Art Helped This Disabled Kansas City Vet 'Feel Human Again' — And Now He Has A New Mission

Jul 3, 2015

Joe Williams enlisted in the United States Marine Corps after the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq and served for seven years. He survived rocket and mortar attacks. A fast learner and natural leader, he rose through the ranks and was about to start officer candidate school when something went terribly wrong.

Williams had broken his ankle on rescue relief duty in Florida after Hurricane Katrina. Doctors at the Navy hospital misdiagnosed the injury. He spent the next four years running on it — in Iraq, and back in the states — slowly destroying the soft tissue, chipping away the bone. He had eight surgeries.

He was on his way to officer candidate school when his foot just locked.

Williams had been active his entire life.

"I’ve always done sports, always been one of those best players," he says. "When I was in the Marine Corps, it translated the same way: I was one of the best Marines out there."

Now his military career was over.

"The hardest part about it was my fellow Marines looking at me completely different," Williams says. "I felt like I was that horse that had to take out back and put down because he broke his leg."

He spent the next couple of years in and out of hospitals, with more surgeries to try to rebuild his foot. Depression kicked in, along with addiction to painkillers and thoughts of suicide. But all that time, something else was going on.

"I just had a sketch pad, and when I was in my darkest hour and I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I was sitting there flipping through that sketch pad I realized how beneficial it was," Williams says.

He'd always been an artistic kid. Now he knew art was bringing him back to life.

Joe Williams' sculpture 'Modern Day Atlas' at the Oak Street Mansion near the Kansas City Art Institute.
Credit Courtesy of Joe Williams

"Art gave me the ability to express myself, to be active again — just in a different sense," he says. "Art helped me relearn how to put my life back together, gave me the feeling of being human again."

But that idea went against all of his military training.

"Everything I’d done was always to destroy. They train you to destroy, they train you to kill, to do whatever it takes to get the mission accomplished, but what they don’t train you to do is how to create."

Williams was surprised to find that the VA offered no art therapy programs. But he also started school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and went on to the Kansas City Art Institute, and by the time he graduated with a sculpture degree in May, Williams had a vision for creating his own art program for veterans.

He has started the Endowment for Veterans Art Campaign (EVAC), a website he envisions as a cross between Etsy for artists and Angie’s List, so vets can get their work out there. He's also started the non-profit Operation Art, which he hopes will provide educational and career resources. And he’s talking about veterans and art every chance he can get.

Early in June, this meant a conversation with veterans from World War II and Vietnam at the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom, as part of the gallery's Articipation programs. With a couple of art therapists there for support, the vets all sat around a table talking. They weren’t drawing or making things, they were just comparing notes on their experiences in the service and telling old stories.

"When you were getting shot at, you wonder, is this it?" said Mel Mallin, an airman in World War II. "I only flew seven missions and I was really scared. I was really scared I would get killed, I was really scared that I’d get hurt, I was really scared that as a navigator I wouldn’t be strong enough to withstand what I was going through and get the plane back to where it was supposed to go."

World War II veteran Mel Mallin (left), with Joe Williams during an Articipation event at the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR

Mallin made it home just fine, and he said he had a good life. He eventually developed much of the property in Kansas City's River Market, including the building that’s home to the Kansas City Artist’s Coalition. Now he lives at Village Shalom, where Epsten Gallery curator Heather Lustfeldt says the therapeutic atmosphere of the art gallery makes it a perfect place for these types of conversations.

"It’s just is a natural fit for us to have these kinds of Articipation events in which people of different sensibilities, different professions, different experiences come in and really exchange," Lustfeldt says. "That’s what happened here today."

The Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom was a 'therapeutic space' for the veterans' exchange, says gallery curator Heather Lustfeldt.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR

Williams wanted to engage the elderly veterans and hear their voices.

"It's important to have post-9/11 veterans talking with elderly, senior veterans so we can hear how their experience correlates to us today," he says, adding, "I'm just trying to get out there to talk about using art as a tool for finding your voice and self-expression, and for building a positive constructive outlet."

Williams knows something about his fellow Marines: When they weren’t busy fighting, they were always making things, always creating.

"Everybody I knew did some type of sculpture, did some type of photography, some type of drawings or tattoo work or whatever it may be," he says. "I don’t think they realized what they were doing was art."

Besides a show he has planned for September at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, Williams is working to schedule more events and workshops in the months ahead. Eventually, he hopes to open a place where where veterans can make art.

"A lot of these guys just get frustrated and they think they can’t do this or that," he says. "That’s completely wrong, they can do this. They just need the proper guidance, the proper equipment, and proper attention."