Tuesday, February 27, 2024

'Life is a cartoon' for Mike Scovel: Vietnam veteran finds healing through comedic art


For many artists, painting, drawing or sculpting is a source of healing — a type of therapy that can cure the mind, body and soul.

Art can be used to assist in mental health treatment, helping individuals process feelings, cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and manage anxiety or depression.

From abstract to nature, every artist has a type of subject matter they feel resonates the best with their personality and type of character. For Mike Scovel, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, humorous art goes hand in hand with his jovial, high-spirited demeanor.

For more than 40 years, Scovel has been working for Leanin’ Tree, designing and drawing funny greeting cards for occasions like birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas.

Many of Scovel’s inspirations for the cards come to him during his trips with his wife, Dusti, who is the executive director of Mission Granbury.

“We have a lot of good talks about certain events or things that we see going down the road while we're traveling, and then all of a sudden, the punch line will come to us or a situation. We say, ‘That would make a good card.’ ‘OK, let me write that down,’” Mike said.

He said he loves knowing that his cards are making a difference in people’s lives.

“We had a lady write this big, long letter to us and she was thanking us for doing the cards because her sister had been in a nursing home for years and had closed down and didn't talk to anybody, didn't say anything for years,” Mike said. “Somebody brought her one of those cards and she just started laughing and talking. It just really made me feel like it was worth something, worth doing because every once in a while, as an artist, you don't know if you’re just being selfish and doing it for yourself, or should you quit ... and then something like that happens like, ‘Well, maybe I'm doing all right. Maybe I accomplished something,’ — at least with one piece anyways.”

Mike recently started studying the art technique of legendary Dutch painter Rembrandt, following the 17th-century artitst’s style of using earth colors, light and shade and incorporating his own animated style, turning two paintings into a unique work of comedic art.

“Life is a cartoon,” he said. “You got to keep laughing, because if you don't, then it makes you cry.”

One piece of art that Mike struggled with emotionally was a sculpture he created of Roy Benavidez back in 2002 in Cuero (south of San Antonio). Benavidez was an Army master sergeant who received a Medal of Honor in 1968 for his brave combat action in Vietnam.

“It was really heart wrenching because he wasn't around anymore. He had died by then, so I had to work off of photographs and family memories and having him there in the studio, once I sculpted his face, it almost came alive for me,” he said.

Mike said it felt like Benavidez and his father were both there with him that night, adding to the emotions that he was feeling while sculpting.

“It was kind of spooky because my dad had a certain cigar that he liked to smoke. So, when I was doing the sculpture, I smelled that cigar, and he had been dead for five years. It dawned on me that this was dad's way of being there,” he said, with a slight smile. “When I do (art) that's that emotional, then something like that always happens. When I feel like I need them, they're there.”

Mike has created several sculptures over the years, including two at Memorial Lane Park in Granbury. The “Homage to a Compatriot” statue features a black Lab dog bowing its head at the military cross for fallen military. The sculpture was inspired by Scovel’s own black Lab that he calls “the best dog that I have ever had.” The second statue, “Tears for the Fallen,” features a sculpture of a little girl bowing her head and holding a folded U.S. flag. A granddaughter of Julia Pannell (who is chairman of Friends of Memorial Lane) served as a model for that sculpture.

Mike was in the Army from 1968 to 1971. While serving in Vietnam, he was the company artist, Company A, of the 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division.

“I painted pictures on the front of our helicopter’s nose, and then everybody wore a pocket patch that I designed with our company insignia,” he said. “Then I did another one. Our call sign was a chicken and so, I designed this drunk chicken. A guy called me up here a couple years ago saying ‘I just got this helicopter that I'm putting back together. Could you paint that chicken on my helicopter?’ I went up there last summer and we spent about a week painting that chicken again on that helicopter. That was a lot of fun.”

When Mike returned from Vietnam in 1971, he worked as an animator, and created animated television commercials in Savannah, Georgia — but he longed to be a serious Western artist.

“I like doing serious work, but then it kind of balances my sanity because I can only do serious for so long and then I get a little bit too weird,” he said, with a chuckle. “I can do a (funny) painting and it balances things out and brings my personality back to where it's not so serious.”

His favorite subjects to paint are Western and wildlife. When asked how many paintings he has done over the years, Mike simply said, “I quit keeping record because it was ruining all my fun and creativity.” However, he estimates that he has created “upwards of more than 1,000.”

Mike’s home and art studio in Clifton features a wall of landscape and nature paintings, including one that he considers his favorite.

“This here's my great-uncle Fud, my grandmother's brother,” Mike said, holding a painting depicting life in Alaska, where his great-uncle Floyd Avery lived for 20 years. “What an adventure that guy lived. He was a trapper and he was a postmaster. He delivered mail on dogsled and he was a commercial fisherman. He lived by himself out there in a cabin down below the Mallee. What a view to wake up to in the morning with Mount McKinley back there.”

Mike said he can stare at a blank canvas for three or four days until an inspiration appears in his mind, noting that some people expect him to fall asleep during his “boring process.”

"It's boring to everybody else, but my mind is just flaring,” he said. “It's just, when you can start seeing things and start putting stuff together and when you're done, you feel accomplished; that's just the therapeutic part. Once it all starts taking shape, then the therapy is over with and I can start to work.”

Mike views art as his therapy. He explained that he still experiences triggers, which will put him back in Vietnam at a second’s notice.

“The triggers are always going to be there somewhere,” he said. “I can smell something or hear a helicopter 20 miles off and it'll trigger something. I did a painting of our unit of helicopters, four or five helicopters coming in formation and coming into a hot landing zone, so everybody was shooting at them in this painting, and that was a little difficult for me, but I was glad I did it because it got that out of me that I've kept suppressed for a long time.

“Any combat vet, anybody that's been near a combat area, they're all gonna have PTSD. I'm always back in Vietnam; it's just a matter of trying to deal with it and finding different ways to deal with it.”

For more of Mike’s sculptures and paintings, go online to mikescovel.com.