In a Grand Rapids, Minn., art gallery, an exhibit of 22 chalk pastel portraits by artist Mary Myers Corwin depicts the many faces of man’s best friend. Their sparkling eyes and noble expressions of duty and devotion are familiar to any dog lover, but the meaning of the exhibit, “Barnabas 22,” runs even deeper, highlighting the stories of American veterans and their struggles after returning home from war.
Each of these evocative works of art depicts a service dog that works closely with an individual veteran, providing help such as reminders to take medication, waking them from night terrors, or leading them out of stressful situations. It’s the kind of support that can mean the difference between a functioning life and one overrun by traumatic stress.
The show runs through Nov. 20.
The reality of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans is severe, ranging from an estimated 12% to 20% of those who saw active duty. The consequences for combat vets were most starkly illuminated by a two-decades-long Department of Veterans Affairs study ending in 2010, which estimated that roughly 22 veterans per day die by suicide — the inspiration for the exhibit’s title, along with the name of a New Testament disciple.
“The point I wanted to make with my portraits was that, without the loving devotion of a well-trained service dog, that number could go even higher,” said Corwin.
“So many of these guys and gals have told me that their dog has literally saved their life.”
Corwin, who started the portrait project in 2018, retired a few years ago from her job as support staff for law enforcement. She started painting in the 1980s. She has received awards in national pet portrait competitions and served as an Artist in Residence with the City of Grand Rapids.
“Barnabas 22” is supported by VFW Post 22 and funded by a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council.
The exhibition at the Reif Performing Arts Center enjoyed a lively opening in October, attended by many of the veterans involved, as well as author and service dog activist Lon Hodge, a veteran whose debilitating experience with PTSD was lightened by his service dog, Gander.
“I think it’s true that all dogs are service dogs, some of them are just freelance,” Corwin said. “They have so much compassion in their eyes and that’s what I’m trying to capture. It’s that special look that each dog gives its veteran, a way of saying, ‘Everything’s OK, we’ll get through this together.’ ”
All but one of the veterans in the project lives in Minnesota. Corwin found them through the local newspaper, as well as social media and the Detroit Lakes service-dog organization, Patriot Assistance Dogs (patriotassistancedogs.org). PAD trains and places service dogs for vets at no cost, an invaluable help for recipients such as Richard Vanden-Eykel of Akeley, Minn.
“I’ve had him for three years,” Vanden-Eykel said of Knight, whose portrait is in the exhibition. “Within a month of having him, he changed my life completely.”
Vanden-Eykel suffers physical and mental effects from the Vietnam War and exposure to Agent Orange. He left military service in 1973 and worked in health care before suffering severe anxiety and depression after retiring from his job in a North Dakota hospital. Knight’s training includes being sensitive to Vanden-Eykel’s condition even before the human is aware of what’s going on.
“He can tell when it’s time to leave someplace,” Vanden-Eykel said. “He gets in my face and tells me it’s time for us to go. He knows my every move.”
Vanden-Eykel said it’s one day at a time, “but it’s getting better and better. Knight was a rescue dog — he got a new life, and so did I.”
Each of the portraits will be wrapped up and shipped to the veterans after the exhibit closes Nov. 20, although there are tentative plans to move it to a local library in the interim. Corwin and some of the veterans involved are considering finding funding to continue the project, which will allow them to raise awareness of the value of trained service dogs to at-risk veterans.
With a gift for capturing that elusive light in the eyes of a dog devoting its life to service, Corwin, in turn, has a knack for illuminating nobility and solidarity in the face of struggle.
It’s that spark of inspiration that draws the gaze and inspires hope.
“I don’t want this to end,” said Corwin. “I really want to keep doing this. I didn’t realize when I started just how meaningful it was going to be.
“At the opening reception, [someone] asked how many veterans there would say that their service dogs saved their lives. Every hand went up. You could feel the love between the dogs and the veterans that night, you could absolutely feel it.”
Quinton Skinner is a Twin Cities-based author and journalist.