Department of Florida

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Thinking outside the norm

On one side is a picture of the facilities at Nordhausen, a sub-camp of the German concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora in Thuringia, Germany. On the other side are pictures of the “residents” of that camp – some dying, some dead, most of them shells of the persons they once were.

In the middle of the two pictures, proudly displayed on the wall of American Legion Post 38’s John Ebling Veteran Art Gallery in Fort Myers, Fla., is an American flag stitched by those imprisoned at Nordhausen. What the flag represents is why it’s Post 38 Commander Kevin Boyd’s favorite piece in the gallery.

“As bad as it got, those people still had hope that the United States was coming to liberate them,” Boyd said. “That’s pretty powerful.”

The gallery, which opened last summer, was the brainchild of Boyd, who spent 29 years in the Navy and Naval Reserve before becoming Post 38’s commander seven years ago. 

The post is named for Ebling, an Army veteran who worked in Lee County’s Office of Veterans Services. A wall in the gallery is dedicated to Ebling.

Boyd called Ebling “a man of vision. He always wanted to be the first of doing something that’s different (and) outside the norm. That’s what we need: people who go outside the norm.

“He opened (a Legion post) on a college campus (Hodges University). He brought the U.S.S. Mohawk down here and had it sunk. It’s a barrier reef for downtown. I thought it would be a great idea for a great person that has done so much for so many people, and a great way to honor him.” 

And Ebling’s family’s reaction to the decision? “They were totally blown away,” Boyd said. “They couldn’t believe it. They come up here all the time.” 

The gallery fits in perfectly with downtown Fort Myers’ Art Walk. On the first Friday of each month, downtown art galleries invite residents and visitors to a self-guided walking tour through downtown’s River District and Gardner’s Park area.

“I was talking with John Ebling’s daughter, and I said, ‘We have Art Walk. What a great way to bring people here to see what’s going on at The American Legion by creating an art gallery,’” Boyd said. “She goes, ‘What do we have to do to make it happen?'”

That set in motion the planning process. A room at the post was designated as the home of the museum, and post members then stripped the floors and walls, and repainted the room. “It took us two months to get it ready,” Boyd said. “This was veterans working night, day, whatever availability didn’t interfere with the operation of the post.”

Boyd said selling the idea of an art gallery to the post membership wasn’t difficult. “They look at it as change,” he said. “In any organization, change is an inevitable part of life. We’ve been doing the same old thing. If you do the same thing all the time and get no results, you have to change what you do. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to be proactive (and) be part of the community.”

Boyd’s brother, an Air Force veteran and artist, provided the first nine pieces of artwork. The grand opening of the gallery, and ensuing local media coverage, resulted in a slew of donated pieces. 

“We have people who have 20 pieces of art they want to put in (the gallery),” Boyd said. “So what we’ve tried to do is change it up every month so that we have a different look, a different face of art that’s in the gallery.”

The creation of the artwork can be therapeutic for the artists. “That was one of the things that came out when we first talked about it,” Boyd said. “I talked with (a Department of Veterans Affairs case worker), and she said, ‘Kevin, that’s a great thing. A lot of these veterans that have PTSD, this a way for them to release a little tension.’ If a veteran wants to come in and display or sell their artwork, it’s here for them to do it.”

Boyd said the art gallery has created more foot traffic at the post. An at-risk children’s facility has contacted Boyd about creating a gallery for its children at their facility. Other veterans groups, including one from Canada, have come to visit the gallery. One Jewish veteran, a former prisoner of war, cried when he saw the Nordhausen flag. 

“It brings back a lot of memories,” Boyd said. “It helps them heal old wounds, especially with our Vietnam veterans. A lot of times they don’t want to talk about the things that they went through.

“This has truly exceeded my expectations. I thought I’d have a few paintings here or there. The room’s not big enough to display (all the donated items). We’d like to make sure that we rotate them every month so that people can see some of the great work that these veterans do.”