NC Army veteran finds relief through art — and wins VA competitions along the way
Kelly O’Gara has, to some degree, always been an artist.
She’d draw and sketch back in New York when she was in high school. And she kept up the hobby after she joined the U.S. Army. Stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia with the 3rd Infantry Division, she’d spend her downtime drawing what she saw during field exercises. It’s something she did when deployed to Bosnia, too.
“It’s almost like meditating," O'Gara said. "If I’m feeling good, I can zone out for hours.”
And she kept it up after she left active duty in the early 2000s, relocated to North Carolina and joined the Army Reserve. At the end of 2004, her Reserve unit was activated, and she was sent to war in Iraq.
“In 2005, everything was combat,” O'Gara, now 43 and living in Greensboro, said of Iraq at the time.
Given the deployment, she didn't have much time for art, but she still sketched when she could.
“There were some pieces that I did, but I used to always give them away," she said. "... I never kept any.”
She stayed in the Army Reserve until 2013, when she was given a medical retirement. Unable to work because of physical issues and living with post-traumatic stress disorder, she turned again to art for some relief.
Six years ago, at a counseling session related to Iraq, O'Gara heard about art therapy being offered through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and it piqued her interest. While the Salisbury VA Health Care System, which covers the Charlotte and Greensboro areas, does offer art therapy, it's usually for inpatient veterans.
But there was something the VA had available for outpatient veterans that O'Gara decided could help, too: an art contest. In fact, the deadline for one was coming up — in just a few days. So, O’Gara gathered some entries in a hurry and drove down to the W.G. Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury.
“That was my first time ever competing with my artwork,” O'Gara said.
She was nervous, but soon she got good news. One of her drawings won first place in its category.
“That got me excited and made me buckle down even harder to get better and learn new techniques,” O’Gara said.
Her early works were all graphite sketches. In recent years, she began using color pencils, watercolor and soft pastels for her art. And she taught herself everything — mostly through watching videos online.
“I watch so much YouTube that I can’t even yell at my 15-year-old for the amount of YouTube that she watches,” O’Gara said with a laugh.
She's now taken top place in her categories at the local VA level for six years in a row.
And in 2020, a watercolor portrait of her daughter, Aryanna, wearing a “Girls Never Quit” T-shirt won second place at the National Veterans Creative Arts Competition. It was just the second watercolor portrait she’d ever created. Now, she’s branched out a bit and is starting to enter art competitions that aren’t veteran-specific.
Winning is one thing, but O’Gara’s also found that art helps her cope and process things she’s going through. As an example, she brought up something she focuses on when watercolor painting.
“I used to think that if I can control water, I can control everything when it came to my emotions,” O’Gara said. “... And I learned that I can’t control the water. I can only make the conditions more conducive to where I would like the water to flow.”
Todd Goodman, a spokesperson for the Salisbury VA Health Care System, said the system has creative arts workshops for inpatient and outpatient veterans alike. Right now, those workshops are on hold because of the pandemic, but they'll resume when it's safe.
As for the national arts competition, it's held every year. Local first-place winners in each category — art, dance, drama, writing and music — are then entered at the national level.
O’Gara still keeps a lot of her art relatively private. She hasn’t quite decided yet if she’ll present her works to a broader audience, but she’s open to the idea. In the meantime, she hopes her success in the VA art contests inspires others.
“I’m hoping one day someone will beat me at the local level because that means they didn’t give up,” O’Gara said. “... That would make me happy.”