Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, in collaboration with the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, provides programs for Service members, families and caregivers with the Workhouse Military in the Arts Initiative, according to Debra Balestreri, director of visual arts education. She said it is rooted in the desire to address the needs and improve lives through the arts. WMAI seeks to increase equity, access, and opportunities for veterans to participate in quality arts programming that is sensitive and responsive to their unique experiences.
“When I took it over, I re-imagined it and researched what would be necessary to bring in a mental health and therapeutic capacity,” Balestreri said.
WMAI also offers an Artist in Residence program, “which covers 100% of the use of a studio for a current or former military member desiring to transition into the world of becoming a visual studio artist,” said Balestreri.
The current military artist in residence, Matthew Pyle, joined the Army in 2003, and did a tour in Iraq with the 1st Infantry, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment. After his enlistment, he went to school to learn how to write screenplays, and he said he wrote a “stupid romantic comedy that got turned into a Hallmark Channel movie.”
But his thoughts frequently returned to Iraq.
“The production budget for a war film is ridiculously expensive,” he explained, and started painting as a way to give those moments in Samarra, Iraq, and on patrol with his battle buddies in a Bradley fighting vehicle some permanence.
“We used to ride around for hours. If there was an IED, and they were calling for demolition teams to come, you might get stuck in the back of the vehicle for three hours, waiting,” said Pyle. “Coming from my American bubble, it was like being in a time-warp. Baghdad was a modern city, but the outskirts were stricter, and definitely had more of a time-warp feeling.”
His acceptance as WMAI Artist in Residence gave him the time he needed to learn how to paint the images burned in his memory. He had to practice for days to be able to paint his first Soldier, or palm tree, or stray dog. For the Soldiers, Pyle would photograph himself in the position of every Soldier in the painting, so he would have references to scale and facial expressions, and then research photos showing each weapon in the angle it would appear.
“These paintings took me awhile,” Pyle said. “It’s a marathon, so what’s going to keep your attention? I knew that Iraq would keep my attention, because it was some of the craziest years of my life. Some of these paintings can take three months to complete.”
Pyle said the residency had been a wonderful experience, getting to work beside other seasoned professional artists.
“I got along with everybody and the neighbors in my studio were really helpful – I didn’t even know how to hang a painting at first. Getting feedback from experienced artists was amazing,” said Pyle. “I did get to host a couple of open studios, where the art therapist asked if I’d host a class, so I did a portrait painting class.”
He said he’s pondering oil painting moments from World War II and Vietnam next.
“We ask that they spend that one year really working toward a strong, robust solo exhibition at the end of the program,” said Balestreri.
Because the pandemic shut down the studios, Workhouse granted him an extension to the 1-year residency. Pyle is now completing his final works and preparing for his exhibition, which will run from March until May, before his time at Workhouse ends in July.
“Any artist interested in applying for the residency applies through the same application process as any of our other artists,” Ballestreri explained. “It is a jury where they submit a bio, statement of their art, some content, 10 to 15 images of current work, and then they go through an initial jury process where they are judged on their talent, career, professional practices, as well as their content or skill levels.”
“We’re always looking for that next person,” she said.
For more information about WMAI, visit workhousearts.org/wmai/ or facebook.com/workhouseMAI.
To inquire about the WMAI Artist in Residence program, call 703-584-2909.