Content starts here
AARP AARP States Tennessee Veterans

Mask Art Gives Vets a Safe Space


Nortis Blackwell worked as a truck driver for the U.S. Army during three deployments — two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. It was a chaotic eight-year journey that left her feeling lucky to be alive but also made others see her differently.

That duality — how people see her, how she sees herself — was expressed during a mask project launched by AARP Tennessee and the Montgomery County Veterans Coalition.

Inspired by an art therapy project for veterans featured in National Geographic magazine, the initiative lets veterans tap into difficult emotions.

In the first session, held in September at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Blackwell and 13 other veterans painted decorative face masks, led by an art therapist.

Images painted on the masks represented darkness, patriotism, duty and the duality that veterans say they sometimes feel. They help veterans express wounds and pain that can’t be seen on the surface. And while the program can help those who’ve been traumatized, pain isn’t the only emotion. Many expressed pride stemming from their military service.

Blackwell, a 40-year-old mother in Clarksville who is working on her master’s in social work, painted one side almost entirely black with small red marks. The other side was lighter, with symbols of a smiling face, flowers and people locking hands. “For the people who know me, they see my spark,” she says. “I love gardening. I have a passion and drive. But for people who don’t know me, that spark can be seen as aggression.”

There is an aspect of vulnerability that goes along with putting what’s inside your heart on the mask, she says.

A way to help process trauma

The goal is to give veterans a safe space to explore their stories, says Connie Zabokrtsky, a volunteer art therapist who led the September mask workshop.

The idea for the project came from the founder and strategic adviser of the Montgomery County Veterans Coalition, which serves the community around the Tennessee side of Fort Campbell, an Army base that straddles the state’s border with Kentucky. “Our goals are to change the way veterans view art, the way veterans view themselves, the way civilians view veterans — and to help process trauma,” Sherry Pickering says.

For Manuel McKnight, a 71-year-old AARP volunteer leader in Clarksville, his mask represents his discipline, patriotism and hard work. McKnight was a radioman in the U.S. Navy, stationed in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s. A blue portion of his mask represents honor; the gray block symbolizes discipline.

“When you’re on a Navy ship, discipline is No. 1,” he says. The mask features three stars — one red, one white and one blue — that show love of country.

The mask project is a good fit for AARP, says Troy J. Broussard, who previously oversaw the organization’s veterans outreach and is now state director of AARP Kentucky.

“We want to serve those veterans as they have served our country,” says Broussard, who served during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Pictures of vets with their masks will eventually be a traveling exhibition. For more on the coalition, see

Sheila Burke is a writer living in Nashville.

Protect Our Veterans — AARP

For more on veteran outreach

About AARP Tennessee
Contact information and more from your state office. Learn what we are doing to champion social change and help you live your best life.