Until last winter, Vietnam veteran Tom Ziegler, 69, had not sat in a formal art class for decades.
As a boy, Ziegler had taken Saturday art classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore. Then, in high school, he clashed with his art teacher, whom, Ziegler said, kicked him out of his class because he knew "too much."
Drafted out of high school, Ziegler went to Vietnam, coming home after he was wounded before serving overseas in Germany. While in Europe, he made time to visit the Louvre Museum in Paris, never losing his passion for art.
This year, Ziegler engaged that passion again, as he regularly traveled from his home in Linthicum to Epiphany Episcopal Church, in Timonium, to try his hand at making masterpieces of his own. His destination was a class taught by Mary Rever, an artist and teacher from Timonium who offers free painting lessons to military veterans and first responders.
The first session of Rever's Art Program for Military Veterans, in which Ziegler was one of 12 students, ran from January to June. It broke for the summer and will begin again Sept. 5, and run through Nov. 21.
The fall class also will be offered free to first responders. Other members of the public can join the class, but are strongly encouraged to make a donation to the church where it's held.
Ziegler said he'll be back for the fall class, which will meet Tuesday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. "You do learn a lot," Ziegler said of the class.
"My passion has always been to create and teach art," said Rever, who, as a volunteer, also has taught art to seniors at assisted living communities and briefly owned a studio gallery on Harford Road in Mayfield. "I've always been compelled to convey to people how important art is, how relaxing it is, and how many benefits there are with the creative process."
Recently, Rever found a new, receptive audience: military veterans, such as Ziegler.
Reading the book, "Charlie Mike: A True Story of Heroes who Brought their Mission Home," by Joe Klein, a true story of two decorated combat veterans, inspired her to reach out to veterans and form an art class, she said.
That's how she landed in the office of Larry Simmons, special assistant to Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, to get his input on the idea of starting a free art class for veterans. Simmons, whose office coordinates the Homefront Work Group, which delivers services to veterans in the county, liked Rever's pitch.
"I thought it was fantastic," Simmons said.
The Baltimore County Library System offers book and writing clubs for veterans that Simmons' office endorses. "Hers was a similar project," Simmons said. "I said: 'You need to take this further.'"
With a nod of approval from the county, Rever proceeded with the initiative. She secured a location for the class at Epiphany Episcopal, on Pot Spring Road, in her neighborhood; distributed fliers announcing the class, and spoke to veterans about the class. She also provided canvasses and easels for the students, who are required to bring their own art supplies.
Rever, who welcomed three women and nine men to her inaugural class—11 of whom are veterans—admits to being a little nervous initially, a feeling that quickly subsided.
"They weren't as tough as I thought they'd be," she said with a laugh, sharing an anecdote about how, at the end of each class, Ziegler waited to make sure she safely exited the dark parking lot before he, too, pulled out. "They were actually sweethearts."
Rever wants her students to form bonds, she said, which she encourages by dedicating the first 30 minutes or so of the class to socializing.
"They joke with each other; they seem to absolutely relate to one another's past experiences," said Rever, who hopes to enroll more young veterans in future classes.
Towson resident Zara Mehrabyan, who saw a flier announcing Rever's class at the Towson YMCA, eagerly joined it last winter. Mehrabyan, a scientist who is not a military veteran or a first responder, said she admires art and has visited museums around the world, but had never enrolled in an art class.
Mehrabyan, whom Rever considers an art program assistant, donates funds to the church and helps Rever prepare the room for class.
The class "brings great calmness and pleasure to my life," said Mehrabyan, who also has enrolled in the fall class. "I can't wait to resume lessons again."
Rever said that she hopes the veterans who take her class feel similarly. "I'm hopeful that, even in a small way, this art program will provide one method of relaxation for our men and women who experience the everyday stresses related to their life experiences," she said.
Beatrice "Bea" Grant, a 58-year-old military veteran from Baltimore, registered for the class, though somewhat reluctantly as it had been years since she'd been in a formal art class. She was pleasantly surprised to find how much she has enjoyed it.
"I found it to be very relaxing, very soothing," Grant said. "I can't draw and I can't paint, but my family looked at some of my work and said it was pretty nice."
To register for Mary Rever's art class for veterans and first responders at Epiphany Episocopal Church Hall, email email@example.com or 410-591-1878. Space is limited and registration is required.