Marine veteran Joe Williams finds solace, purpose in art

Joe Williams, a Kansas City Art Institute sculpture student and Marine veteran, is developing online and studio resources that will provide art opportunities for other vets. Williams works primarily in metal. In this piece, “The Intelligence Tree,” video cameras will sprout from the branches.
Joe Williams, a Kansas City Art Institute sculpture student and Marine veteran, is developing online and studio resources that will provide art opportunities for other vets. Williams works primarily in metal. In this piece, “The Intelligence Tree,” video cameras will sprout from the branches. The Kansas City Star

Three important things to know about Joe Williams: He wanted to be a Marine. He wanted to make art. And he wanted to kill himself.

Each, it seems, isn’t like the others. To Williams, a 28-year-old Iraq veteran and sculpture student at the Kansas City Art Institute, they relate in interesting ways. And by acknowledging that, he thinks he can help military folks like him.

As a sculptor, he enjoys working with metal — welding it, grinding it, burnishing it.

“I like to go big,” said Williams recently as he walked through the sculpture department’s think tank, an idea-honing space, to an outdoor work pad. He has a large work in progress there, “The Intelligence Tree.”

“Art gave me courage again,” he said.

Williams, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., wants to harness what making it has done for him — art as healing, art as work, art as community — and help other hurting veterans tap its benefits.

To that end he is developing the Endowment for Veterans Arts Campaign, which includes and plans for a downtown art space with free studios for veterans. It’s an ambitious agenda. Courageous, even.

Williams felt pretty fearless early on.

After graduating from Rockhurst High School, he planned to pursue a firefighting career. He heard military experience would help him advance on the waiting list. But after joining the Marines, he knew he had found a new love and decided on a military career.

Going to Iraq didn’t scare him. It was early in 2006, and he was eager to finally put his physical training and weapons-systems knowledge to the test.

Although he hadn’t exactly romanticized what that would be like, downtime loomed larger than imagined — about 80 percent boredom and 20 percent action. Sometimes 90-10, he said.

Stationed at an airfield, Williams and his buddies staged camel spider fights and drove golf balls from the tops of hangars into the desert. They learned not to collect the balls afterward: “Hey (expletives),” an officer yelled, “that’s a minefield.”

But the active part of the job was crucial, loading bombs and maintaining weapons systems for combat aircraft, all in a harsh environment — heat, sandstorms, mortar attacks.

Williams was a “plane captain,” the person in charge of a jet’s readiness. The responsibility was huge, and he relished it.

“If you don’t do your job, it’s not that somebody might get hurt,” he said. “Somebody’s going to die.”

After Iraq, Williams entered an officer training program for enlisted Marines in Colorado. His hopes were high. This would be his life’s work.

“I’m an ambitious person,” he said. “I like to keep moving forward.”

But during a physical fitness test, just a quarter-mile into a run, his left ankle locked up, the left side of his body went numb.

Two years earlier, Williams had hurt his ankle handling supplies during Hurricane Katrina relief work. Just a pesky injury, he thought.

Not so. Advanced bone and nerve damage. Surgery after surgery followed, but doctors couldn’t fix it.

The fit, blond-haired, blue-eyed young man was accustomed to running eight miles a day. He had played on corps soccer teams in North Carolina.

But just that quickly, his career was ended. He was medically discharged in 2011.

The surgeries were rough — steel plates and screws, replacement tissue from cadavers — but the pain was debilitating. He became addicted to prescription painkillers.

“I was 24 at the time, and I got into this dark place. My life was over.

“I just start taking pain pills — that’s how I tried to end it.”

Williams survived the suicide attempt and sought help. He was sent to a rehabilitation center for military personnel in Colorado Springs.

“Treatment made me realize how I was getting all caught up in my head,” he said. “And I realized I wasn’t the only one going through this.”

Hardly. He met other addicted military folks with injuries, with post-traumatic stress syndrome, with a host of personal troubles.

And he met veterans who hadn’t “transitioned” to civilian life. They were somebodies in the military, but now they were nobodies.

Williams felt he understood all of that.

Something else dawned on him: Through it all, his sketchbook had been his tether.

Always artistic, Williams had been the kind of person who sketched to make sense of what was in front of him and of what was going on inside his head. Especially in the bleakest of times.

Williams had practiced his artistry in Iraq. He created a new “Death Jesters” logo for his unit and painted murals.

In fact, in his seven years in the Marines, he had known many enlisted artists. They spent time drawing, photographing, even creating sculpture from found objects, including gun clips.

“These guys might not have thought of it as art, but it was creative,” he said. “It was the most passionate art there is.”

After his discharge, Williams sought help through the Veterans Administration and other veterans organizations to pursue an art degree, but he felt stymied. He was told to major in business, something “sustainable.”

He knew that wouldn’t make him happy. He applied on his own to KCAI, was accepted and began there in 2012. He will graduate with a sculpture degree in May.

One of Williams’ large works, “Modern Day Atlas” is on display outside Oak Tree Mansion guesthouse at 43rd and Oak streets. “The Intelligence Tree” will sprout video surveillance cameras — a tree that doesn’t impart information but gathers it.

All the welding and grinding required for big sculpture could seem tedious, but to Williams it’s meditative, focused and fulfilling.

Still in constant pain, he walks with a cane — he had his seventh surgery last fall — but sculpting brings a kind of relief.

“It hurts like hell all of the time,” he said, “but when I’m in the foundry, working on metal, I end up forgetting for a while how bad it hurts.”

To launch EVAC, which will have his full attention after graduation, Williams got advice from the Kauffman Foundation and others. He wants veterans to know that art can help them to heal. And with thousands of art-related jobs in the Kansas City area, art might even be a career. is a place where veterans can showcase and sell their art. A related nonprofit venture called Operation Art will help veterans access therapeutic and education resources, to show them how to build a portfolio and apply to art schools.

His plan for the establishment of a downtown art center is to charge fees for artist space to subsidize studio time for disabled veterans. He also wants to offer an artist residency program for them.

Jill Downen, assistant professor of sculpture at KCAI, sees Williams’ plans as nothing less than “profound.”

When Downen met Williams his first year, she said, he introduced himself as a veteran and quickly displayed a deep perspective and world experience of a nontraditional student.

It was clear that art for him was “truly an anchor of meaning in a chaotic world,” she said.

Art and war have many links. Downen recalled that the surrealism movement grew partly out of the experiences of World War I. Its founder, Andre Breton, worked with victims of shell shock, a precursor to our understanding of PTSD.

“Artists have a drive to create, and when you combine that drive with a purpose to make a difference in culture and to heal people,” she said, “that’s one way art takes on a function to meet deep human needs.”

Ultimately for many veterans, Williams said, art offers the injured and the isolated membership in a family outside the military.

“Art allowed me to start talking to people again,” he said. “I learned how to be a part of another family. That’s big for veterans, that there are other families for us to join.

“I really want to help teach veterans (that) you are not alone with this.”

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to On Twitter @eeveld.