Why are we Artists? Thoughts at the End of my Military Spouse Journey, with Dr. Kimberlee Bonura

Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, PhD, MFA

About 7 months ago, my husband retired, after 25 years of active-duty service. I was along for the ride for 18 of those years. All the “normal” PCS stressors have been compounded by the big life-after-the-military activities of transitioning out and job hunting. After a lifetime of “Home is Where the Army Sends You,” figuring out where to plant some roots feels like a REALLY BIG DEAL. Throughout the paperwork, the packing, and the moving, I’ve done my best to keep my journal and my laptop handy, to keep the swirl of ideas and characters alive, and keep my sense of writing and art with me.

After my husband out-processed and went on terminal leave, we used all the COVID-era saved up leave to take a family road trip. We took my mom and the kids to a few bucket list destinations. For the kids, there were multiple water parks, plus Snake Discovery in Minnesota and Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska. Yellowstone National Park for Grandma, which turned out to be the trip highlight for everyone. Important advice: if you’ve ever thought about visiting Yellowstone, do it! Do it right at the beginning of the season when it’s less crowded and the snow on the ground makes everything a magical wonderland. If you can swing it, stay in one of the lodges in the park and watch the bison outside your window. 

On the road, through roadside motels and highway rest stops, I kept my pad and pen handy in my bag, because you never know when you need to jot an idea down before you lose it forever.

Being an artist, whatever your form, is hard, both in terms of what it demands of you, and in terms of your potential to make a full-time living of it. One study reports that only 10% of artists do it fulltime [https://news.artnet.com/art-world/artist-financial-stability-survey-1300895]. Which begs the question: why do we do it? Why, as artists, do we do the work, even when (especially when) it’s so hard? While art is hard for all artists, I’ll pose that art is especially hard for us as military spouses.  We constantly move, having to rebuild where and how we work, re-establish connections, and manage all the logistics of military spouse life, particularly if we’re also parents and balancing paid work in the process. 

As part of our road trip, we took my mom and kids through the parts of the Dakotas where my mom grew up and where I spent childhood summers. Decades ago, in the late 1990s, I lived in Lead, South Dakota with my grandparents. My grandma Edna was also an artist, although like me, she came to art later in her life. A woman ahead of her time, she earned a college degree in the late 1930s. She was a fulltime working mother as a nurse and hospital administration throughout her life. When my mother left home to join the Navy in the 1960s, my grandmother started taking painting classes, and she spent my childhood painting. In her 80s, she turned a retaining wall on the side of that South Dakota house into a beautiful nature mural. As we drove through the Black Hills, we added a Lead stopover. As we drove into town, we wondered if the house would still be there. Imagine our surprise that not only was our old house (now over 100 years old) still standing with the same red metal roof my mom had installed, but that the mural was still there too! 

Here I am with my mom and my kids in front of my Grandma Edna’s mural in Lead, South Dakota. The mural has endured South Dakota summer heat and winter ice for over 25 years!

And that’s why we stick with our art, even when it’s hard. Because art endures. Art remains. Art is a legacy. Her mural was like a hug from my grandmother. She may have died in the fall of 2000, but she smiled at me one sunny afternoon, last Spring in Lead. For a moment, I was with her, and she met my children, because of and through her art. 

That’s why we are artists. Even when it’s hard. Even when we’re not paid. Even when it means just barely doing more than jotting down ideas and keeping notes as we manage yet another PCS, and yet another round of finding new pediatricians, registering for new schools, and paying security deposits yet again for house #23 (or whatever number you personally happen to be on, in your military spouse life). We may not know which aspects of our art will be the ones that stick, the ones that last, but some of it will. Someday, your own grandchildren may be reminded of your love through the legacy of your art, and maybe your great-grandchildren will have a tangible encounter with you through your art, and along the way, your art will bring smiles to countless people you’ve never even met. In fact, the current tenant of our old South Dakota home said he has always enjoyed the wall of art outside his door and invited us to take our time and take as many pictures as we wanted.

So, please, remember: art endures. Your art is valuable. Your art is meaningful. Your art is your opportunity to show your love, your vision, and your expression of who you are to the world. Your art will endure.

As the poet Kahlil Gibran has written, “Work is love made visible,” and art may be the form of work in which that is most true. In your art, you make your love for the world visible. That’s why you keep doing it.

Fun update: my first published short-story, Waters of ’82, received first place in the 2021 Colonel Darron L. Wright Memorial Writing family prose category. You can read my story by clicking here. [https://www.lineofadvance.org/blog/2021/8/26/waters-of-82-t8c7a]

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