Callanwolde Fine Arts Center opens its doors to veterans with needs

Air Force Veteran Rhonda Lawson (right) shows off a piece of jewelry she made with the help of her instructor, Priscilla Fritsch (left), at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. Lawson credits these classes with saving her life.  PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Air Force Veteran Rhonda Lawson (right) shows off a piece of jewelry she made with the help of her instructor, Priscilla Fritsch (left), at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. Lawson credits these classes with saving her life. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

U.S. Air Force veteran Rhonda Lawson may have found her hidden talents at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in DeKalb County.

She’s certainly found her confidence there.

At Callanwolde, Lawson produced her first real work of art: a bracelet she made by measuring, cutting, and soldering. She had never made jewelry before and never used a blowtorch.

“Doing something that I didn’t think I could do is really powerful,” said Lawson.

The 10-year veteran attends several different Callanwolde classes that are free to veterans struggling with PTSD and those transitioning from homelessness.

Callanwolde is a nonprofit community arts center and venue located on a historic 12-acre estate in the heart of metro Atlanta. Serving underserved communities, such as veterans, is an integral part of its mission.

Air Force Veteran Rhonda Lawson prepares to work on jewelry as her service dog Leo sleeps in the corner at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. 

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Credit: Phil Skinner

Lawson has post-traumatic syndrome disorder caused by a tragic incident during her time in service, which included three wars. She lives alone, and her disorder caused her to become an introvert who didn’t like to leave home.

But Callanwolde has proven to be a safe place for Lawson. With her service dog, Leo, she looks forward to the small classes with other veterans. She’s painting, making pendants with metal scraps, and even propagating herbs in a gardening class.

“I have a lot more confidence, and I feel better about myself now that I’m taking these classes,” she said. “They gave me the confidence and strength to believe in myself – then I started to believe in myself in other areas.”

Callanwolde changed its mission in 2021 to focus on making arts education more accessible and promoting the enjoyment of the arts in underserved communities. Executive Director Andrew Keenan said they are ramping up community engagement programs for a growing list of people.

In addition to veterans, there are classes and activities for families and individuals coming out of homelessness, children from low-income families, and refugee high schoolers, among others.

The Fine Arts Center, in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs PRRC program, offers art therapy classes on its campus to help with PTSD symptoms.

The Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC) is an outpatient interdisciplinary treatment program with therapy sessions, classes, and wellness interventions.

“Art therapy is a great way to help these folks with stress. A lot of stress,” Keenan said.

Lawson said while the VA therapy sessions help, the good feelings she gets from Callanwolde are just as practical, if not more so.

The all-veteran classes meet weekly for about 8-10 weeks. The art studios are cozy and wheelchair accessible, with class sizes averaging around eight participants.

Jewelry instructor Priscilla Fritsch has taught at Callanwolde since 2009 and started working with the veterans this year.

“It’s been a real joy,” Fritsch said. The veterans “want something to do. They’re there to learn and make things; it doesn’t matter how it turns out.”

Students don’t make “mistakes” in Fritsch’s jewelry art classes; they change directions. Fritsch said Lawson took the castaway, tiny scraps of metal, and created a beautiful pendant.

“I’m proud of her, and I know she’s proud of herself,” she said.

Lawson said that at Callanwolde, she can connect with nature and relax. It is a calming place for those with PTSD.

“Just coming here is like leaving the city,” she said. “You can smell the flowers, hear the birds, see all the foliage. It’s very quiet. You don’t hear the traffic.”

Lawson said many veterans in the VA program live alone and need someone to step into their lives and support them. For her, Callanwolde has become like family.

“I wish everyone that supports programs for veterans know that they really are saving our lives or saving us from becoming homeless because we’ll just wander out in the streets and give up,” said Lawson. “They’re saving us. Sometimes, we just want to have a purpose and go somewhere they care.”

Callanwolde programs, events and classes typically pay for themselves through fees and tuition. But for the outreach programs, “we have to raise the money for all of them,” Keenan said.

Funds come from corporate donors, foundation grants and individual contributions. An annual Callanwolde Holiday Gala celebrates its legacy as an Atlanta arts institution and raises money for financial aid and outreach programs for underserved communities. This year’s event was Dec. 3.

The director said that the Callanwolde Foundation Board wants to expand outreach opportunities for the underserved, and the only limitation is money.

“I want to do as much for folks in Atlanta as possible. This asset is too valuable not to share with as many people as possible,” Keenan said.


Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. 980 Briarcliff Road NE, Atlanta. Learn more about community outreach programs, or donate at: Callanwolde currently provides approximately 40 veterans with access to art classes throughout the year.