An online veteran community showcases the art of war (and peace)

Basalt-based Challenge America is bringing together veterans across the U.S. with a new online art initiative

When the pandemic wiped clean the in-person calendar for the Basalt-based military veterans nonprofit Challenge America, and canceled its music therapy retreats for the foreseeable future, the organization’s small team got to work on new solutions and virtual ways to connect vets.

The result is the free vets-only Challenge America Veteran Arts Community (CAVARTS), a private social media ecosystem. It launched in mid-March and is now connecting veterans nationally in a safe and supportive online space where they can pursue creative passions and discover new ones.

The forum allows vets to share their works in visual and graphic arts, performing arts, music and creative writing while also providing instruction and connections to creative organizations and events. But the heart of the program is its veteran-to-veteran network.

“The pandemic forced us to reevaluate what we’re doing, because we weren’t able to do the in-person music therapy retreats that we had done in the past,” said Challenge America executive director Dallas Blaney. “So we got together and thought, ‘Well, what can we do?’ ‘How can we connect vets and make it better than what it was before?’ That’s what gave rise to this program.”


The platform went live online on March 15. In its first week it drew about 350 active users. Organizers are hopeful that in coming months that number will grow into the hundreds of thousands. It is built to scale up to that level.

“It’s exciting to see,” Blaney said. “I don’t anticipate any scaling problems.”

The Veterans Affairs Administration — a longtime supporter and partner in Challenge America initiatives — is expected to begin promoting CAVARTS on its Vantage Point blog and to its mailing list of 3 million veterans this week.

During a tour of the site with Blaney in early April, the CAVARTS Community page included a video upload of a recent performance of a two-man play written by a vet, shared audio of new vet-written songs and an upload of an oil-on-canvas painting by a service member of himself with his son serving together in Afghanistan.

“My visual art and writing aid in both memory processing and mindfulness,” the artist wrote.

There were lively forums with general prompts like “If you were going to describe your artwork, what three adjectives would you use?” and specific tutorials, like one on how to create a playlist for self-care.

“Anyone who sees themselves as a visual artist can go into this group, have a more focused discussion with other veterans who share that same interest and directly connect,” Blaney said while scrolling through the pages of discussion.

Most of the posts we saw drew engagement and conversation, constructive criticism and support.

“Online programs like ours democratize access to services and information, which is what we have all hoped the internet would do,” Blaney said. “That there has been a boom in virtual programming for veterans is a particularly good thing, especially when you consider that one in three veterans live in a rural area like the Roaring Fork Valley. We believe all veterans should have access to high quality arts programming and we can’t imagine any better way to make this belief a reality. “

The site includes a Creative Communities section that allows vets to chat on various creative topics, a CAVARTS Academy for courses on specific art forms and an Artists’ Resource Library that functions as a clearinghouse for arts organizations and services.

“Water is Life” by veteran and painter Phyllis Thomas.

There is also a searchable events calendar that includes arts events across the U.S. so that vets can easily engage in their own communities (most of those listings so far are for virtual events, due to the pandemic).

“We made an early decision not to just narrow our focus to veterans specific organizations,” Blaney explained.

For now, Challenge America is not producing original courses of their own for the Academy curriculum, but instead is relying on partner organizations to provide courses. The explosion in virtual art-making classes over the past year, Blaney hopes, will fuel these early days of for the Academy classes.

Blaney and his team built CAVARTS as a forum to fuel vets’ passions. You can meet people, seek and give feedback on your work, dig into music and art that others share, as well as resources for wellness (a breathing tutorial was among the first things added to the CAVARTS Academy). It aims to give veterans tools for creativity as well as healing.

Blaney is hoping to also create a public-facing virtual art gallery on the site, where the general public could view, and potentially buy, works by the vets in the CAVARTS community, fueling the careers of new or established artists.

CAVARTS is open only to veterans. But Blaney and his team are also trying to spread the word among arts organizations to add their programs to its events calendars, to bring more veterans into the fold with creative people in their own communities. These aren’t siloed, vets-only programs. They’re places where CAVARTS members can be artists among artists and integrate into those circles. For example, here in its backyard Challenge America is hoping to connect vets with programs at places like the Art Base, Anderson Ranch Arts Center and Aspen Art Museum.

