why this therapy is so good. It's a good release. We have relaxing music while we're doing our art. We converse while we're in here. We encourage each other. It's a very positive atmosphere. No negativity is allowed. Some therapy is about getting your body in shape or getting things to move better or feel better -- this is different.

SA: Just walking around this place, you can feel the positive energy. [The 77,000 square foot facility is just three years old.]

RR: There's a lot of support, a lot of things that we didn't know we were entitled to until we came here. You come in for one thing -- housing, addiction -- and you get exposed to other things. It's all about having you come here, get what you need, and then not have to come back. Everything in their power, they try to extend to you while you're here.

SA: What's the ultimate goal, would you say?

RR: To be self-sufficient, to stay sober, to be able to sustain yourself and to help your fellow vets with everything you've learned and gleaned from the programs. There's a lot. They've got stress management. Anger management. CBT -- Cognitive Behavior Thinking, that's one of the main programs here. It helps you deal with your thinking and how you respond to things. Great program. This is a place where you realize the gravity of how we relate to one another. We have a lot of things in common. People out in the regular world, in society, don't understand us always. But we understand each other. We have a bond that'll never be broken. And me personally, this place has been a godsend for me.

SA: What's one thing you wish the general public would change about the way they treat veterans? Or one thing they could be more sensitive about?

RR: In general, I'd say that being educated as far as the different issues we have, from depression to the whole gamut. Being educated will help you understand your loved ones better. You'll be able to help them, know their symptoms, their triggers.

SA: Other than your own stuff, do you have a favorite piece down at City Hall?

RR: One of my favorites is a face, but one half of the face is the evil side and the other is the good side. The hair and everything is different on both sides.

SA: Do you think you'll still do art after your stay at the Domiciliary?

RR: Definitely.

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