Our Veteran Artist Spotlight for the month of August shines on the wonderful Belena Marquez!

Maj (Ret) Belena Stuart Marquez commissioned into the United States Air Force in 2008 from the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin College. She served as a Public Affairs officer until her retirement in 2021. Her notable assignments include deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, serving as the Media Operations Officer for Air Force Special Operations Command, and work for the Secretary of the Air Force’s Public Affairs Plans and Strategies Division. Notable decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, and is currently petitioning for the award of the Purple Heart Medal due to injuries she received in combat.

Belena was featured in the CBAW and HBO Documentary Films, We Are Not Done Yet (2018), and the collaborative performances; More Than One Story (CBAW / Military Women’s Memorial, 2021) and Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser (Theater of War / Poetry In America / CBAW, 2022).  She is a visual artist, writer, poet, and performer. She is currently spending her time healing, writing and supporting her local community through acts of service.

Recently, our own Ashy Palliparambil sat down for a discussion with Belena about her art, writing, healing, and her creative process. Read the whole interview below.

Belena Marquez Painting
What medium (or form) do you work in and what is your process when making art?
My paintings are abstract. I explore different mediums and enjoy going straight to the canvas. I am not methodical and don’t make plans. Instead, I paint my feelings at that moment. I mix colors on the fly and choose brushes and different tools to get different effects. I like having different textures and paint. Sometimes I use high flow paint, and other times I use heavy body paint. I surround myself with all my materials, and then, as I’m feeling it, I’ll put down my base color. From that color, I adjust my palette to represent what I’m feeling. I make sure to move my body so I can get the feelings out.
Belena Marquez Painting
What type of writing do you enjoy, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, etc.?
I appreciate the ambiguity of poetry. I get into a state of flow when I create poetry. What I create does not have to be linear, because healing is not linear. Similar to art making, I can go back and reflect on what I was thinking and feeling while I created it.

When I read my poetry, I ask myself “What are my impressions?” and “What can I take moving forward?”. I can then do a remix of this poem, read it differently, or leave it the way it is. Sometimes I have something boiling in the back of my mind, and I get words, phrases, or a sense of what I’m going to write. It boils until it’s ready to be born. When it’s ready to be born, I sit down and write. The words just flow out. Then I come back to edit and “Frankenstein” them into a poem.

What is your favorite quote about art (or about life)?
It changes day to day. When you’re carrying someone else’s words with you, you are relating to that person, taking on some of their mentality and energy for your day. I don’t ever have one single quote about life or poetry. I almost always have some lines of something that I have heard or read running in the back of my mind. And the world around me inspires me to think of different poems and quotes. I think of E. E. Cummings when I think of or look at my husband. When I look at my yard, I may think of another poem or song lyrics. I never set out to memorize specific lines, but certain things crop up. Everyone says “walk to the beat of your own drum.” I’m actually marching to the beat of many different drums depending on the tempo of my day.

Belena Marquez Painting
What experiences led you to writing poetry?
I took a poetry class in high school. I wrote a lot at that time and learned different techniques in the process. It is a really happy memory from my childhood. I have a little notebook of all of my poetry from that time and some of them are so cringe-worthy, but I still love them. In college, I would preface my essays with short stories for my favorite English teacher. During this time, I learned how to analyze poetry and interpret it for myself. Later on, I worked in public affairs where writing was for newspaper articles, and media engagement. Very different from poetry.

When I returned from Afghanistan, I struggled with PTSD and was in an intensive outpatient program seeking help with other combat veterans.

They offered a grab bag of different opportunities to help us heal including writing with Seema Reza. She explained that we would try some therapeutic writing, reassuring us that it was not writing therapy. She explained how writing had saved her life, and how significant it was for us to write what and how we feel with the words we have. The way that we would choose to arrange our words and intentions behind them would make it special and authentic. It was empowering.

I felt like I was not a writer and could not do it myself. But I eventually realized that everyone has words inside of them just waiting to come out and be expressed. There certainly was fear, and sometimes wondering if the words were deserving of existence. But I realized what I create is authentic, not something that anyone else could do for me, and it would automatically make these words and my writing deserving of existence.

Seema also explained that it was better to write about something hard and true, and not share it. Rather than write something that seems socially acceptable, and then do share it. The emphasis was on sharing your own truths unapologetically. Only I can speak about my experiences with my own words, with my own music, with my own visual representations of how I interpret the world.

We read a poem together and she offered a prompt. I started writing, and it was such a cathartic moment. When I shared with the group, they all listened to my truths about what I saw, experienced, and felt. They made me feel like I wasn’t alone, and that moment of being able to articulate those hard experiences was liberating.

We spend so much of our lives constrained, trapped, and held down without realizing it when it comes to fully expressing ourselves. Being able to create something that expresses how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking is really special. These days, I may jot down things about my memories, my feelings, my hopes, and my wishes for the future. These words then turn into phrases in the back of my head waiting to be born into a poem.

Belena Marquez Painting
What journey led you to visual art?
When I was little, I tried to draw, and I was very, very bad at it. As I got a little older, I got better at certain styles, but not really. I don’t consider myself to have art skills, be able to draw or know color theory. One day after writing poetry, I went into the USO Art Room to hang out and wait for my husband.

I met my brother-from-another-mother, AV. He said, “Hey. Let’s do some art.” He brought out a lot of different art materials to explore and talked me through what they were used for. When he brought out the heavy body acrylic paints, that’s when I felt like I could do something. He reassured me not to worry about “wasting” materials. The materials were there to be used. The whole point of the art studio was for people to use the materials and make something.

I started putting paint on canvas, and it was such a stressful feeling at first. AV talked me through the process of not being scared to make something. After I finished my painting, he complimented me and I felt so much more confident.

The experience was calming, peaceful, and engaged all of my senses. What I created was visually stimulating, the paint had a certain smell, there was a certain way the brush felt against the canvas creating different textures, and the sound of art being made is a really cool experience. I’m in a little bubble where I can feel safe, relaxed, and let my worries go.

What is most cathartic for you, creating poetry or performing it?
Being able to read and share my poetry at an open mic means I have written everything that I want to write in that piece. It means that I have had a chance to edit and self-critique. I know what the final product is and how I am going to present it. I can emphasize certain words or add thought pauses. I have control.

A lot of my poetry looks at some traumatic moments in combat. It’s hard to think about and reflect on. You don’t want to deal with it anymore, but it still exists.

If I am going to share what I write with a group of people, I have to go back and read what I wrote, and I have to confront those things. I have to express my feelings in a way that others can understand me. The performance piece is the end goal after having confronted it. Then each time that I read a poem, I’m more in control of those words and I own that experience. The more times the poem is heard, the weaker the pain becomes. It no longer has the same power over me that it had before. Art and poetry help me to process. Sharing it with others is such an important part of my healing.

What medium or imagery is exciting for you right now? Or what are you reading now?
Right now, I’m really into nature because I’m in the desert, and my little Virginian heart misses trees. But it’s also interesting because there are a lot of different interplays between how things survive in this environment and the whole ecosystem that’s here. I’ve been reading a lot of articles and studying. It helps me when I make my other art because I like to try and evolve.

If I’m not growing myself, then I’m not growing my art. In the process of learning new things, I’m growing myself, and that opens me up to thinking about the world and my experiences in more creative ways.

Follow Belena on Instagram at @bsmarquez.

Belena Marquez Painting