Mufti VOL. 62 No. 1 April 2022

Renowned philosopher and author Alain de Botton believes that engaging with the visual arts can be therapeutic, providing us with solace, hope and reassurance. Art, he argues, has the capacity to rebalance us emotionally, whether it’s through the architecture that we inhabit, the music we listen to, or the visual art we observe. It can help us to “dignify suffering, develop empathy, laugh, nurture a sense of communion with others and regain a sense of justice and political idealism”.

For artist Kat Rae, art has always formed part of the solution when she sought to make sense of her own experiences, whether it was through creating works of her own, or immersing herself in the expressions of others.

Kat has always used art to help her make sense of her own experiences.
Kat has always used art to help her make sense of her own experiences.

While it was her constant companion and her calling, it wasn’t her first career. Kat remembers the moment her mother suggested that she enlist in the Australian Army.

“I was hanging up the washing one morning and my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Kat said.

"I told her I wanted to be an artist and she suggested I join the Army instead."

Kat laughs as she recalls the conversation.

“I thought I would appease her and apply and that my application would be too ‘arty’ to be accepted, but, to my surprise, I was accepted and I received a scholarship to go the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.”

And so began her 20-year full-time career in the Army.

Initially, it gave Kat the opportunity to pursue her passion for art and humanities completing a Bachelor Arts.

“That degree taught me how to think critically and gave me a good grounding in history.”

Following her officer training in Duntroon, a flurry of postings and postcodes ensued. Kat was posted to Tasmania, before relocating to Darwin. From there she was deployed to Kuwait.

“During my first overseas deployment I was in my early 20s and I was a Platoon Commander leading 40 people. We were the logistics hub for the Australian response for Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Then she went to Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, and back again to Afghanistan, where she helped war-fit armoured vehicles.

"I really enjoyed the experiences because it felt like we were making a difference. I met my late husband Andrew, who was also serving, and being in the Army became a career and a lifestyle."

Kat Rae

Kat extended her education, completing two master’s degrees, one in Engineering, Management and Logistics and the other in Military History and Defence Strategy.

In her late 30s, Kat’s life began to unravel. Her husband died from suicide.

“I kept serving for a few years, but I found it incredibly difficult as I had a senior position that demanded a lot of me when my capacity had reduced.

“In the end, I felt the cost of it all weighed too heavily on my young daughter.”

“I remember calling a friend, who was a veteran and is now a doctor, to ask his advice and he said: ‘You’ve always wanted to be an artist, why don’t you go back to it?’”

Kat had a chat to her boss. “I told him: ‘It’s time for me to leave, it’s been wonderful, but I just can’t keep doing it.

"He cried and I cried. Then, he told me he believed in what I was doing."

Kat Rae

Kat completed the Defence Force ADF Arts for Recovery, Resilience, Teamwork and Skills, which is for serving, transitioning members, as well as reservists and veterans who are experiencing health and wellbeing challenges related to service.

To mark the transition from her old life to her new one, Kat knew she needed a significant mental and physical challenge.

She set off on a pilgrimage — a 809-km walk across Spain known as the Camino de Santiago.

“It was the perfect way to say goodbye to the Army and hello to the Arts,” she said.

Some of Kat's art supplies.
Some of Kat's art supplies.

“When I returned from Spain, I had a big farewell party in Canberra and drove to Melbourne with my daughter.”

That was 2019, which unfortunately for Kat and her daughter, has meant she has spent most of the past two years in lockdown. However, notwithstanding the challenges, Kat said that starting a new career in the arts has been an incredibly enriching and rewarding experience.

One of Kat’s most captivating pieces is a series of linocuts, carved from her late husband’s military stencils. In her artist’s statement Kat remarks that when Andrew returned from Afghanistan he was a completely different man, lost among negative shapes and unable to resettle. Art has been helping her unpack the impact of the past few years on her life.

Kat said, “I have always painted and drawn, but I wanted to extend myself technically, so I am studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Printmaking.”

"I have always painted and drawn, but I wanted to extend myself technically, so I am studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Printmaking. The beautiful and egalitarian aspect of printing is that you are making more than one copy of your artwork, making it more accessible."

Kat Rae

Kat with a linoleum press.
Kat with a linoleum press.

"It’s also got a strong history of protest. After being in the Army for a long time and a difficult time in my personal life, which led to me being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is something really therapeutic about being able to regain your voice again through art."

Kat Rae

Many veteran artists find engaging with art as a way to work through their lived experience of service and personal challenges. One of the ways that some veterans use art to help heal is Art Therapy, a specialised area of mental health.

Conducted in a clinical setting, it combines counselling and visual art-making, or drama, dance or movement to address attitudes, thoughts and behaviours. A recent study by the University of South Australia (UniSA) reveals the impact of Art Therapy on the wellbeing and mental health of veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

Lead UniSA researcher Holly Bowen-Salter said she found Art Therapy can improve mood, outlook, behaviour, as well as confidence, personal relationships and self-awareness, which are essential to long-term understanding and healing.

One ADF veteran, who took part in her research said: “Art Therapy has given me a way of accessing and understanding my trauma. “It has enabled me to express it in a new visual language, so I can actually acknowledge it, see it and work with it."

“Before this, I had lots of things going on for which I had no language.”

The World Health Organization also recognises the role art can play in preventing poor mental health outcomes, while supporting recovery and rehabilitation.

It’s why Tanja Johnston, Head of Arts Programs at the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM), founded the veteran-led charity almost a decade ago.

“ANVAM promotes the wellbeing of the veteran community through the arts,” Ms Johnston said.

It is focused on arts engagement, an inclusive concept that covers everything from listening to music or taking photos to visiting an art gallery.

“Our role is to tune into the needs of individual veteran artists, whether it’s supporting or mentoring someone like Kat to start her tertiary education in arts, launching an album featuring veterans and their family members, or exhibiting and promoting the work of veteran artists.”

Kat Rae at home in her garden.
Kat Rae at home in her garden.

As for Kat, she would like to encourage all Australians to consider supporting veteran artists, whether it’s by commissioning them to do their next artwork, or by visiting an exhibition featuring their work.

It’s a powerful way to give back to those who have given so much, to so many.

As for veterans keen to embark on an artistic endeavours of their own, she urges them to be brave and to back themselves.

You can see Kat’s artwork here: Follow Kat on Instagram here: @kat_a_rae

If this article has raised any concerns for you, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. Veterans and their families can access free and confidential 24/7 support from Open Arms — Veterans and Families Counselling on 1800 011 046. The Safe Zone support line (1800 142 072) is an anonymous support line also operated by Open Arms. To access support through RSL Victoria please contact Veteran Central via 1300 MILVET (1300 645 838).