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Picture of Hope: Veteran uses art to help others

Cape Girardeau veteran and domestic violence survivor uses her life experiences and talents to encourage her students
Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 7:42 AM CDT
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CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (KFVS) - Renee Neal is a natural with a paint brush.

As a self-taught artist though, she never imagined one day teaching others.

“I get excited about painting and I wanted other people to experience what I was experiencing,” said Renee Neal.

Art changed Renee’s life.

In fact, she will tell you, it rescued her.

“I could see hope,” said Neal. “I could see change and I was ready to start my life.”

Renee Neal joined the United States Army when she was 17-years-old.

Her family hoped she would chose a different path, but Renee was certain the Army was where she needed to be.

“I wanted a sense of responsibility and pride in nation, and just wanted to contribute,” said Neal.

She became a medic, then later switched to military police.

“That’s when everything changed for me,” said Neal.

She says she experienced sexual abuse while in the service, including two abusive relationships.

“Everything about my life started to spiral,” said Neal.

Renee Neal continued her service in the Army and says everything came to a crashing halt when she was injured while preparing to deploy.

“At that point, I wanted to ask...why is God punishing me,” said Renee Neal.

Those injuries ended her military career, but led to positive change in her life.

“I started going through counseling, and that was my turning point.”

She also dug deep, remembering what her grandmother taught her when she was a little girl.

“I remember doing crafts and doing things with my grandma and her talking to me and telling me you can do anything,” said Neal.

As it would turn out, her grandmother’s creative spirit also lived in her.

Renee Neal picked up a paint brush one day and started to tell her story on a canvas.

“I get excited every time I pick up a paint brush because I don’t see a blank page, I see it’s waiting on me,” said Neal with a laugh.

Once she saw how it was changing her life, she wanted to share that joy with others.

“I think it’s great because sometimes you can’t say anything, but if you’re able to create something and show who you are through that I think it’s great,” said Jennifer Cook-Friend of Renee Neal.

Renee started out with offering paint classes to some of her friends.

She is now offering classes to others, including fellow veterans.

“It’s a release,” said Navy Veteran Dee Permann. “Depending on some people, some of it can be pretty dark. That’s ok too, because they are getting it out of them. That’s the thing about painting, you see something in your head and you’ve got to get it out. Whether it’s bad or good it’s still a release.”

While Renee has a passion to help veterans, she also wants to help domestic abuse survivors.

She wanted to start by creating something empowering for the ladies at the Safe House for Women in Cape Girardeau.

Inspired by a photo from a recent Vintage Now Fashion Show that benefits the Safe House, Renee created a painting that is now on display in the shelter’s newly designed inspiration room.

“It’s called runway angels,” said Renee Neal. “One angel is lifting her wings...the other slides behind her and is backing her up.”

She sees that as symbolic of how women can support each other in life, and help one another get through difficult times.

Renee also plans to start offering her paint classes to the women at the shelter.

“I think you can really see her heart and soul goes into her artwork,” said Jessica Hill-Executive Director, Safe House for Women. “We’re excited to be able to include that here at the shelter, and I think it will really inspire our clients.”

Renee sees art as an addition to other therapy, like counseling.

“It’s not a cure-all, it’s not a medicine...it’s just something for you to focus on, something else for you to put yourself in,” said Neal.

She’s taking what she learned from her grandmother and applying it to her own life, and the lives of others.

“To this day I think of her when I get down,” said Neal.

She is also using all the bumps along the way in her own life to inspire others to create, and restore.

“You can rebuild yourself. You can regain that confidence,” said Neal. “My ultimate goal is just to be able to help someone else change their life for the better.”

Renee Neal, who also goes Yvonne Neal, is able to offer many of her classes thanks to a generous donation from The Drew Barrymore Show.

You can find out more about her artwork by clicking here to see her work that’s available for purchase.

You can also find out more by following her on social media under her artist name, Zyra Neal.

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