Retired Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Chris Stowe served 24 years in the military, working as a bomb technician in Djibouti, Kosovo, Macedonia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
He sustained a brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Upon returning home, Chris realized he needed help in recovery from both.
Chris attended the National Intrepid Center of Excellence Program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland—a facility specializing in traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. While at Walter Reed, he participated in a pilot program using the creative arts as therapy.
The experience was life-changing.
“Creative arts therapy is something that probably saved my life,” Chris says.
After his 28 days at Walter Reed, Chris went on to serve as congressional fellowship for the chairperson of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, which dealt with integrated veteran medical issues.
“From that initial experience and working with other military nonprofits and my congressional experience, I was invited to a creative arts therapy summit,” Chris says. “I was on the veterans panel, and we had discussions about how art can benefit veterans.”
After retiring from military service, Chris made his home in St. Petersburg.
In 2015, a glassblowing class caught his eye. He fell in love with the medium and approached the local Morean Arts Center about offering a special program for veterans.
“I talked to the guys at the glassblowing studio for 15 minutes, and they were sold,” Chris says.
The result is “Operation: Art of Valor”—a veterans-only hands-on learning experience in glassblowing that requires participants to concentrate and collaborate on projects ranging from cups and paperweights to large pieces of art.
Classes focus on “improving cognition, social interaction, physical dexterity, teamwork and confidence outside of clinical care,” according to the Morean Arts Center.
Chris serves as creative adviser of the nonprofit, organizing the classes that meet every Sunday morning at the Morean Glass Studio.
Since launching in 2018, the program now includes photography—currently on hiatus—and clay classes taught by retired Air Force Col. Tom Davis, a Raku artist who served 27 years in the military.
Veteran Brian Fernandez took glassblowing elsewhere and got hooked, then joined the Art of Valor program and now helps instruct newcomers.
“I fell in love with the medium,” he says of the program, noting that working with heat and heavy materials require concentration and collaboration. “For me, it allowed me to forget what is happening in my personal life and what happened in my past. I get tunnel vision working on a piece or helping others. It’s really easy to dive deep and get lost.”
The craft takes years to perfect, Brian says, adding the medium’s fragility and breakage are part of the learning process.
Zac Hughes was a firefighter for 15 years. He had to stay in the moment and remain focused on what he called “organized chaos.”
Glassblowing is similar.
“You have to really focus on the task at hand,” he says. “A perfect piece can easily become a ‘floor model.’ It’s a very interesting dynamic.”
The Art of Valor program is free and open to all veterans. They work with the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital—a clinical site for Creative Forces, which is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The program is also sponsored in part by the State of Florida and the Florida Council of Arts and Culture.
Veterans arrive by referral, through the website’s registration or by showing up.
“All walks of life as long as they’re veterans or military,”
Organizers arrive around 7 a.m. Sundays to fire up the furnaces. Class begins at 8 a.m.
Beginners start with waivers and questionnaires, then are instructed in safety and the basic tenets of art. Most start the six-week beginner class by making small objects such as cups or paperweights, then graduate to larger pieces or collaborative artworks.
Master glassblower Christian Zvonik, curator of the Imagine Museum in St. Petersburg, serves as the tech coordinator.
“He’s kind of our adult supervision,” Chris says.
Veterans have ranged from Green Berets and SEALs to those who worked in administration.
“It runs the gamut,” Brian says, noting rank “goes out the window when they come into the shop.”
Some pieces—such as decanter sets, pumpkins and red, white and blue flowers—are sold in the studio’s gift shop, with the money going back into the program.
The Program’s Future
Georgia glassblower John Durhan, an Army veteran, met Chris at a glassblowing conference in St. Petersburg. He was intrigued by the Arts of Valor program.
Since John lived seven hours away but still wanted to help, he created the Glass Starfish Quest. He plants his glass starfish in public places for people to find.
His hide-and-seek adventure promotes Art of Valor and encourages participants to donate funds to the program.
“I was looking for a way to benefit the program because I really think it can go nationwide,” John says. “The whole point (of Glass Starfish Quest) is to grow awareness of Art of Valor.”
John is working with friends throughout the country to plan more quests. For those interested in hunting for his glass pieces, or donating to Art of Valor, he encourages them to visit his website at www.glassstarfishquest.com.
Mobile Glassblowing Studios in Americus, Georgia, is another fan. The company has donated a mobile glassblowing furnace to the program. Chris hopes to raise funds to buy a trailer that will take glassblowing off-site.
As for Chris—who claims he doesn’t have an “off button”—he is currently working on a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, hoping to use the advanced degree in creative arts therapy.
“That’s another modality (creative writing) that I found to be therapeutic for me,” he says.
The bottom line, Chris attests, is that veterans find relief in a creative outlet.
“Art benefited me greatly,” he says. “As long as they understand the creative force inside them, then I’m doing my job.”