From Air Force to art teacher

Art therapy sessions soothe patients, encourage confidence

The artist's pupils come to him eager and smiling. Or they come silent and reluctant, their stares shouting anger or annoyance or apathy.

He helps them get seated in front of their easels and paints. Some are in wheelchairs, and some are paralyzed from the neck down -- not that that is going to stop them from creating.

Charles "Bud" Donaldson, 80, has been running art therapy classes at assisted living and healthcare facilities in Pleasanton and Livermore for about 11 years.

His students' artwork, as well as some of his own, will be on display at the Oct. 10 artwalk in downtown Livermore.

The Livermore resident and Air Force veteran said he has seen the positive effects of art therapy firsthand, watching patients who wouldn't communicate with anyone become chatterboxes and others who felt isolated due to their conditions leave class with smiles on their faces.

"It brings patients out of their shells," Donaldson added. "It builds confidence."

Patricia Rawlings, activity director at Parkview Assisted Living and Memory Care in Pleasanton, said Donaldson's classes brighten residents' days.

"He's just a happy, positive person," she said. "I hear them giggling, hear them laughing. I hear them sharing their own stories."

Art therapy is open to all, regardless of talent or perceived ability. Donaldson said he's had students paint with their mouths because they are paralyzed from the neck down, and students who'd never finished a painting in their lives can have a piece to show their families.

The subjects are as varied as the individuals themselves.

Snow scenes, seascapes and mountain views pepper the hallway where many patients' artwork is displayed at the Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facility in Livermore. Others painted images of Jesus on a mountain, a woman lounging on the ground and classic still life paintings of flowers in a vase.

One man painted a tiny angel in the corner of each painting -- a reminder that all his work is in memory of his late wife.

Some patients give the art as gifts to their loved ones. Others have even sold their work to enthusiastic buyers.

One military veteran told Donaldson he didn't want to try to paint because he couldn't stop shaking, but he slowly realized he could still create even if his hand wouldn't cooperate. The veteran would go on to sell his first painting.

"He gave (the money) to his wife, and he said, 'Now you don't have to ask the kids for money,'" Donaldson recalled. "It made him feel like a man again."

Like some of his students, Donaldson found his passion for painting in his later years.

He served in the Air Force for 23 years as a navigator and was sent to Vietnam for a year to serve on a gun ship. He retired from the military in 1978 and went to work for Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale as a system engineer. He retired from his 19-year career in 1997 and moved to Livermore.

It was about three decades ago, while still working full-time, he started taking painting classes and found a catharsis in the creative process.

Donaldson said he always knew he wanted to try painting but never dedicated time to pursuing the hobby. "It's always been in the back of my mind," he said.

He tried his hand at a different type of art instead while serving in the Air Force: music. He learned to play the guitar when he was off-duty, and during the year he served in Vietnam, he'd strum away to calm his nerves.

Donaldson said he finally summoned up the courage to try to learn a new skill when he was 50, deciding to take oil painting lessons from a 19-year-old he knew.

Before he knew it, he said, he'd become a teacher himself.

"I tell people I have more guts than talent," he joked.

His foray into art therapy started after he moved to Livermore in 1997. He started assisting with an existing art therapy program at the VA Palo Alto Health Care's Livermore facility after some encouragement from a former work acquaintance.

He became the head instructor for the VA's art classes in 2004 and expanded his work to twice-a-month classes at Eden Villa Assisted Living and Parkview Assisted Living and Memory Care in Pleasanton in the late 2000s.

Donaldson also started a band at the VA hospital to entertain patients with classic songs like "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" and military anthems.

In 2012, he was selected for a national Jefferson Award for Public Service for his art therapy and music programs.

Donaldson said he was never quite sure what he wanted to do in retirement, but now he's found his passion.

"I'm right where I should be," he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Robert Scnimmel
a resident of another community
on Sep 28, 2015 at 2:05 pm

Way to go, Mr. Donaldson! Such a valuable gift and hope you are sharing and teaching. God bless you and your "students."

Like this comment
Posted by Linda
a resident of Carriage Gardens
on Sep 28, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Thank You Bud: Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by Bud Donaldson
a resident of Livermore
on Sep 28, 2015 at 4:07 pm

I loved your article and I must say that the Art & Music programs at the VA Community Living Center (CLC) would not be the success it has become with the many Art and Music Volunteers who have helped over these years. Most of all the many Veterans with their challenges who had the courage to try something new in their lives. Also with the help of the VA staff and many organizations with all their donations. We all would love to see you at the Art Walk in Livermore on Oct 10th from 11am-5pm. Thank you Meredith Bauer for your wonderful article. Bud Donaldson

2 people like this
Posted by Cayla
a resident of Livermore
on Sep 30, 2015 at 7:02 pm

That's MY Papa!! I am so proud of all the work you do. I am truly blessed to have a role model like you in my life. Maybe you can come teach my little students one day!! Love you! :)

Like this comment
Posted by Ricky Moll
a resident of Happy Valley
on Oct 3, 2015 at 2:46 pm

My Uncle Bud showed up while I was in Marine Bootcamp at MCRD SanDiego, in his Air Force Lt. Col Uniform in 1976! I went to hug him and He said "Salute Me", which saved me from bends and thrusts forever and ever Ready - begin! My drill instructor later told me that just because my Uncle Bud was "An Officer Fly Boy" that I shouldn't expect preferential treatment! I graduated honor grad, squad leader, and a lucky Marine to serve during Peace Time, and to have such a loving, caring, and best Uncle a guy could have! Your Love and Spirit melt my heart.

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