Before Major Scott “Mack” Macksam retired from the U.S. Army, he trained future Army officers. One morning, while running with cadets at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg (USFSP), the thought came to him that he had never seen or heard of an art center that focused on veterans who were artists. He thought that surely there were veterans who would benefit from such a program. According to Macksam, who has always had an interest in military history and is not an artist himself, these thoughts became his next mission, which led to the creation of the Veterans Art Center Tampa Bay (VACTB), located at 6798 Crosswinds Dr. N. in St. Petersburg.
“When veterans are at an event and talking about their art, you can see the power and the healing of internal wounds,” says Macksam. “It is a unique experience for them and promotes pride and self-worth.”
The Veterans Art Center Tampa Bay, a 501(c)(3), is building strong ties within the local community. In addition to partnering with St. Petersburg College, USFSP and other arts and veterans groups, the program provides support for classes and courses at the Morean Arts Center and the Dunedin Arts Center in addition to art shows, book signings, free studio space and art sales. The organization also puts out a podcast, and there are plans to develop educational art exhibits.
U.S. Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Vice Chairman Gus Bilirakis sent the group a letter expressing his strong support of art as one of the most promising alternative therapies for veterans.
The VACTB model is the first of its kind in the state of Florida and in the Southeast – and quite possibly the country, according to Benjamin Smet, president of the VACTB board of trustees.
“There are veterans out there who need our help now. This program is bringing the community together and changing people’s lives through the power of art,” says Smet.
Gulfport photographer Larry Busby, a resident of Town Shores, has benefitted from the program and is playing a big part in its mission, talking to people at events about his work and telling his own story. A former naval photographer, he picked up a camera again two years ago, and his landscape photography is becoming recognized throughout the Tampa Bay area. Most recently, Busby was the featured artist at the VACTB art show at Town Shores on January 11.
“When I’m out there taking pictures, I lose track of time,” says Busby. “It gets me out of my head and focused on something. The Veterans Art Center has been there for me. It gives veteran artists a chance.”
The grand opening celebration of the Veterans Art Center Tampa Bay is planned for March 25. For more information, visit vactb.org or find them on Facebook.
“The story of each and every art work is a memory,” says Macksam. “The art center is a safe zone.”