Program funded by Hillsborough County Arts Council guided veterans and their family members to create personal and introspective photographs

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a portrait may be worth a thousand insights. The "Breaking Barriers: PORTRAIT" exhibit displayed at the USF Contemporary Art Museum (USFCAM) showcased many such insights from local military veterans and their family members. The show, a collaboration between the museum and the USF School of Art & Art History, focused on expression through imagery. Many of the photographs and the labels written to accompany them highlighted the self-reflection that can take place behind a camera lens.

The exhibit was the culmination of a six-week program attended by 22 veterans and family members. Artists were divided into beginning- and advanced-level workshops, each taught by U.S. Army veteran and USF Master of Fine Arts graduate, Christian Cortes. Artists also participated in an accompanying writing workshop, designed to help the photographers find words for the thoughts and feelings depicted in their portraits. The Breaking Barriers program, now in its seventh year, is so successful that several photographers return year after year to refine techniques and delve deeper into creative expression and introspection.

Creative expression as a therapeutic outlet

Individuals suffering from trauma may not always be able to verbalize what they are feeling. Creating art can be helpful in unpacking complex or buried emotions, while providing an outlet for people to express themselves and possibly even heal in the process. Though the Breaking Barriers program does not utilize art therapy, some participants have reported therapeutic benefits from the workshops' creative exercises.

Leslie Elsasser, curator of education at USFCAM, has seen the healing power that creating art can have, and advocates for communities to continue supporting these initiatives.

"Through these kinds of programs, people come back. Why do they come back? They've got other people; they have a safe space. They also heal. They can also self-identify. They also identify with other people," Elsasser said.

Valerie Larson is a repeat participant in the Breaking Barriers workshops. Larson, who served in the Air Force, enjoyed both the technical and creative methods that were taught. In addition to learning about lighting, color, and composition, Larson also identifies with the expressive aspects of the process and artwork itself. She described the classes as being therapeutic and life-changing.

Lady in her bed with her two dogs holding a book and looking at one of the dogs
"Story Time" by Valerie Larson was included in the May 2024 "Breaking Barriers: PORTRAIT" exhibit at the USF Contemporary Art Museum.

"It can be a way of expressing your emotions. ... If you have PTSD, it can help you get that anger and frustration out. It can give you a way of opening up and getting some of those issues out," Larson said.

"Breaking Barriers: PORTRAIT" was on display from May 14 to May 18. Though the exhibit has ended, veterans and family members interested in participating in the program are welcome to apply for the Breaking Barriers July session. The deadline to register is June 25. More information can be found at USF Contemporary Art Museum.

Hillsborough County Arts Council

Primary funding for the Breaking Barriers program came through a Community Arts Impact Grant (CAIG) from the Hillsborough County Arts Council. The CAIG program is designed to make arts and cultural opportunities more accessible for underserved populations across Hillsborough County. The grant supports geographic, ethnic, and age diversity, as well as programs that serve veterans and people with disabilities. For more information, visit the Hillsborough County Arts Council or email

Image Caption: "And So On and So On" by Janine Hargrett was included in the May 2024 "Breaking Barriers: PORTRAIT" exhibit at the USF Contemporary Art Museum.
Posted: 5/29/2024, 8:47:19 PM