Paintbrush in hand, Army veteran Shawn Augustson turns his bipolar depression and post-traumatic stress into something ‘bright and happy and beautiful to me.’
Some things are hard for Shawn Augustson to talk about. At the top of his list is the time he served in Iraq, from 2004 to 2006, working convoy security throughout the Sunni Triangle as a sergeant in the U.S. Army.
Augustson wouldn’t receive a diagnosis of bipolar I with psychosis—triggered, he was told, by his experiences overseas—for another 13 years. After returning home to his wife and four children in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, symptoms such as self-isolation, hypervigilance, and dark thoughts were categorized as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and major depressive disorder.
It was during a psychiatric hospitalization that an art therapist launched Auguston’s fervent interest in creative expression, an outlet he uses to this day to cope with painful emotions and mood episodes.
“I was like, ‘Wow, there’s something powerful to art and healing,’” he recalls. “I started using watercolors, pastels, acrylics, oils. I experimented with it all.”
He has since gained recognition for his paintings, which have been featured in the Columbus Museum of Art and the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. His first solo show, at the Hayley Gallery in New Albany, Ohio, was held in November 2021.
Augustson refers to his work as “post-traumatic expression.” (He even copyrighted and trademarked the term.)
Making art “grounds me, evens me out,” he reflects. “I can put my depression onto the canvas and create beauty out of it.”
‘It’s all about the emotions’
Augustson, 48, worked as a golf pro after leaving the Army. He loves the sport, but the anxiety he felt while teaching or working at the pro shop drove him to miss lessons and self-medicate with alcohol. The position was filled during his hospitalization. Anxiety also drove him from a later job as a security guard at a retirement home.
He credits his wife with supporting their family both financially and emotionally—stepping up for their children, now ages 17 to 24, when he couldn’t be present for them.
“My wife has handled a lot of things. Sometimes, if there’s an event they’re doing, she reminds me, ‘I know you don’t feel great now, but it’s important to go because they want you there,’” he says.
As he became more open about sharing how he’s feeling, he’s seen a positive effect on the family.
“There are times where I am manic and have to say, ‘I need to slow down,’ or I feel depressed and have to say, ‘I am sad,’” Augustson explains. “My being open and talking and showing how I am dealing with struggles has transferred over to our kids.
“They will tell us if they are struggling with something … instead of keeping it to themselves, or thinking we would not understand. I feel it helps them to know we all have struggles and can talk about it or seek help.”
Augustson’s own help-seeking includes cognitive behavorial therapy (CBT) and “guided meditation with my doctor,” he reports, adding: “I actually like that the most.”
He appreciates the fact that he can also do guided meditations on his own, and thinks it works so well for him because of his ability to visualize things in great detail.
“A lot of my paintings are done that way, in some aspects. I walk around the painting in my mind and then use it as a sort of map to do the actual painting,” he reflects.
When he’s not bicycling or hiking, he often can be found in his home studio. It’s the first place he heads every morning, relaxing with a cup of coffee and reading from the Bible before approaching his current canvas.
Completed pieces crowd his studio and adorn walls throughout his home, with overflow stored in closets and the basement. His style is impressionistic, sometimes a bit abstract.
“I am not a realistic painter. For me, it’s all about the emotions,” he says.
That’s one of the reasons many of his works have red in the background, even if just a bit. The color represents whatever difficulty Augustson is facing at the moment—whether that’s a distressing memory from Iraq or a day when depression has taken hold.
“So that’s the negative, and I put it on the canvas and leave it there,” he says. “But I’m not into gory and shock-and-awe depictions, so then I turn it into something bright and happy and beautiful to me.”
A new lens
Auguston has little formal art training. Discovering a nonprofit organization called Creativets, whose mission is to empower wounded veterans to heal through the arts and music, led to him attending a three-week program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He had a chance to study pottery, ceramics, painting, drawing, and photography.
He was able to “give back” through Creativets this past summer, traveling to Nashville for three days to teach an art workshop to veterans.
Photography opened up his horizons in more ways than one, Augustson recalls. When leaving the house was a struggle, he took pictures inside his home and around his yard. He brought his camera along when he was able to walk the dog, stroll in the evening with his wife, or, eventually, venture into local parks.
“I started thinking, ‘This photo would make a good painting as well,’ so I started having reference photos for myself,” he says. “And that led to going downtown where there were lots of people, taking pictures of everyday life.
“I would see someone smiling or laughing and think ‘I wish I could be more like that.’ That’s what would catch my eye.”
Whatever the medium he’s using, Auguston’s studio has been his refuge from both depression and mania. With mania in particular, he says, his art is a natural regulator.
“When I can’t keep up with my thoughts and there are ideas bounding all over the place, I tell myself, ‘I can very easily whip this painting out,’” he explains. “But rather than just going with that, and fueling the mania, I’m trying to practice slowing things down. Then I’m better able to express what I’m feeling.”
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What works for Shawn Auguston
STICKERS Augustson found a company online to make custom stickers shaped like a stop sign displaying the outline of a brain he drew along with the word “THINK!” He places the yellow stickers in his car, on the easel in his studio, and other places he tends to move too fast. The visual reminder “helps me kind of slow down and evaluate the situation,” he says. “Then I can think about whether what I’m thinking about doing is a good idea or not.”
HOLY WRIT Reading a Bible verse each morning helps Augustson set the tone for the rest of the day. Once his wife is awake, they take communion at home together. “It helps me to start off in the right mindset,” he says.
FURRY COMPANION His service dog, a Belgian Malinois named Roo, helps Augustson distinguish between reality and psychosis when he is severely manic. If he is hallucinating, for example, “if she doesn’t react, then it’s not real,” he explains. “That calms me down.”
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