Self-taught: Veteran wins award in national arts festival

Army veteran Dan Huffman of Cornell show his PTSD-themed artwork that won second place at the 2018 National VA Creative Arts Festival.

IRON MOUNTAIN — U.S. Army veteran Daniel Huffman served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, receiving Purple Heart medals for wounds received in combat on the Fourth of July and again the day before Christmas.

This past summer he received another award, but this time it was for something he created. His artwork was entered in the VA’s 2018 National Creative Arts Festival and won second place in the Special Recognition Mental Health category.

“I started by drawing a continuous line without much in mind, and then I thought of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and drew the big ‘PTSD’ in the center of the drawing,” said Huffman, who lives in Cornell in Delta County. “I would keep drawing the continuous line and when I ‘felt it’ I would draw the word again, eventually implementing it all over until the line met where it originally started.” He said the drawing describes his journey of recovery.

Huffman’s drawing, titled “My Brain on PTSD,” won first place at the local Creative Arts Festival at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain last March, qualifying him for the national competition. He was among 12 veterans who submitted a total of 17 entries in the local competition under various subcategories in visual arts, creative writing, and performing arts. Many went on to compete in the national competition, including Navy veteran Traci Dietz of Negaunee, who won second place in Black and White Photography.

Huffman came back from Vietnam and worked for the Department of Defense and then for seven years with the Michigan National Guard. The latter job brought him to the Upper Peninsula. He later worked in the sporting goods business, was a hunting guide, and lived for a time in New Mexico.

He also came back from Vietnam with PTSD.

Growing up, Huffman described himself as a “golden boy” who was a multi-sport athlete with a very good family life and prepping for college. But after Vietnam that changed,

“I couldn’t stand being around my family because they were happy,” Huffman said. “I thought I was just crazy, until my VA therapist told me about PTSD in 1990.”

Huffman has no schooling in art. In 2010, he was living in New Mexico in a garage with no heat. His counselor at the time noticed he doodled a lot and suggested he try drawing. He began to transform his doodling into drawing, at first just on typing paper with black pens and then using paint and colors.

“I doodled a lot and would lose myself in it,” Huffman. “It would only seem like a couple of hours, but I would look up at the clock and it had been eight hours.”

Huffman, who has about 200 pieces of artwork in his home, said it was pretty cool to receive the national award.

“I always wondered about it, about how good my work is, because people were telling me it was good and that I should sell my art,” he said. “However, I just enjoy doing it. It is therapy for me.”

Today, Huffman is coping well and at peace.

“I’m doing OK with PTSD now, but my journey through PTSD was brutal,” he said. “There were a lot of anger and isolation issues.”

What kept Huffman going were his childhood memories, knowing he could get at least part of his old self back.

“If you want to get better, it is hard,” Huffman said. He added, however, “I’ve learned that you can get better, and that you can live with your symptoms and learn how to respond to them.”

VA medical facilities use the creative arts as one form of rehabilitative treatment to help veterans recover from and cope with physical and emotional disabilities.

The Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center will host the local competition for the 2019 Creative Arts Festival from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Central time March 8 in the fifth-floor conference center. The public is welcomed to view the entries. The event is open to all veterans enrolled in VA health care; deadline for submissions is Friday.

For more information, call Boone Kerley at 906-774-3300, ext. 32792, or e-mail him at Jesse.Kerley@va.gov.

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