Doesn’t it seem like some people in this world were just meant to do something? It’s like they were born to do what they do, and they just rock at it. This absolutely seems like the case with 56-year-old Army Veteran, Bert Leaverton. Here is her story.
Leaverton joined the Military in 1978, and left for basic training straight out of high school. She was in the National Guard and Army Reserves for just over 25 years, and just as she was ready to retire, she was called up for deployment to Iraq. Unfortunately, this happened at the same time her husband was being deployed to Bosnia, so they were forced to make living arrangements for their 15-year-old son at the time. Luckily, Leaverton’s sister was able to come to the rescue. She moved into the Leaverton home to care for their son, and took on the role as his legal guardian. After a 15-month deployment, Leaverton retired from the Military as a Sergeant First Class, and she returned home to her family.
Upon returning from Iraq, Leaverton and her husband were both changed people, making it a very trying time for her family. She admits that she didn’t even realize anything was wrong mentally, until she went back to work. Leaverton spent several years working in the foodservice industry, before recognizing that she needed help and needed to choose a different path of work for herself.
“When you come back with both your arms and both your legs and you’re still a whole person, you don’t realize how it affects you internally and mentally until you’re put in that situation and triggers come up,” she explained.
She continued, “I really didn’t realize how much was pent up inside of me until a guy got too close to my personal space at work and I tried to choke him out. And when that happened, I wasn’t there at the moment. It was like I was – I can’t even really explain it – it was like I had a blackout, but for that few seconds, I was ready to take this guy out.”
During this time in Leaverton’s life, along with unexpectedly coming face-to-face with her PTSD, the company she worked for was transitioning and not retaining her. With her elderly mother living with the Leaverton’s, rather than looking for another job in the foodservice industry, she decided to take her life in an entirely different direction. She decided to go to college to get a degree in something that she absolutely loves – fine art photography – and then become self-employed using this degree.
If you’re wondering what made Leaverton so interested in the field of fine art photography, it was all of her life experiences, good and bad, that got her hooked. “I started a journal while still in the states and continued writing for most of my deployment,” she explained. “I wasn’t with my own unit, and my journal and film camera became the closest thing to my soul while in this foreign land. I purchased my first digital camera in Baghdad, Iraq–a Canon 2.0 mega pixel camera that soon became as much as a part of daily wear as my dog tags.”
Leaverton enrolled in the Photography program at a local college, and this is where the real work started. She shares with us, “I don’t even know what started me looking at dioramas, but my husband had a GI Joe that I bought him that was from the early 60s and I had a Barbie that was from 1960, so for something controversial, I put these two together on an area that was sandy and grassy with snow in the background that had tanks and little military men. I didn’t have a lot of space to work with, but because of the various sizes, I was able to make it look like the depth of field had changed. And without even realizing it, it was the very first diorama I ever created.”
For Leaverton’s final portfolio class, she elected to build upon the diorama idea and started collecting miniature resin soldiers, building structures, and finding models in 1/35 scale to complete this last class. It was through an accomplished art instructor and Veteran’s art advocate, Troy Muller, that Leaverton’s work was noticed. Muller offered Leaverton her very first exhibition admiring the portfolio she shared that day. One piece of advice that Muller gave to Leaverton was to never stop creating her art. Through the Veteran’s Vocational Rehabilitation program, the idea of a business arose. Leaverton explained that while she never thought of doing anything with her toy soldiers or her passion, it would actually serve her quite well to do this.
“What it did is it made me go back. I journaled my year that I was gone. So it made me go back and look at some of the dates and see some things I was involved in, whether they were good, bad, or indifferent. It was a year that was very humbling to me. I came home with not just these memories but also with photographs of the Iraqi people; the people we were there to help.”
At first, Leaverton was skeptical about how this project would affect her mental health: “Is it going to bother me to go back and reread this journal? Because there were things in there – you know – I talked about my worst days. There were the days I hated, the days I didn’t want to be there, the days I didn’t want to be in charge, the days I was deathly sick.”
But after some careful consideration and positive outlook, Leaverton knew that the project was going to be beneficial to her overall: “Going back over that stuff… it’s like, you know… I can put it back into my images and be here doing this by myself. It was art therapy for me.”
And so it began… this new and exciting chapter of Leaverton’s life. She continued steadily creating dioramas with her miniature soldiers and other unique props, all in the comfort of her own basement against an old limestone wall, as it is easy to control all of the lighting there.
Although it was a bit more difficult than she had imagined to get this project off the ground, it did eventually pick up. Leaverton started being featured in exhibitions where she could display her unique fine art photography. She also chose to do an entrepreneurship program at Purdue University so that she could engage with and help other veterans, rather than just showing off her art. Her hope was that other veterans would see the positive effect that this work has had on her life, and in turn, be inspired to find a passion of their own to have the same positive effect on their lives someday.
“I’m gonna continue doing what I’m doing right now because I’m not done with it. I’m glad that I have a supportive husband and that he has accepted my mom to be able to live with us. It’s not easy with just having one income. He knows I’m a starving artist, but hopefully it will do something before I die. That’s all I can say about that!” Leaverton joked.
Bert Leaverton’s next art exhibition is June 16 through September 16 at the Bemus Center of Contemporary Arts in Omaha, where nine of her images will be featured. For more information on this event, visit http://www.bemiscenter.org/art/exhibitions/2016.html. Be sure to visit the Bert Leaverton Fine Art Photography website www.bertleaverton.com.
Or, to reach out to Leaverton directly, you can send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fortunately, with the help of the VA Accelerator Program www.vaaccelerator.com, Leaverton’s dreams are achievable. The VA Accelerator Program is currently in the process of raising capital to fund the organization to give back to even more disabled veterans.