Artists in Arms Help Houston Veterans Find Their Creative Side

Artists in Arms Help Houston Veterans Find Their Creative Side
Photo by Joshua Templeton

Throughout the interview, Earl “Chan” Smith dodges calling himself an artist like it’s a rattlesnake in the bluebonnets, sounding almost afraid to name himself that. However, there’s no other word that captures what he does. Smith repurposes dollar store dollhouses and other items to create intricate, gothic mix-media pieces and dioramas that look like something out of Beetlejuice. Under his hand, the banal and plastic becomes heavy with history and a touch of ruin. The work is incredibly delicate for such a big man, and people who see it have to get in very close to appreciate the attention to detail.

Thanks to the Houston non-profit, Artists in Arms, he’s found a community of fellow veterans who want to share the camaraderie of the barracks with the desire to create something. Smith is the latest board member.

“I’ve been in art therapy before, but I didn’t want someone to ask me about my feelings while I was working,” says Smith. “I just love being around other veterans who are makers of stuff. It was validating to have people see what I was doing and consider it creation.”

Artists in Arms was founded by Joshua and Amelia “Mali” Templeton, two high school friends that joined the marines separately and then found themselves married. After Mali left the military, she pursued her second love of working the tech side of theater. Unfortunately, after Hurricane Harvey’s destruction of the Alley Theatre then the shuttering of stage during COVID, she found herself with a lot of passion and nothing to do with it. That’s when she and Joshua started Artists in Arms. 

“Why doesn’t this exist?” says Joshua. “Houston has one of the largest veteran populations in the U.S., some 300,000. There wasn’t anything addressing the arts. Everything is focusing on trauma and finding a career. Why can’t we do both?”

The non-profit started small. Mali, Joshua, and their fledgling board hosted monthly gatherings that would include workshops and creative pastimes. The first one was at the Senate Avenue Brewery in Jersey Village, fitting as popular legend holds that the Marine Corps itself was started in a bar.

Since then, it’s grown into a series of forward operating galleries, essentially pop-up art shows starring the veterans they’ve recruited. In 2023, the team built an art car called Sgt. Bubbles, a sedan/tank that incorporated an incredible amount of bubble guns.

Joshua is aware that most people don’t think of “artist” and “veteran” as the same thing. He points out that Edgar Allen Poe served, as did Walt Whitman and Bob Ross.

“Art and the warrior spirit are so connected throughout history,” he says. “Warriors have always used art to connect with people when it comes to battles and hunts, to find solace in the chaos of conflict. At some point, that got pushed aside, but it goes all the way back to cave paintings.” 

One gallery owner who has embraced Artists in Arms is Julie Verville of Ardest Gallery. She was already doing veteran art shows when she stumbled across the non-profit. They were an immediate fit, and she is proud to host them in her space.

“It’s been a struggle, honestly, to, one, find veteran artists who admit they are veterans on their artist pages. There are considerably more artists that have served than you know. Second, there is a stigma about what men and woman can and can’t do after their time in the military. They need our support and our community. It’s a bridge for them into civilian life, to find something meaningful, give back, and to heal.” 

Joshua also highlights the way this helps veterans re-adapt to civilian life. Many military personnel find the transition from the intense, close-knit unit groups to the relatively isolated civilian world jarring, and most orgs are more focused around finding work.

“We did things with other organizations, and we’d ask, ‘what do you need?’” says Joshua. “Overwhelmingly, the need was camaraderie. We have veterans who didn’t really fit in anywhere.”

This weekend, Artist in Arms will host a massive crawfish boil fundraiser at the Senate Avenue Brewery. Their goal is to fund art crates (called supply drops) for locally under-funded schools. It’s one more mission that brings the community together in a way that fosters community with the veterans.

For those like Smith who have embraced the organization, it’s very much welcome. He turned a room in his house into an art studio where he and his wife, watercolorist Amy Allen-Smith, create together. They look forward to the monthly events where people express interest in his work. 

“Some veteran meetups are just a bunch of guys pounding their chests and running upstairs to prove they still can,” he says. “That makes my wife uncomfortable, and my knees are bad. I needed something that fit me where I am. I enjoyed the military, but that chapter is closed. I like when people see what I make and really get down to examine the details. That’s what feels good.”