“Wanna do some push-ups?” asks Paul Riedner, with a grin.
Riedner, a former U.S. Army deep sea diver, is a bundle of energy — good energy.
The young vet lives with his wife and kids in Minneapolis, but this week he’s hanging out in his home town of Red Wing and nearby Frontenac for the “Minnesota Veterans Art Experience,” a week-long retreat that he helped bring into being.
When Riedner returned home from service in 2010, he was eager to rally people around issues such as military spending
“I had a new perspective from what I had learned and experienced in service,” Riedner said. “But I wasn’t able to connect with people on those topics as I had hoped.”
Then Riedner ran into his former high school counselor Dan Guida, now the executive director of the Red Wing Arts Association. Guida served in the military during the Vietnam War.
“It’s difficult when you come back,” Riedner said.. “It was for me, and I had an easy tour. Paul made the comment that the one thing that seemed to help him process his experience was the arts.”
Between them, Riedner and Guida came up with the Minnesota Veterans Art Experience. With funding from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the Phillip Duff Endowment Fund, the project became a reality.
Over the course of this week, 24 veterans are takings classes in painting, writing, photography, music, and film.
“We encourage the veterans to draw on their experiences directly, to consider them, or just play with the materials,” said Riedner. “Maybe later on they’ll feel empowered to try something because they’ve had this exposure to painting or photography or clay.”
Red Wing artist and U.S. Army vet Art Kenyon is teaching the painting classes on the third floor of the Villa Maria Retreat Center in Frontenac. For painter Marc Dull, who served in the Philippines in the late 1980’s, the retreat was well-timed.
“I am an artist, but I’ve been battling PTSD the last couple of years,” said Dull. “There’s been that block where I haven’t been able to do much living – certainly not quality living. I knew it was going to be a safe environment, and that I’d make some pretty fast friends.”
In addition to the classes, there’s a dual exhibition at the Red Wing Depot gallery. One half consists of art work by veterans. The other half, called “Pict-Orals,” features prints and paintings made by artists in response to conversations they had with veterans about their military experiences.
Also on display is a miniature version of a sculpture that will be installed alongside the Red Wing riverfront later this summer, once the water has receded. It’s a piece by Red Wing artist Art Kenyon, and is a memorial to veterans.
“Want to go for a run?” asks Major General John Borling. The 74-year-old makes no bones about his wanting to “suck the marrow from life.” He served as an Air Force fighter pilot in the Vietnam War and after being shot down, spent six years and eight months as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.
Borlington, the author of “Taps on the Walls,” is in Red Wing this week as part the Veterans Art Experience, talking about the arts, his time as a prisoner of war, and how he used poetry — tapped through the walls to fellow prisoners — to keep sane.
“The essence of the human condition is our ability to create,” Borling said. “Poetry kept me human — that and humor.”
While the veterans partaking of the week-long retreat offered rave reviews, Paul Riedner worries about the people who aren’t there.
“There aren’t as many young people as I would have hoped,” Riedner said. “It’s harder to reach the veterans from my generation who are not as tied into veterans groups. Everyone is different in terms of how soon after service they want to connect again and relive those experiences. For some people it takes twenty years or more.”
Riedner’s primary goals for the week are two-fold: to help the community to understand the sacrifices and experiences of veterans — and give veterans the opportunity to explore the arts and share something that they might not have otherwise.