MSU Alumnus, U.S. Army Veteran Channels Artistry as Mental Health Intern

Greg Fricker wanted to go to art school but joined the U.S. Army when his father insisted. His dad was career military and said that no one ever made a living as an artist. With his aspirations redirected, Fricker enlisted straight out of high school and served for 20 years until multiple traumas thrust him back into civilian life.

Greg Fricker

Having grown up on a remote Alaskan Army base, Fricker adapted quickly to military culture. He did four tours of duty as a soldier and member of the military police from 1996 to 2016: two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, and one in an undisclosed location. Rising to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 2, he received the Ordnance Order of Samuel Sharpe for career service. But when he retired from the Army, he felt lost, adrift from the system that had defined him.

Seeking the comfort he had once found in drawing and painting, Fricker returned to art. Armed with pencils and brushes, he found ways to break down the barriers that kept him from forming lasting relationships. While earning his BFA in Studio Art at Michigan State University, he came to realize that if art could help him, it could help other veterans, too.

There aren’t a lot of organized programs to help vets adjust to being civilians. I want to use my studies and experiences to help.

Greg Fricker

Today, the MSU alumnus is working on his master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Wayne State University. Focused on art therapy, he’s been interning as a master’s clinician since May 2021 in MSU’s Counseling & Psychiatric Services, an open access, confidential service for the MSU students and community. His goal, he said, is to enter private practice and to treat trauma through art therapy, particularly with veterans.

“I did a lot of healing at MSU,” he said. “That played a part in my decision to come back and intern here. There aren’t a lot of organized programs to help vets adjust to being civilians. I want to use my studies and experiences to help.”

Every Picture Tells a Story

Fricker’s creative process is based on storytelling. He allows his unconscious mind to begin his paintings, and his conscious mind to finish. Throughout the process, he adds visual elements to create conflict and pairs images with symbols to impart dissonance. Using bright and distinctive colors, he layers and obscures, revealing some aspects while masking others. His choices follow a narrative as ideas surface and take shape. Eventually, he arrives at what he describes as the “emotional baggage” he is trying to release.

Jacquelynn Sullivan Gould, Director of Galleries and Outreach and Programming Coordinator in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design, met Fricker in 2016 when he was a student in her Art and Design Concept and Practice class. Even in a group of 100 students, he stood out as engaged and curious about his classmates’ work. Much of his work, she said, reflected his personal life, using layers of colors and figures to deliver a narrative.

Greg Fricker serving in Iraq in 2008.

“I sensed it was a very big change for him to come to art school,” Gould said. “The structure of our day-to-day was dramatically different from what he had been doing for some time and was something for him to adjust to.”

Fricker saw it another way. Rather than standing out artistically, he felt he stood out as boisterous, afraid, and sometimes overconfident. He described his first paintings in art school as super cliché, and when it came time to explain them, he would make up a lofty meaning of what they were about. Sometimes he felt like an imposter and felt people might turn away if he tried to describe his experiences and trauma through art.

Art removes having to stand in front of someone and talk. You can open the door as little or as much as you want with each artwork you make.

Harold Perkins, former Department of Art, Art History, and Design Instructor

“I was coding things,” he said. “I put on so many layers and only shared what I wanted. My painting would be good but buttoned up. That’s when I noticed I was less OK than I thought.”

In time, Fricker accepted input from his professors. They encouraged him to shed his resistance and open up. One instructor, in particular, understood. Harold Perkins recently had completed his MFA at MSU with an emphasis in sculpture and was working as a fixed-term instructor in 2017. He met Fricker in the hallway of Kresge Art Center when Fricker asked him about the U.S. Marines Reunion T-shirt he was wearing. Within minutes, they discovered they had served in Iraq during the same period.

One of Greg Fricker’s art pieces, titled “Path Not Taken.”

“Over time, we had some long discussions about where we had been and what art can do for you. A lot of vets don’t like to bring things out verbally,” Perkins said. “Art removes having to stand in front of someone and talk. You can open the door as little or as much as you want with each artwork you make. It’s like pulling back a curtain.”

Fricker said Perkins helped him externalize his feelings, which led him to realize the power he had at his fingertips to lay himself bare without having to use words. Through painting, he could express his trauma abstractly, making it more about art rather than something he experienced. It was a bridge that helped heal some of the pain.

“Discovering that ability has driven all my studies and goals since then,” Fricker said. “Art began to act as my desensitization. I could recall traumatic memories and communicate them. I could talk about them in ways I never could before.”

Strength in Surviving

Fricker said he was dually inspired by the bravery of the MSU Sister Survivors who spoke publicly about the abuse they experienced under Larry Nassar. He saw young women banding together, finding healing, and making change. While painful, he realized he could find the strength to confront his trauma, too, and maybe help other veterans deal with traumatic incidents in their lives. Gradually, Fricker began producing a body of work to fight experiences that kept him from being whole. By abstracting ideas on canvas, he felt he could avoid disrespecting or harming those he loved while addressing situations that caused him extreme pain and anger.

“There’s a benefit of using art for therapy,” he said. “You can set boundaries with the size and medium. You can set how abstract it will be. When you talk about your art, you’re not talking about you and the broken parts inside. You’re talking about an experience as the basis of the art. That’s therapeutic.”

Greg Fricker as a child in 1986 on the Alaskan Army Base where he grew up.

Since then, Fricker has borne down and confronted a period in his life he kept hidden for years — one that damaged and destroyed relationships and kept him from moving forward. He talks now about losing his best friend in combat and the guilt he felt for not being there at that particular moment. He mentions how he struggled, how he met an officer who said he understood how it felt to lose a friend in combat. Fricker confided, and in time, accepted a reassignment to join the officer’s post, only to be sexually assaulted by the very person he had trusted.

Confused and scared, Fricker doubted his value, his loyalty, his strength. He stayed silent, trying to convince himself he was OK, even though he wasn’t. He tried to transfer to other units with more combat, hoping he could die. Eventually, he found the courage to report and bring the person to justice.

There’s a benefit of using art for therapy. You can set boundaries with the size and medium. You can set how abstract it will be.

Greg Fricker

“I don’t think, if I didn’t have this space and chance to become who I am, that I would be here right now,” Fricker said. “I’m in a stable and loving relationship now and helping people, but it’s still scary to see how close I was to quitting. Because of the people in the MSU [Department of Art, Art History, and Design] and the women who came forward to talk about what they went through, I have been OK to not be OK and to feel things.”

Fricker now makes his home in Holt with his wife, Courtney, also an Afghanistan veteran and a 2018 MSU graduate in Human Growth and Development. The two share a full household, raising and caring for five children under the age of 18.

Written by Ann Kammerer