Leni D. Anderson used to make a scrapbook of military advertisements he found in magazines. He says he knew when he was knee high that he was going to enlist, inspired by his family’s long history of service.
“My family has been serving since the Civil War,” Anderson said. “Not everyone has made it a career, but a lot of my family, I think we’ve been in every major war.”
He joined the Army Reserves when he was 18, toward the end of his senior year of high school. A year later in 1984, he moved into the 3rd Armored Division in Germany where he was stationed for about three years. What he saw there and in his subsequent years of service, including an MP position with military intelligence in Texas during the Gulf War, still weigh on him today.
Anderson turned to art when he left the military to gain more autonomy in his life, and the practice became a way to work through his experiences and lingering health issues. In November, a few pieces of his art will be showcased at Columbus’s first Veterans Film and Art Festival, an event hosted by the Columbus VA that will explore how art can express and communicate challenging ideas.
Heather Seymour, creative arts coordinator at the Columbus VA ACC Veteran Arts Initiative, hopes the program, which will run over Veterans Day Weekend, will help bridge the gap between the military and civilian worlds while incorporating veteran artists into the art community.
“What we hope to do is to create a microcosm of awareness and community development and outreach and band of brothers and sisters coming together to communalize any grief that they have, to communalize the joy of art and film,” Seymour said.
The festival will start with a fallen comrades ceremony and will go on to include a series of four films, a live performance, and panel discussions. Seymour says she hopes the festival will be a space conducive to organic and inclusive conversations about military life and the challenges of coming back to the civilian world.
“This show will give those who don’t know what it’s like to wear the uniform another means of understanding what these troops are dealing with on a day to day basis,” Anderson said.
Like his desire to enlist when he was a kid, Anderson was equally committed to his vision for a new civilian chapter of his life. The day before he left the military, his colonel called him into his office and asked Anderson what he wanted to do once he got out. He says he thought for a moment and replied that he wanted to be an artist because he was tired of people telling him what to do.
“Because I had told him that, I felt that I had to follow through,” Anderson said.
“This show will give those who don’t know what it’s like to wear the uniform another means of understanding what these troops are dealing with on a day to day basis.” — Leni D. Anderson.
So Anderson taught himself how to paint and went on to receive an associates degree from Columbus State, an art history bachelors from Ohio State, and a masters from Kent State in library and information sciences. He’ll be sharing what he learned at the festival as part of a panel discussion and through a presentation about how veterans have shaped contemporary art.
Now a service-connected disabled veteran who uses art to cope with his own health, Anderson says art can help veterans express that they are thinking and feeling, especially if they don’t talk about their experiences or see a counselor.
“(The festival) is going to bring light to some of that, and allow people to see the images that are in the head of these veterans that, you know, they can’t express maybe with words,” Anderson said. “People really have no idea what these troops and these families are going through.”
Although the topics will cover a range of veteran issues, Seymour says attendees should remember to not generalize one person’s experiences.
“If you know one veteran—you know one veteran,” she said.
Beyond giving people a bit of insight into veterans’ lives and experiences, Seymour says the festival will also act as a place where they and their families can come together. She strongly encouraged veterans to bring their families and kids, and she said another goal the VA has is to learn how they can better support families, especially during times of transition.
Despite the struggles Anderson faces because of his time in the Army, he still believes in the importance of service to country, and he says if he were to go back in time, there’s no question he would enlist again.
“Even with all the problems and health issues that I’m dealing with, I honestly wouldn’t trade it,” Anderson said. “I loved being a soldier.”
The Veterans Film and Art Festival will be held on November 10 and 11 at the Gateway Film Center.