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Soldiers brush up on portraits for family

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Against a backdrop of stark, modular military structures at Camp Atterbury sits the United Services Organizations Inc. building. The recently renovated building, with its plush leather chairs, video-game stations and fully equipped kitchen provides a bit of a home away from home for active and retired military members.

It is here that Columbus artist Jeri Cannon, a USO volunteer since April, and USO event co-coordinator Tanya Fells have set up shop for Boots and Brushes, a monthly program that provides the opportunity for soldiers to paint or draw pictures that can be mailed home to their families. Armed with dozens of tubes of paint and a giant bucket of multi-sized brushes, they wait for their first volunteer.

“I thought we were going to paint boots,” joked Philip Garner, 19, of Hickory, N.C. Garner is preparing to be deployed for a 10-month tour to Egypt some time in the next few weeks, and plans on sending his painting home to his 15-year-old brother.

Cannon modeled the event after a similar program she offers in private homes she calls Paint Outside the Wines. Here at Camp Atterbury, Boots and Brushes became so popular that the event was offered twice in one month at the request of the soldiers.

The Indiana Artists Club Inc. donated $500 for art supplies, and Cannon provides several different sizes of canvases and her expertise. Soldiers can choose to replicate several of the sample paintings that Cannon has brought with her, or they can pull up a picture on their phones or from a magazine.

Jessica Halladay, 33, deputy public affairs and media relations officer, initially wants to try painting a bag of Lay’s potato chips she snags from the kitchen but decides to be ambitious and replicate a picture of a soldier from a magazine.

Cannon starts by instructing Halladay to try looking at the picture a little differently.

“Forget about everything else. Forget it’s a face. These are just lines,” Cannon said as she begins sketching an outline with a pencil. “This is going to be a little difficult.”

“Can we go back to the potato chips?” chuckles Halladay, having second thoughts.

Cannon and Fells both agree the level of artistic talent that they have witnessed at these events has been surprising — both to the instructors and to the soldiers.

“They (the soldiers) are surprised. They don’t even think they can paint,” Cannon said.

The USO and its volunteers provide funding for many different types of events at Camp Atterbury, ranging from bingo and Pictionary nights to Halloween parties and hog roasts.

Spc. Dillon Smith, 20, of Lenoir, N.C., will also soon be deployed to Egypt, and said he is extremely appreciative of the services provided by the USO.

“This is definitely where we come to just get away from everything at the end of the day. It would be a dreaded mobilization process without the USO,” Smith said.

Cannon would like to eventually expand this event to provide pads and pencils for deploying soldiers to take with them overseas.

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