Veterans Administration J/24 Art Therapy Project

This article was written by Stu Johnstone and published in the February 2, 2022 edition of the J/Newsletter read worldwide. Many thanks!

What an amazing idea! Founder of the famous "Tiller & Kites" sailing program in Phoenix, Arizona- Victor Felice- has been finding and fixing up "seriously loved" old J/24s and transforming them into "almost new" sailboats for students and members to use in their sailing program on Lake Pleasant. Here is Victor's commentary on "why" he decided to take one of his more recent J/24 purchases and turn it into an "art project" for the VA Phoenix "Recreational/ Art Therapy Program".

Last fall, sailing less because of the covid pandemic, I was looking at some of my J/24s and one, in particular, always had a special ‘something’ about it. My first thought was that this J/24 would be a perfect ‘second primary boat’ (the "blank canvas" pictured above).

Of course, the primary boat is the bright pink J/24 MERMAID RESCUE. Taking a step back, it did occur to me that although entertaining, that really is a less than genius idea.

A second primary boat? I could justify it; but I just could not explain it!

I always wanted to create an ‘art boat’, similar to what BMW had once done with their cars or the German J/70 Sailing League did in cooperation with a famous German artist and the United Nations UNESCO Project for the 17 mainsails reflecting global environmental goals. But, ours had to be local, indigenous, hand-painted with a cause and a purpose. It had to tell a story. Now that is a good idea!

My neighbor, Benjamin Metelits, is a therapist at the Veterans Administration in Phoenix, Arizona. One call to him and he immediately put me in touch with Beth Dietrich (Recreation Therapy Supervisor), who in turn introduced me to Josh Parks (Adaptive Sports Coordinator). Josh then invited Kristina Ritter, an accomplished artist who also works at the VA Art Therapy program. With a few emails, phone calls, and a visit to Tiller & Kites sailing program at Lake Pleasant, the "art boat" named REBEL YELL, was born.

From my perspective, I did not want to have any influence or input in what the boat will look like. Tiller & Kites, my sailing school, provided the boat, the paint, rags, tape, and materials. The rest was left completely to the veterans to represent whatever they wanted, however they wanted. Yes, they do have a story to tell, and the boat is full of subtle nuances and suggestions that in most cases only another vet will recognize and appreciate.

The painting was completed over the weekend of January 28th-30th at the VA in Phoenix. We were provided a spot to work on the boat. All the vets who participated were initially cautious about brushing paint on a perfectly good boat. But, once they started, there was no stopping them! New ideas were incorporated, color added, plan A became plan B, and finally we all stepped back and said, “Yes! She’s done!”.

REBEL YELL will be sailed in the future as part of the VA Adaptive Sports program that Tiller & Kites is introducing to Lake Pleasant. This boat will create interest and support for the program.

Of course, none of this could have been accomplished without the patronage and support of some very special people:

- Glen Vortherms, the General Manager of the Maricopa Water District and Pleasant Harbor has supported the project from its inception. He has purchased a set of brand-new sails for REBEL YELL from Harry Pattison of Elliott Pattison Sailmakers.
- Bridget Binsbacher is the Council Member of the Mesquite District, which includes Lake Pleasant. She, too, has been following the "VA Art Boat” from the start and will be instrumental in the growth of the Adaptive Sports project.
- John Riddell, Maricopa Youth Mariners/ Sea Scout Ship 3500, is not only my friend and sailing partner, but has also provided wonderful assistance to the project.
- Stu Johnstone of J/Boats in Rhode Island, loves a good J/Boat story. He has been instrumental in "spreading the word" not only in the USA, but worldwide, in appreciation of all military veterans anywhere serving their respective countries.
- Chris Picknally - a famous Arizona artist, he will be painting the new sails with a graphic suitable to match the veteran's inspired color and graphics scheme on the J/24 hull.
- Friends, students, colleagues... thanks to all that have pitched in, too.

For those who think Arizona is ‘the desert’, you have no idea what you are missing! Yes, we sail. A lot! We have amazing weather, a superb marina, lots of sunshine, winds from drifters to epic squalls laced with thunder'n'lightnin' and 'blowing dogs off chains'. It's a great community and lots of new residents in Peoria and the North Valley are always impressed at what we have and what we do... in the desert! REBEL YELL is just the start."


The VA veterans artists were

  • Bill S. - Navy
  • Gina L. – Navy
  • Billy G. – Navy
  • Kate G. – Navy
  • Stacey P. - Army
  • Kevin H. – Army
  • Barbara L. – Army
  • Sven O. – Army
  • Ray K. – Marines

What Veterans Says

Veteran #1- “I must admit, this did more for me than I ever thought possible. And if you’d have talked to me this time last year, I would have told you ‘no way painting a boat will help me.’ But, I have been able to come here these past couple of days and forget about everything going on in my life. My parents. My past. My traumas. I’m a different person now than I was two years ago when I started this program. And I’ve grown a lot in these past two days just from painting this boat! Love to see it sailing on Lake Pleasant!”

Veteran #2- “I’ve been so down these last couple of months. Going through a divorce, selling my home, going through large amounts of depression and just really being in some deep slumps. I can’t believe how much this has touched my soul. This has been amazing and such a positive experience. Can't wait to go sailing the boat we all painted!” Parks commented further, "for me personally, this project hit home. Providing these types of moments for Veterans to practice autonomy, build confidence, and find camaraderie is my mission in life!"


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