Ashley Hope James, painter and Army spouse, talks about living partly in the here-and-now and partly in the what’s-to-come. Knowing that change is always ahead shapes her identity, philosophy and art.
MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.
Ashley Hope: “Who am I?” is one of those questions I’ve found myself asking in so many different seasons of my life, but became ever more familiar when I became a military spouse. I’m sure that a lot of military spouses reading this may resonate with those feelings. I’m a 5-year Army spouse, but I am so much more than that – those two words simply do not define the entirety of who I am because, like many of you, I am composed of so many layers that even I cannot begin to talk about them all. I will confess, though, that marrying into the military lifestyle meant completely uprooting my life. Let’s face it – we all know that, but what we don’t know is what adapting to that other person’s life plan will look like.
I met my husband in 2014 after having just started my dream job at the Wounded Warrior Project. He was stationed in Fort Polk, Louisiana, while I was trying to convince myself and my newest Texas friends that I wasn’t the “yankee” that many of them thought me to be, as I’d grown up in Maryland and had recently found myself residing in Houston. We spent a year and a half 192 miles apart, seeing each other maybe once a month, if that, until we made the leap to get married and thereafter moved to Fort Polk. Yes, this meant letting the job I’d worked so hard for (14 applications, 6 different interviews, etc.) go up for grabs to the next lucky person.
People often say “bloom where you are planted,” but I’ll be honest, sometimes that seedling takes a whole lot more watering than others to blossom. Finding myself struggling to “bloom” in Fort Polk would not be the only time, as we received orders for Vicenza, Italy, a year and a half later. Most people think, “you lived in Italy, and you struggled? You knew what you signed up for.” Although I did know what I signed up for, I didn’t know how lonely it would be living in a foreign country, or even a new state; I didn’t know the struggle of trying to find a purposeful job again; I didn’t know the struggle of my first child being born and not having my personal family there, and so many other unknowns that reared their ugly heads. As many things as I didn’t know, there’s one thing that I did know and always have – it’s that anything I’ve put my mind and efforts into, I’ve been able to succeed at. Where in many cases of this lifestyle I did not have a choice, I did have a choice in capitalizing on my strengths by serving and helping others going through similar circumstances, and while I may not always know exactly who I am in a particular stage of life, I can say that I am one step closer to who I want to be.
MilspoFAN: How did you become a painter?
Ashley Hope: I remember thinking that I had a “rare” talent as an artist in my high school years, however, my grandmother recognized my artistic talents probably long before that, judging by the amount of art supplies I’d receive during holidays and special occasions. I took every opportunity to paint to the extent that I was often found sneaking out of and skipping core classes to run to my school’s art studio. Before I knew it, I was participating in college level art exhibits during my junior and senior years of high school. Shortly after, it dawned on me that I had to get serious about college and my future career which inevitably led to giving up art altogether. It wouldn’t be until almost six years later that I’d pick up a paintbrush again, but when I did, I decided to try my hand at watercolor painting. Little did I know that this medium was THE hardest to work with, especially having come from working solely in acrylic paint. It took a lot of time, practice, and many balled up pieces of paper that ended up in the garbage can before I got the hang of the techniques.
MilspoFAN: Describe for us your creative work and the aesthetic of your painting?
Ashley Hope: The word aesthetic derived from the Greek word, “aisthetikos”, meaning “sensitive, esthetic, sentient.” I try to philosophically approach life by trying to find the meaning behind every experience, choice, and circumstance because it makes me feel alive and that I am living for a higher purpose. All of those experiences, choices, and circumstances, happen often, if not most of the time, out of our control, but appreciating them is the beauty of life. I try to instill this same outlook in my work, specifically in my choice of medium. Watercolor is not meant to be tamed or reckoned with; it’s about letting go of control and allowing it to stimulate our feelings in a moment of surprise.
MilspoFAN: How did you get involved with recreational therapy and the Wounded Warrior project?
Ashley Hope: Having grown up in a household with two parents where both were civil servants, it was only natural that I would want to give back to society in some way. I just didn’t exactly know what that looked like at the time. After all, you cannot achieve what you have not defined. All of us have a strong desire buried deep within our hearts – something that sets our souls on fire and makes us excited to wake up every day. For me, that fire was ignited when I found out that my best friend’s husband had been killed in action in Afghanistan in 2009. Since that moment, I dedicated my time and effort to giving back to the military community in every way possible in a variety of different roles.
I had always thought that after achieving a Bachelor’s in Psychology that I would go on to become a clinical psychiatrist, but after hearing so many stories from service members and veterans in a number of roles, I began to steer away from wanting to diagnose and prescribe medical treatment. I think what truly brought me to the realization that I wanted to focus on a more holistic approach was the day that I saw my best friend smiling ear to ear during an equine therapy session in Texas. There are no words to describe the experience of seeing someone that you know has sacrificed everything, and struggled because of that sacrifice, in utter peace. I knew in the moment I wanted to focus on people’s strengths and interests to empower them to live a better quality of life versus embracing a traditional medical model that begged the question of what was wrong with a person.
MilspoFAN: How has your role as a military spouse impacted your work as a painter- creatively, logistically, or otherwise?
Ashley Hope: There’s nearly a constant tension that we military spouses endure. We’re always in that “all ready – but not yet” frame of mind where we are trying to hold onto a piece of ourselves or something familiar in our lives yet with the anticipation of something new just on the horizon. C.S. Lewis sums up my perspective as someone who has shortly lived the life as a military spouse in one statement: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Each adventure has shaped me like a piece of molding clay to help prepare me for the next one, whether that has been in my work as a painter, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a helper, and so forth.
MilspoFAN: How do you cultivate your creativity?
Ashley Hope: I’ve heard a lot of artists say that it’s discipline that cultivates their creativity. For me, it’s not discipline, but devotion that cultivates my creativity. Devotion means hanging in there even when the things we desire aren’t readily available. Devotion is taking no as a “not right now” knowing that something is better out there while not giving up. Discipline is great in the sense that it is the action of working towards what you want, but it is not the only thing needed. What I mean by this is that there will often be times when I go to paint and nothing will come to the surface because I am missing a very special ingredient: emotion. It’s my devotion to experiencing an emotion, or feeling, that I feel compelled to share through expressing myself in art. So, to briefly answer your question, experience is what truly cultivates my creativity – the heartbreak, joy, uncertainty, all of it packaged together in this beautiful thing called life.
MilspoFAN: How do you meet other artists or plug into the local arts scene when you PCS?
Ashley Hope: Art has this natural way of manifesting itself and creating connections. My advice for other spouses is to locate their MWR Arts & Crafts Center on the base if they have one. A lot of time it has been networking through social media platforms – there are quite a few community Facebook groups.
MilspoFAN: What’s next for you?
Ashley Hope: For the last two years, I have been advocating for the use of art journaling as a means for coping with stress related to the military lifestyle. I plan to continue to focus on my work in expressive arts and sharing art as a healing tool for our nation’s veterans and family members. My “dream” is to one day open my own art studio.
MilspoFAN: What is the most practical piece of advice that you would give to other artists?
Ashley Hope: My best piece of advice for other artists is to appreciate your failures. I know that sounds a lot easier said than done, but the failures are just as important as the accomplishments. That said – don’t panic when you’re not feeling creative, or feeling like nothing is coming to the surface. All of your experiences, interactions, relationships, and journeys are changing your brain and your vision to where it will influence your next project. All experience is good experience- they are the key to everything that came before and comes after.