As an army sergeant major, David Spencer learned to “lead from the front.”
Now retired, Spencer wants to be first again, this time in a project allowing him to create art drawn from his war experiences.
Guided by artist and gallery owner Ephraim Urevbu, Spencer, 55, other veterans and their loved ones will produce art displayed and sold at auction on Veterans Day to raise money for the West Tennessee Veterans Home.
“I am what you call art stupid. I can’t even paint by numbers,” said Spencer, who spent 27 years in the army and served in combat in the Balkans conflict and wars in the Middle East.
However, Urevbu has told him not to worry.
“Certain images, those certain things, we can transpose and put on canvas, bringing our thoughts, our experiences and life events onto the canvas with images and colors,” Spencer said “It doesn’t need to be a Thomas Kinkade work of art. It will still be art in the sense of it was done and how it was done and who it was done by.”
Spencer is on the board of the West Tennessee Veterans Home organizing group and, as the executive officer of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, led a fundraiser last year.
In this project, he will be one of many.
Urevbu is helping 40 or 50 veterans or military families create works of art for the Nov. 11 event at his 410 S. Main St. gallery.
One challenge, he said, is to find the veterans.
“A lot veterans are very private. They don’t want to talk about their story,” Urevbu said. “So the challenge is to unlock all that. Finding those veterans that will be eager and willing partners.”
Fundraising for the home for veterans living in Shelby, Tipton and Fayette counties began in 2006. It is, for now, expected to be built in Arlington.
The federal government requires local groups to raise about a third of the money, meaning the group here must raise $25.2 million, said Don Swogger, marketing chairman with the West Tennessee Veterans Home organization.
They’ve raised $17 million and need about $8 million more, Swogger said. The total cost is about $72 million.
The art project is “fantastic,” Swogger said, and will help them tap into a new pool of potential donors.
There are participants already signed up for the campaign, he said.
“One was career military, involved in a number of conflicts as a helicopter pilot. We have a Gold Star mother who has carried the loss of her son with her everyday,” Swogger said.
There are two Vietnam War veterans, one who received a Purple Heart and is disabled, and that vet’s wife, he said.
It was Ethel Richardson, retired from the Air National Guard and the Army Reserve after a total of 22 years, who brought Urevbu (already a friend) and the veterans home organizers together.
Richardson volunteers for several organizations with Swogger and his wife, Holly, president of the organizing group.
“I’m a licensed practical nurse and did some training at the VA (Memphis VA Medical Center) and saw some of the struggle,” Richardson said. “I’m a big fan of art, so to bring those two together, I know it can have a therapeutic effect.”
Meanwhile, Urevbu sees the possibility to raise even more money for this cause.
He envisions a Memphis factory employing vets to make his inspirational Freedom candles, a possible documentary and coffee table book based on the art project and the inclusion of a creative center once the nursing home is built.
“I am not a big proponent of war, but these kids go to war. Some of them went to war when they were 17 years old, 18 years old. They are kids,” he said. “They come back home mentally damaged. They are physically damaged for life. Then we tell them, go build your own nursing home.”
The phrase “thank you for your service,” Urevbu said, is not enough.