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Surreal Recovery through Art: A Conversation with Jon and Melissa Meadows

Jon Meadows never considered himself an artist. It wasn’t until 2013, when he returned to the US from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan that he decided to give a ceramics class a try. For some time, Jon had gone past the art workshops offered at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir. One day, after much cajoling from the teacher, he decided to finally go in.

He didn’t know it at the time, but that day would change everything.

Despite initially thinking that “ceramics was only for girls or kids” Meadows began to attend the art workshops more regularly. The classes were put on by IMPart of the Art League, a non-profit that works to connect Injured Military Personnel with visual arts.

His wife and caregiver, Melissa, recalls that one evening early on after attending the class, Meadows was at home working with clay. She came back into the room two hours later, and he had made his first complete sculpture of a soldier. “I was astonished. He made something in two hours that I couldn’t have created in my entire life,” she recounts.

At this point, Meadows was struggling to form even basic sentences. After serving for more than 12 years in the Army, he had been medically discharged. At first, he and his wife Melissa thought that the changes Meadows had experienced were a result of PTSD. It wasn’t until after conducting many lab tests that they discovered Jon had suffered brain injuries from the multiple blasts he had experienced in combat.

Meadow’s decline was rapid and, as Melissa describes it, surreal. “He went from being a master truck driver in the Army to not being able to even drive a golf cart.”

Eventually, both Melissa and Meadows shifted from working full time and living in Connecticut to Melissa becoming Meadow’s primary care giver and moving their family down to the Washington, DC area where more resources were available for veterans.

One of those resources was IMPart program that helped him discover his natural knack for art. “Getting my hands on clay helped me to focus. It really helped my cognition and dexterity. At that point, I was nearly blind.”

For Meadows, having access to this new form of expression became a kind of therapy. “I was having so much fun I didn’t even realize. I didn’t go there for therapy, but that is what I got. I was getting so burned out from all of the other traditional forms of therapy I was going through. But with the art sessions, I left feeling accomplished. I didn’t realize it was improving my vision and dexterity. Doing art woke up different parts of my brain.”

One of Meadow’s earliest pieces “Demons” is a self-portrait from around this time.

"Demons" by Jon Meadows

“Demons” by Jon Meadows

The ceramic sculpture from 2013 depicts ghostly forms coming out of the figure’s head. “Everyone has demons. Soldiers just might have more than other people sometimes,” Meadows explains. “I think so many other people can relate to this piece though, not just soldiers, but anyone dealing with depression or a dark spot.”

Another piece, “Soldier Holding Baby,” grapples with what Meadows calls the “moral injuries” of being in combat. “There is personal trauma that arises, especially when it comes to children. Everyone soldier, fireman, or police officer knows that when a child is involved, it is so much harder. That was my biggest weakness over there, but you just have to hide it.”

"Soldier Holding Baby," by Jon Meadows.

“Soldier Holding Baby,” by Jon Meadows.

In “01.04.2013” Meadows produced a print of a photograph that was taken on the day he suffered his last brain injury in Afghanistan.

"01.04.2013," by Jon Meadows

“01.04.2013,” by Jon Meadows

The piece is printed on what’s called “combat paper” which is produced by a non-profit based in New Jersey that takes old uniforms from soldiers and turns them into paper. While visiting there for a five-day guided writing workshop, Meadows wrote the words inscribed on the piece:

“I thought coming back would be so simple, but now my brain and body are in a battle. No one can see the damage on the inside, the guilt and anger shredding out of me.”

Meadows was just starting to consider himself an artist, but he didn’t quite grasp the full power of his work until another veteran saw his pieces and told him, “This is exactly how I felt when I came back from Vietnam.”

Meadows recalls, “That’s when I realized people connect to my work emotionally.”

In the two years since then, Meadow’s condition has improved dramatically. Melissa says, “I don’t know where we would be without the IMPart program. The support we’ve received has been fantastic.”

Meadows agrees. “They really saved my soul. I was watching other people work out and drive and I couldn’t do anything. I got into the IMPart program and it brought my soul alive. I owe them a lot. It has helped my vision, fine motor skills, and dexterity. It’s wondrous.”

Only two years ago, having considered art strictly for ‘girls and children’, Meadows has also come a long way as an artist. He was recently featured in a solo exhibition at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia and has appeared with Melissa on NPR’s StoryCorps.

Reflecting on seeing his work on display in a gallery, he states simply, “I still don’t see it as good as people see it. I think of making art as enjoyment. I like what people get out of it – that part is awesome.”

Melissa gives him more credit. “It feels surreal. I saw him at his worst. And his first piece happened in just two hours. Without the art, I just don’t know where he’d be in the recovery process. Art tied it all together – and made it enjoyable.”

“He used to ask me, ‘Why did I make it back from Iraq?’” Melissa recalls. “I would tell him there was a reason. Now I know it is this art. It has a real impact on people. It creates a visceral reaction, not only for veterans but also for people who have never been in combat. Even they can feel it in their bodies. His art has been powerful for creating an emotional connection with other people.”