A new art center in the Tampa Bay area is giving veterans a place to showcase their artwork and learn new art programs.
Larry Busby, a former Navy Petty Officer, has several photographs hanging in the St. Petersburg gallery. He gets up early during the week to snap pictures of the sunrise in areas like Gulfport.
“I love it out here. I can be out here for hours and not even realize hours have passed,” said Larry Busby.
With his camera by his side, Busby finds peace and healing by the water.
“The waves lapping and birds chirping, they’re really meditational moments. It's a zen kind of state,” said Busby.
For Busby, it’s been a long road to get to a place where his art could be put on display.
“I started drinking heavily after coming back from a deployment,” he said. Busby went on to explain “I got out of the Navy and did the starving artist things for a while. I was just burned. I dropped my camera and never picked it up again. That was about 30 years ago. It wasn't until about three years ago I had a breakdown.”
Busby found himself at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in St. Petersburg. While working through some of his past, he was urged to pick up a hobby. So, he picked up his camera and says that’s when his journey started to take a positive turn.
“I was realizing I was getting old and feeling useless. Feeling like I didn't serve a purpose anymore…that was part of depression, one of many things that led to me trying to commit suicide. But I got involved with VAC and it's given me purpose. I feel like I can help and payback,” said Busby.
Retired Army Major Scott Macksam has been working to get this center open for the past three years.
“Out there, there's a military veteran or first responder considering suicide. Or there's someone out there we can reach through mental health and healing through art. I always say there’s always a sense of urgency in everything we do,” explained Macksam.
Macksam doesn't consider himself an artist. But he says turning these walls into a place of healing is a form of art. He says it’s the first center of its kind for veterans, first responders and law enforcement officers in Florida.
“It's not a place where you are going to be classified into a medical diagnosis. We don't want that. We want this to be a safe zone or stage where they can be relaxed. You feel proud and happy about the ability that there is their piece of art and somebody can look at it and honor them by buying it. It’s really powerful,” said Macksam.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Howard Miller has also found healing through photography. He too has several pictures hanging on the center’s walls.
“On a typical night I'll take three, four, five hundred shots,” said Miller. “I wish I could use a paintbrush like I use a camera. But for now, this is definitely my paintbrush.”
Miller spent a decade in the Army and planned to serve many more year. But, he was diagnosed with cancer after returning from a deployment to Afghanistan.
“It was a very difficult experience. The military took care of me. They got me, kept me active duty while I was doing treatment and got me through surgeries. I was medically retired in December of 2015,” said Miller.
That unexpected early retirement and cancer diagnosis brought challenges. That's when Miller also turned to photography. It’s a skill he picked up during his first duty station in South Korea where he paid $90 for a basic point and shoot camera.
“I call it my church. When I go to the beach it's like a healing place to be. I get to capture it and bring it to others,” explained Miller, as he snapped pictures of a sunset along the water in Dunedin.
These are pictures that don't just capture the beauty of a sunset, but now, through the Veterans Art Center Tampa Bay, connect those who have served to a grateful community.
“I want those who have not served to come to the enter and be educated and to learn and honor and give back. A lot of people say ‘Thanks for your service’. Let's go further than that. Come to the center and take home a piece of art as a memorial,” said Macksam.
The center is also open for first responders and law enforcement officers to display their work and participate in art programs. Veterans, first responders and law enforcement officers can showcase their work at no cost. If they do sell their artwork through the center there is a fee, with the money going to the Veterans Art Center.
The public can also visit the gallery and purchase artwork as well during business hours. It’s open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.