The 2016 National Veterans Creative Arts Competition officially kicked off earlier this month. During the months of January, February and March, Veterans enrolled at VA medical facilities or outpatient clinics are invited to enter their art, music, dance, drama and creative writing entries into the local competition phase. It’s an exciting time with art exhibits and performances by Veterans occurring across the country. At most facilities, the general public is invited to view the art and watch the performances, having the opportunity to learn about the arts as therapy and congratulate the Veterans for their artistic achievements.

With the involvement of VA staff and volunteers, entries are submitted into the local competition. There are a total of 51 categories in the visual arts, divided into fine art, applied art and craft kit sub-divisions. Fine art categories include painting, watercolor, drawing and sculpture. Applied arts categories such as ceramics, woodworking, metalwork and glasswork and craft kits such as model building, needlework and leatherwork offer a variety of options with something for just about every artist.

Categories such as Special Recognition-Physical Disability, Special Recognition-Mental Health Challenges and Military Combat Experience focus on the concept of the arts as therapy where an individual uses artistic expression to facilitate successful treatment outcomes. A written narrative from the Veteran or staff person accompanies the entry to describe how the artwork relates to the Veteran’s challenge or experience. The art division overall has the highest number of entries submitted into competition each year. In 2015 there were over 1,600 entries judged during the month of April in the national competition.

The music division follows the art division in highest number of entries. Music is divided into vocal and instrumental sub-divisions. Within the music division there are 45 categories that include both solo and group and the categories are separated according to musical style. There is a category for everyone, even a band category and original vocal and original instrumental categories. Judging criteria consists of such areas as stage presence, intonation, rhythm, and interpretation.

Writing is a form of creative expression that has become extremely popular and Veterans are entering their original poems, essays and short stories into the creative writing division at an increasing rate each year. Creative writing entries are judged by use of language, originality of topic or idea, creative content, message clarity and overall strength of the composition.

The judging criteria are different for entries submitted into the drama division. The focus is more on the performance itself with stage presence, expressiveness and interpretation being scored. Veterans enter solo and group categories within prose, comedy, poetry and interpretive performance. Mime, juggling, magic, puppetry and ventriloquism entries are welcome, as well as multimedia video entries three minutes or less in length created by the Veteran.

The dance division offers Veterans the opportunity to prepare dance routines for videotaping and submission into the competition. There are solo and group categories that include ballroom, tap, jazz, ballet, country, folk, cultural, interpretive movement and novelty to name a few. The entries are judged by technique, rhythm, patterns, creativity and interpretation.

By March 25th, the first place-winning entries from the local art, music, dance, drama and creative writing competitions will be sent on to the national competition level where the top three entries in each category were determined through a judging process. Art entries will be photographed and music, dance and drama entries will be video recorded at the local VA facility, with the assistance of VA staff. Creative writing entries do not need to be video recorded. Just the text is submitted to the national level of competition.

The national judging is coordinated each year by VA therapists who volunteer to serve as national chairpersons. These dedicated therapists spend countless hours preparing the entries and competition forms received from VA facilities throughout the nation for the judging process. Judges are professionals in their area of artistic expertise and view and score each entry carefully, using established criteria specific to each division.

The National Veterans Creative Arts Festival

When all of the judging is completed in mid-June, VA staff persons are notified of the first, second and third place winners from all five divisions. This is an exciting time as Veterans learn the results of the national competition. All of the first place winners from the national art competition are invited to attend the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. Some of the gold medal-winning acts from the music, dance and drama divisions are selected for inclusion in the Festival stage show performance, and some of the creative writing gold medal-winners will be invited to attend writing interaction sessions and a writing seminar. Since 1989, the Festival week has been hosted by a different VA facility and location each year and the public is invited to an exhibit of the first place winning artwork and a stage show performance. Through these events, the host community learns of the benefits of the arts in the lives of Veterans and can congratulate them on their artistic accomplishments.

Most VA facilities hold their local competitions in February, so check with your VA facility’s recreation/creative arts therapy departments now. Veterans must work with a staff person from the VA facility where they are enrolled.  If you need assistance in identifying a VA staff person from your facility, please contact Amy Kimbler, Program Specialist at (320) 255-6486 or Elizabeth Mackey, National Director at (320) 255-6351. You can visit our website too at for more information. Best wishes to you all and thank you for allowing us the opportunity to showcase your artistic talents!

Elizabeth Mackey is the director of the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. She is a board certified music therapist, and graduated in 1982 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Music Therapy from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Mackey worked as a music therapist with patients at the St. Cloud, Minnesota VA Medical Center from 1985 to 2001. In 1993, she served as the host site coordinator of the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, and was the chairperson of the visual arts division in 1994. Through her experience as a creative arts therapist, she has developed a deep sense of commitment toward understanding the positive impact that the arts have in the treatment and rehabilitation process of our nation’s Veterans.


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Published on Jan. 15, 2016

Estimated reading time is 5.3 min.

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  1. Jennifer colston January 23, 2016 at 1:07 pm

    What is the deadline to submit artwork for Detroit VA hospital?

  2. Liz Mackey January 22, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    Hello Charles…
    Irene Thomas from Recreation Therapy is the VA staff point of contact for assisting Veterans to enter the creative arts competition from the Tuscaloosa, AL VA facility.
    Her email address is:
    Best to you…

  3. Charles D Scott January 22, 2016 at 8:50 am

    How can I find out more on a local level. ie Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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