“We made an early decision not to just narrow our focus to veterans specific organizations,” Blaney said.

Arts in the DNA

Challenge America, launched in 2009, built its veterans-focused mission on a foundation of the arts.

The organization began with a star-studded benefit concert that June at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., hosted by the country singers and sometime-Aspenites Vince Gill and Amy Grant – who became honorary co-founders of Challenge America and performed on a bill that included Alison Krauss, Michael McDonald, Darius Rucker and others.

Challenge America’s overarching goal then, as now, was to connect military veterans and their families to resources in their communities while transitioning to civilian life. Programs have since extended into the design and tech sectors and a wider scope of the arts, but they started with music.

“The arts are part of our DNA and always have been,” said Blaney.

Its first program was a series of music therapy retreats for vets with post-traumatic stress – staging in Nashville, Cleveland and here in Colorado.

While the retreats provided inspiration and memorable experiences, Challenge America struggled to keep vets connected and provide a continuum of care after the gatherings ended and everyone went home. Based here on the Western Slope, Blaney and Challenge America leaders are attuned to the needs of rural vets and the particular set of challenges they face, as isolation is common and can exacerbate mental heath and substance abuse issues.

“Veterans afterward drifted off on their own,” Blaney said of the music retreats. “That was a challenge for us.”

Blaney and his team are hopeful that CAVARTS will provide more sustained connection for vets in the virtual space.

“It’s hard-wired to connect veterans nationwide who have an interest in or share a passion for the arts,” Blaney said.

Challenge America’s Military Sisterhood Initiative also paved the way for this moment. That program, launched in 2018 with volunteers from the tech company Acumen Solutions, created a national peer-to-peer support network for women in the military using a similar private social media interface as CAVARTS.

Its membership boomed with the pandemic.

“When we thought about what we wanted to do in the arts, we instinctively gravitated toward that same platform because it improved so fast,” Blaney said.

The CAVARTS initiative was launched with seed funding from the HeartStrings Foundation, an Arizona-based nonprofit that provides guitars to vets. It joined a mix of corporate, government, nonprofit and individual supporters — from Google to the National Endowment for the Arts to the Goldrich Family Foundation — that fuel Challenge America.

“Kiskadee” by veteran and painter Selina Jackson

Blaney is hopeful that, as the number of vets on the platform grows, CAVARTS may be a candidate for more federal funding and support from Veterans Affairs.

Running with a current staff of three — two based in the Roaring Fork Valley, one in Los Angeles — all of Challenge America operates on a $468,000 annual budget, according to tax returns from fiscal year 2018.

The organization has gradually incorporated visual art into its programs in recent years, beginning with a veterans’ art show at Gallery 8K in downtown Aspen in 2017. That show, curating national veteran artists, included recorded music, essays and visual art including sculpture, painting and photography.

Each of the works in that show included a statement from the artist, aiming to spark dialogue and created a smaller, in-person version of what CAVARTS is now doing online.

Vet artist Dan Figueroa made a painting of two pairs of boots, one military issue, the other Doc Martens. “I wanted to depict the polarity between regimented and laissez faire,” he wrote. “The painting is also meant to capture visually the truth of me then and now.”

Aspen’s own Dan Glidden shared photo landscapes and portraits he made while serving in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, including a group of children he met in 1969, about whom he wrote, “I look at these faces and wonder what happened to these children. Where are they now?”

The organization now has the stated mission of leveraging technology and the creative arts to improve the lives of military service members, which has extended beyond the fine and performing arts that CAVARTS focuses on and has included programs like last summer’s COVID-19 Maker Challenge, which funded solutions by veterans to help frontline workers during the PPE shortage.

This spring’s launch for the new online community marks a new beginning for the organization and, Blaney hopes, the beginning of a new era for veterans in the arts.

“What success would look like for me is that CAVARTS eventually emerges as a recognized national hub for the creative arts for veterans,” Blaney said. “There’s nothing else out there like this, so I think we stumbled onto something here. I’m excited about our potential.”



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Facebook: Challenge America

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