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VA Puget Sound Veteran artists continue streak as national medal winners!

National Veterans Creative Arts Festival montage

This year’s National Veterans Creative Arts Festival drew more than 1,400 Veteran artists from 118 VA health care facilities across the country. Of the 2,050 submissions, seven VA Puget Sound Health Care System Veterans received top awards—five gold medals, one silver and one bronze.

Jim Anderson, a 46-year-old U.S. Army retiree, took the gold in the woodworking category for the second year with his “No. 2 Celestial Compass.” He used 12 different species of domestic and exotic hardwoods and constructed over 35 custom jigs, forms, molds and fixtures to build his second award-winning creation. Each ring has three different species of wood laminated together. He hand cut and shaped all the inlay with 31 pieces of paua shell (abalone) inlay, eight mother of pearl diamonds, and the brass "No. 2" and his signature inlays are mother of pearl. “The most prominent feature is when No. 2 is viewed under a UV/blacklight the three segmented rings made of Yellowheart wood and the core glows,” he described.

“I researched, learned, experimented with many basic and advanced woodworking techniques to include steam bent lamination (legs and rings), resawing and machining my own veneer, radial matched and segmented veneering (tabletop), parquetry, woodturning, epoxy casting (spindle core), and hand cut shell inlay,” Anderson said. “Part of my inspiration was to combine a few of these skills to create something that was out of this world…and I think I did that. Another part of my inspiration was while I was making one of the components, I found that when held to light, it kind of looked like a black hole. I was flabbergasted by that.”

Anderson, who lives in Steilacoom, Washington, said he’s been artistic since he was a kid, and has been trying to reconnect to that talent since retiring. He said his interests in astronomy and astrophysics were his inspiration and motivation.

“Art can be a very healing output for Veterans,” Anderson said, while encouraging all budding Veterans artists to “give it a shot” and participate in the annual competition.

As his second consecutive gold, Anderson spent almost a year on the first win, “Armillary Sphere” and already knows what his next three pieces will be. He found winning back-to-back to be very satisfying and see any future wins as “icing on top.”


Inspired by Henry David Thoreau

Creative Forces is the name for a group of four Veteran artists who also took a gold this year for their collaborative sculpture “Walden Pond” that combines leather, wire, glass and metal. One of the most influential and compelling books in American literature was the inspiration.

“We wanted to create a piece that reflected the beauty of American landscape,” said U.S. Navy Veteran Sean Connolly, who brought together Creative Forces while eating pizza with his long-time friend of 22-years, U.S. Army Veteran Mark Lubich. “Walden Pond was written by Henry David Thoreau and was about a movement promoting a better way of life.  Thoreau said, ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’”

Connolly and his dad, Kenneth Bicha, did the leather work (turtle and leaves) and the wire dragon flies.  Boyd Raub (U.S. Navy Veteran) did the metal work to create the base and the branches. Lubich did the blown glass rocks, pond grass, and the fused glass sand base under the rocks as well as the fused glass surface water. Lubich—the only one to see the finished piece prior to submission—brought it all together at the end, assembling the final form using glass, metal and leather adhesives.

“Though Thoreau was about the serenity of the pond, our work is meant to show the life and beauty of the pond, with the change of seasons and the movement within a slice of time,” added Connolly. “We believe this piece is a celebration of rural America, our nation’s national, state and county parks, and our endeavors to save this land for future generations.”

National silver medalist for his collage entry, “Blue Vulnerability,” Connolly was also the winner of VA Puget Sound’s first-ever People Choice Award. His selection was made by individuals who voted after visiting VA Puget Sound’s interactive, online gallery: He received a $250 gift card from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary in Tacoma, Washington. The online gallery features photos of the actual artwork submissions.   He explained that he created his own art form. “I use hole punches to create colors that I paint with, gluing them one by one to make art collages. His inspiration came from an Army Veteran he met at one of the arts competitions who make quilts.

When asked how it felt to win again, Connolly said, “Each time I get selected, I’m humbled by the work submitted by the other artists.” 

Connolly, 51-years-old, took the gold In the leather carving category in 2020, “Nouveau Steampunk.” He is already working with another group for next year’s arts festival – pulling in two of his shipmates from his time on aircraft carrier.  “Using art to connect with shipmates and their families…that’s what I do,” he said.

Connolly shared how much fun he has teasing his 79-year-old dad, Bicha, an Army Veteran who grabbed a silver medal last year for his essay, “Possible, Perhaps, Probable, Prostate Diagnosis.”


