His medium is metal.
From a sheet of sanded aluminum, the faces of combat soldiers captivate attention. Rushing into battle. Hefting a wounded comrade on a stretcher. Kneeling in front of a cross draped with the dog tags of a fallen friend, a funeral-folded flag at the forefront.
Austin Waggoner calls the work “The Cost of Freedom,” and recently the piece took top honors at the 2020 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Florida.
“I wanted to show the cycle of a combat soldier’s life,” Waggoner said.
It’s a life he knows intimately.
Waggoner, a medically retired Army veteran, served multiple combat tours while on active duty between 1996 and 2013.
He served as a forward observer, with combat tours to Iraq in 2004 and again during 2009-10. Waggoner also deployed to combat zones in Afghanistan from 2011-12, and participated in a United Nations peacekeeping mission to Kosovo during 2001-02.
“I loved what I did,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a soldier. It was a calling for me.”
Like many veterans he found adapting to civilian life difficult.
“The military was my life, my identity,” he said.
He’d lost many friends in combat or to suicide, and survived four IED explosions, the last one in Afghanistan on his birthday.
“I’m still haunted by things I saw and experienced.”
As a child, he’d dreamed of becoming an illustrator, and that latent love of art became the key to processing his experiences and unlocking the door to a new calling.
He’d honed his creative skills when he became a tattoo artist while in the military.
“I got a bad tattoo, and I knew I could do better,” he explained.
So, he worked as a tattoo artist in Spokane, and graduated from an automotive program at Spokane Community College. But a Facebook photo posted by a fellow Army veteran Hank Robinson led him to his current passion.
Waggoner said as he gazed at a picture of a truck custom engraved by Robinson, “a light went on.”
“He’d engraved the truck with military imagery – it was so powerful,” Waggoner recalled.
He immediately went out and bought a Dremel, a high-performance rotary tool, and started experimenting with techniques.
Taking a sheet of aluminum, he sands the surface, coats it with black spray paint, and heat cures it. He uses a paper template to prick out the image, and then uses a Dremel on the metal, stippling the surface at varying depths of to create different tones.
Waggoner has completed projects for the Combat Vet Riders and Newby-ginnings, a regional nonprofit started by Gold Star Mother Theresa Hart in honor of her son, Nicholas Newby. That piece was part of his “Honor the Fallen” series.
He began working on “The Cost of Freedom,” as a live demonstration last year at Lone Wolf Harley-Davidson’s Military Appreciation Day, and spent approximately 500 hours on the project, completing it the week before Christmas.
“It’s the first piece I ever created for myself,” Waggoner said.
At the urging of Robinson, he entered it in the Veteran Affairs’ Creative Arts Festival.
“This is better than therapy for me,” Waggoner said. “Honestly, when I’m working it’s one of the few times throughout the day when I can shut my brain off and focus on the process of what I’m creating.”
That’s exactly why Chelsey Pangborn, recreational therapist at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center values the VA’s annual Creative Arts Festival.
“Art can help vets become comfortable and confident because it offers them a way to express themselves,” said Pangborn. “There are no boundaries in art.”
The Creative Arts Festival starts at the local level and features four categories; visual arts, music, dance and drama. Pangborn coordinated the local show at the VA.
“We’re one of two VAs in Washington that does it,” she said. “The American Legion Auxiliary is the main sponsor, and they do the judging.”
Pangborn said veterans can begin creating their art now for next year’s show slated for February.
Waggoner won first place in his category and Best in Show at the local event. First-place winners are entered in the national competition, where he took the top prize in his category.
His win didn’t surprise Pangborn.
“I started tearing up when I saw it (‘The Cost of Freedom’),” she recalled.
That’s exactly the response Waggoner hoped to evoke.
“I wanted people to look at this and have an emotional reaction,” he said. “I’ve been at every point of the picture.”
Word is getting out about his talent. Waggoner was recently featured in an article and photo spread in Deville Magazine.
While he appreciates the national recognition of his art, it still doesn’t compare to what he considers his most important work.
“I’m so proud to be one of the fortunate people who put on a uniform and served their country,” he said.
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