AUGUSTA — An acoustic guitar is doing for Will Kelly what pain medication couldn’t.

Kelly, a U.S. Navy veteran who uses a wheelchair and said he has had 21 major surgeries, said he can’t take pain medications because he’s fatally allergic to them, so he needed another way to deal with his physical and mental pain.

Last year he picked up the guitar after not playing it in about 35 years, and every week he gathers with other residents at VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus to jam. Playing music, songwriting, going to church and exercising are Kelly’s medicine.

“I’m still here,” said Kelly, 59. “They told me I’d never make ’04.”

Kelly took the stage on Friday evening with his nursing assistant and a Togus volunteer to play “House of the Rising Sun” as part of the VA Maine Creative Arts Festival at the Augusta Civic Center.

More than 40 veterans took part in the festival, which included visual arts, performing arts and creative writing.

Liz Coumaras Marrone, recreation therapist at Togus, said the hospital has hosted small art shows in the past, but they were able to organize something much larger this year with the help of the Maine American Legion Auxiliary.

The American Legion Auxiliary cooperates with the Department of Veterans Affairs on the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, and last year Maine’s auxiliary traveled to the national show in Boston.

Augusta resident Deb Raymond, a member of the auxiliary’s creative arts committee, said they were impressed and inspired by the breadth, quality and emotional impact of the work they saw in Boston.

“The effect of performing on the performers was visible,” Raymond said. “You could see people pulling themselves through some bad places, and that’s powerful.”

So they decided to co-sponsor a Maine festival. The submissions were judged, with the possibility of advancing to the national festival next year.

Marrone said the show allowed the veterans to be recognized for the work they produce year-round as a therapeutic activity.

Art therapy helps veterans gain self-confidence, Marrone said, and they don’t let physical limitations stop them. One of the artists in the show paints by holding a brush in his mouth.

“I’ve seen people who are hesitant to join things come out of their shell and join a supportive community of other veterans,” she said. “They thought they were alone, and now they know they’re not.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]

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