Painting away the pain: Tampa leads in art therapy for injured veterans and active duty military

Straz Center hosts Creative Forces summit
Veterans paint away pain in local art therapy
Posted at 2:50 AM, Oct 23, 2017

Penny Cheagle is painting a small statue of a bear. For her it is a very important bear.

Cheagle, a 20-year veteran in the U.S. Army, is at the recreational therapy center at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa.

While Cheagle is painting this bear, with a Christmas scarf around its furry neck, men and women around her are hard at work crafting leather belts, hammering copper or even tackling epic-sized puzzles.

The room is quiet. Peaceful.

“I have a lot of pain that goes on,” says Cheagle, taking her eyes and paintbrush off the bear. “Physical pain, some mental pain. [The bear] takes me to a place that makes me happy. It can let my body heal and let my mind heal. It lets me go to a place that’s safe for me.”

Cheagle is not alone. For veterans and active duty members with traumatic brain injuries and psychological health conditions such as PTSD, therapy through art has been a breakthrough, especially at the Haley Veterans Hospital.

The art can be it clinical or recreational therapy. The veterans and soldiers art comes in many different forms: sculpture, dance, theater, poetry, painting.

Tampa has become a hub of art-therapy study and practice. On Monday and Tuesday, at downtown Tampa’s Straz Center, experts in the field will call on the Tampa Bay area’s local arts community for more outlets for veterans.

“Someone may not know what’s going to work,” says Creative Forces’ art therapist Merrilee K. Jorn. “Talk may work for somebody…music, maybe the arts. You don’t know what it’s going to be. It just happens.”

For people like Penny who want to continue exploring art and its freedoms, the results have been comforting. All done, she holds out the bear.

“This is a gift for my husband because he reminds me of a teddy bear," says Cheagle.

For more on Creative Forces, visit