The upside-down salmon

Reflective of safety precautions during the pandemic, Mark Lubich was the only member of Creative Forces to see the completed group artwork before it was submitted. Once the father-son duo (Bicha and Connolly) completed their work, the turtle was left on Lubich’s doorstep. He then worked with Raub on the next phase before bringing it back home for the completion.  

Lubich, a U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps Veteran and University of Washington graduate, is the first to say he is self-taught and was “not good at not doing anything” after his retirement in 1994. He said he always loved working with glass but didn’t have lungs to do glass blowing. He ended up learning about kiln work for glass and his first piece was an upside-down salmon. “it was really ugly, and a friend got it as gift,” he said. That friend was Raub—who he went to West Seattle High School with—and his wife, Joan, who still have it hanging on their living room wall.

It comes of no surprise the 65-year-old Bremerton resident feels there is lots of comradery across the artist in the program.

“Boyd, Sean and his dad are so talented and joy to work on as a group. It was really fun,” Lubich said. “Getting a gold medal and the chance to go to nationals is something you’ll remember your whole life. And the Veteran friends you make, will last a lifetime.”

Lubich, who has won numerous past awards as an individual artist, also feels VA Puget Sound’s art program gives Veterans a sense of esteem they might be missing. “There are so many obstacles in your way when you leave the service…essentially starting over,” he said. “It (the art program) grounds you. You are with like-minded people. I think there’s something very special about that. It is very special to have friends who are artists.

“When you create something, you will love what you create. It doesn’t need to be loved by someone else,” Lubich added.


Special recognition

Along with Creative Forces and Anderson scoring gold medals this year, 20-year U.S. Army Veteran Charles Burt earned a bronze medal in the Special Recognition Physical Disability category for his oil painting, “Duty.” Burt was one of only eight Veterans across the nation to earn two gold medals at the VA 2020 National Veterans Creative Art Competition.


The Competition & Festival

Across the country each year, Veterans enrolled at VA health care facilities compete in a local creative arts competition. Local creative arts competition first place winning entries advance to a national judging process and first, second and third place entries in each category are determined. Gold medalists are invited to attend the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival hosted by a different VA facility each year.

Co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Legion Auxiliary, the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival is the culmination of talent competitions in art, creative writing, dance, drama and music for Veterans treated in the Department of Veterans Affairs national health care system. Veterans exhibit their artwork and original writings or perform musical, dance or dramatic selections in a live stage show performance. All Veterans invited to participate are selected winners of year-long, national fine arts talent competitions in which thousands of Veterans enter, from VA medical facilities across the nation. For more information on how to participate or get involved contact VA Puget Sound’s local director at

VA Puget Sound has a long history of supporting national, regional and local recreation therapy events and programs to improve Veterans’ physical, social, cognitive and emotional functions as well as quality of life every day. In addition to the annual arts competition, last year VA Puget Sound staff took teams to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic and the National Veterans Golden Age Games. Regionally and locally, VA Puget Sound Recreation Therapy staff co-hosted Adaptive Curling Clinics at Granite Curling Club and organized Veteran participation in the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic, adaptive golf clinics and Team River Run kayaking activities. Adaptive fencing, co-hosted with Salle Auriol Seattle, began in 2020. And VA Puget Sound continues to explore new ways to improve the quality of life for injured Veterans.

VA Puget Sound provides comprehensive care to more than 155,000 Veterans across the Pacific Northwest—approximately 120,000 are enrolled with a primary care team at one of its 10 care sites: two main campuses (American Lake and Seattle), six outpatient clinics (Edmonds, Mount Vernon, Olympia, Port Angeles, Puyallup and Silverdale) and two Community Resource & Referral Centers (Georgetown in Seattle and Renton). As the VA’s 4th largest research program, VA Puget Sound has research in virtually every major clinical department, including: TBI and multiple blast exposures; memory improvement and Alzheimer's Disease; PTSD and deployment health; Parkinson’s Disease; diabetes; cancer; substance abuse; lower limb prosthetics; genomics; and Health Services. Additionally, it has seven nationally recognized Centers of Excellence (in areas from limb-loss prevention and prosthetic engineering to primary care education and substance abuse treatment). For more information visit or call 800-329-8387.  For Veterans in Crisis, please use the Veterans Crisis line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1).

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