David Shields, left, and Jason Sabbides founded The Warrior's Canvas & Veterans Art Center in December of 2013. (Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Written by Sun Tzu in 6th century B.C., “The Art of War” is a collection of the Chinese general’s observations and tactics on 13 aspects of war.
For David Shields and Jason Sabbides, however, the art of war takes on a different meaning.
In December, the two men founded The Warrior’s Canvas & Veterans Art Center at 320 E. Main St. with the goal of showcasing, and selling, pieces of art created by U.S. military veterans.
“It’s going to be operated as a professional gallery,” Shields said. “We want a gallery for veterans to be able to display and sell their artwork.”
Participating veterans aren’t charged to display their art; if their work sells, Shields and Sabbides ask for 25 percent of the earnings, which is then recirculated back into the gallery in the form of a rent or utility payment, or to purchase art supplies.
Though the sale of artwork is a priority, the gallery’s true purpose is in the store’s rear, in the art center.
“We’ll hold studios and have classroom space, and we’re going to do therapeutic-type art classes for veterans,” Shields said.
Art therapy has become one of the nation’s pre-eminent methods of treating psychological ailments like post-traumatic stress disorder — which can often affect combat veterans. Institutions like the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have both noted the benefits art therapy can have in reducing the effects of PTSD on combat veterans.
Shields and Sabbides can identify with those benefits, but not because they have read those studies. Both men are combat veterans, and have a combined 28 years of experience in the armed forces.
“Having those different things that happen to you, you need a place to express that,” Shields said. “Sometimes it’s not an easy thing to express. Art is one of those that we’ve found, personally, that we can kind of get those things out on canvas or work it out on a piece of pottery.”
Sabbides spent six years in an Army airborne infantry. In those six years, he was stationed in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea — which is still classified as a combat zone — then served a full tour during Operation Iraqi Freedom. After his return to civilian life, Sabbides said he had trouble adjusting, especially in social settings.
“I couldn’t function,” Sabbides said. “I couldn’t be around people ... and I was super depressed. I didn’t want to leave my room, and I was on all kinds of pills from the VA.”
Sabbides began seeing a counselor to help cope with his depression and, with that counselor’s encouragement, enrolled in an art class with a concentration on drawing. From there, Sabbides said, he began to notice changes in his behavior. Specifically, he was feeling better.
“It changed my life, literally,” Sabbides said. “It helps alleviate so many things. It helps these thoughts become tangible, which, in turn, alleviates all that stress. You zone in on it, and everything goes away.”
Shields, who spent 22 years in the Air Force — including a combat tour in Operation Desert Storm and a tour as a medic during Operation Iraqi Freedom — began taking art classes while stationed in Germany. Like Sabbides, he said, he was able to “zone out” and help relieve the anguish of PTSD.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about art and doing art is that you’re actually activating the other side of your brain,” he said. “In that part of your brain, there’s not time, no problems, and nothing to work out. That’s not its function. When you can activate that side of your brain, it releases those endorphins, those chemicals that help you feel better.”
Both men would continue their respective art educations. Shields minored in art while majoring in social work at East Tennessee State University, while Sabbides went on to receive his master’s degree in fine art, also from ETSU.
Though the two men have several things in common, their paths didn’t cross until August, when Sabbides was working as a juror for a veterans art show at Nelson Fine Art Center which featured, among others, some of Shields’ artwork. During the show, Sabbides said he began talking to NFAC Owner Dick Nelson about the possibility of creating a permanent exhibit featuring veterans’ art.
“David was brought in almost immediately on that conversation,” Sabbides said. “Instead of an annual art show, we can have a permanent gallery for veterans, run by vets, for vets. It’s just kind of how it all began.”
Four months later, The Warrior’s Canvas opened its doors and has since featured three shows. While Sabbides said foot traffic had, to date, been “slow,” he and Shields are in the midst of renovating the gallery with the hopes of finishing improvements and displaying exhibits in time for the Blue Plum Festival, which is scheduled for the weekend of June 6.
“Blue Plum is going to be our big kicker,” Sabbides said. “We’re slow right now ... (but) I’m suspecting after Blue Plum, when this is looking tight and beautiful, that’s going to change.”
The gallery is funded in its entirety by Shields, Sabbides, and donations. Anyone interested in donating or obtaining more information can do so by visiting the gallery’s Facebook page, or by visiting warriorscanvas.org, which will go live next week.
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