When B. R. McDonald graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in vocal performance, his dreams were similar to other young artists. An international tour would have been among them.
But it was 2001. His plans, like many, changed after what he saw on Sept. 11.
“I ended up enlisting in the Army and became a linguist,” McDonald said. “I spent the next eight years in the special operations community, went to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq.”
After four tours, McDonald felt his duty was fulfilled. Jumping out of airplanes and storming buildings was a far cry from his days as a tenor, but the hunger for artistic expression never died.
“I got out in early 2009 and realized I had been through two worlds most people put in different spaces, and I wanted to connect them because I met a bunch of folks who were had also done that,” McDonald explained.
He approached the programming director of a community arts project in Baltimore and explained his idea for a showcase of veterans utilizing various creative disciplines.
Her reaction? “I don’t know. Veterans tend to be long-winded.”
“Frankly, there’s a lot of misconception and stigma out there about what vets go through, the perception that everybody comes back wounded, ill or injured, which is certainly a prevalent thing but is not everybody,” McDonald said. This wasn’t about therapy. Not all of them are creating art related to their military experience and often fight those assumptions.
What resulted was the Veteran Artist Program (VAP). McDonald’s new group would be pathfinders for veterans who needed someone to point the way to mentorship and networking.
“We’ve had about 500 veteran artists come through the organization. We’re not so much about membership as we are pitching in and moving it forward,” McDonald said.
The doors they’re kicking open don’t hide insurgents now, but paths to careers. VAP also assembles programming across disciplines.
“As an example, we have a gallery exhibit that’s up at the Pentagon right now,” McDonald said. “It has all generations of veteran artists, from World War II to current. It was selected from about 120 veterans from across the country, in over 30 states.”
One project, Vets on Sets, helps initiate filmmaking careers. They’ve helped veterans pitch ideas to producers, directors and agents, along with personnel from the Tribeca Film Institute, the Independent Filmmaker Project and New York University’s film school.
“Another one is The Telling Project. That’s a field project where we come into a city and work with the local population of veterans, interview them and bring them out in telling their own stories,” McDonald said. “Ultimately it would be would five to seven veterans or family members telling their story live on stage in front of an audience.”
It’s been performed in 14 cities and nine states since 2008. One just finished in San Antonio, and the rest of 2014 will have them in Denver, Baltimore, New York and Los Angeles.
Their list of programming includes the Arts & Service Celebration, which blends performance with dialogue. It normally encompasses an entire week.
“We did that last year in San Francisco and New York. This year we’ll be doing it in Austin, Texas. Next year, we’ll be doing it in Los Angeles for a week and also Minneapolis for a week,” McDonald said.
One short list gave their accomplishments as “ produced six music/theatrical live events, filmed three documentaries and one feature film, curated gallery exhibits, provided videography/photography services, and more than 30 community improvement projects, including painting two murals in Baltimore.”
McDonald is spreading the VAP vibe and will appear at the Mobile Museum of Art on Thursday, June 5, at 7 p.m. to meet the public and initiate programming in this region. Mobile is a natural target for him since the museum’s website said his parents met while playing together in the band at Murphy High School.
“Part of the problem with most veteran service organizations is they’re heavier in the metropolitan areas but not as prevalent in the smaller cities,” McDonald said. “I’m hoping partnership with the Mobile Museum of Art and other folks can build something ongoing.”
Attendance is free. Light refreshments are included.
“What I’m hoping is that people will show up whether they’re arts organizations or not, whether they’re veterans or not, but that they will show up to help understand each other,” McDonald said. “It doesn’t help to just have a bunch of veterans in the audience. What we want is a combination of veterans and civilians, family members coming together to understand.”