Ginnie Graham: Combat veteran paints to help fellow graphic design students

Thursday, April 6, 2017

6 Apr 2017
By Ginnie Graham | Originally published in
Tulsa World

Sgt. Legrand Strickland felt a calling for a couple of things: design and combat.

Speaking about his contribution to Friday’s ArtPlus exhibit and art sale to benefit students in the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology’s School of Visual Communication, he speaks softly but passionately about both.

For at least an hour into the conversation, Strickland doesn’t bring up the February 2010 IED explosion in Afghanistan that took both his legs and part of his skull.

“I’m here and able to function for a reason,” he said. “I still have my fingers and hands; I can see and hear and talk.”

Strickland, 41, embraces his days of combat, once planning a career taking him into retirement. He also has a wildly creative side that began with drawing in classes as a child.

Growing up in St. Louis as the son of an architect, he was attracted to the appearance of things. He was more concerned with how a science experiment was presented — the fonts used, the shape of the poster board — than how the project worked.

“I would get so focused on the way something looked that I maybe wasn’t too focused on the meat of the experiment,” he said, smiling.

Strickland came from a military family and felt called to serve in the Army. He remembers the details of the “Be All You Can Be” recruiting campaign, including the brochure lettering and advertising jingle. It was enough to sway him away from his father’s naval path.

After his service from 1996 to 1999 as an infantryman, Strickland relocated to Tulsa, where his parents had moved. After that stint in the Army, he wasn’t sure what to do. He said many combat soldiers go into careers such as law enforcement or firefighting.

“I started to become a firefighter,” he said, “and I liked it. But what I’m really good at is sketching and coming up with ideas. I’ve been interested in the design of things since I was a kid.”

After looking around a bit, Strickland found OSUIT in Okmulgee. He liked the seven-semester track and emphasis on education for what the industry needs and demands.

“I really got into it. It was fun,” Strickland said. “You learn about having to plan. Planning is so important in design, then you design and present.

“Graphic design is such a broad umbrella. As time moves on, it becomes more specialized. You have to understand what you’re good at and what you want to do.”

After graduating in 2005 and getting married, Strickland worked at a company in Tulsa before he and his wife, Carrie, moved to Arkansas. It was there he got the itch to go back into military service. He had been part of the Oklahoma National Guard, but he wanted something long term.

“I was thinking, ‘I’m getting older, and I won’t be able to do this much longer,’” he said. “It can be taxing, but I liked it and it was fun. There was a camaraderie there, and it kept me in shape.

“I had my goals set and planned to retire after a full-time career at a high level. But God had a different plan. I did what I wanted to do.”

Strickland re-enlisted in 2009 and was sent to Afghanistan. A roadside IED exploded. He woke up in a hospital without his legs, missing a portion of his skull and his jaw wired shut. The explosion killed two of his fellow soldiers.

“I remember thinking that I can’t be angry about this because it was what I asked for,” he said.

Strickland was most upset that his military career was over, but he knew the creative side of him would provide another professional opportunity. The OSUIT alumni community rallied around him quickly after news spread about his injury.

After eight months of recovery, Strickland started design work again by starting to sketch. He returned to the Arkansas design firm but later moved to Tulsa.

“I wanted to be where design was part of the culture and felt Tulsa had a lot to offer in that area,” he said. “After some self-reflection, I think what I’m meant for is being an entrepreneur.”

He has returned to school to study business and one day wants to launch his own company.

Strickland didn’t hesitate to support ArtPlus. He has submitted three pieces: “Relationships,” “Home” and “Silence.” Each has a backstory with extensive thought into planning, a nod to his college instructors’ emphasis on development of design.

“I respect all of my instructors,” he said. “Every student, no matter how old a person is, has a connection with their instructors. They still want to give back; at least the ones with a conscience want to give back. I’m also looking forward to (ArtPlus) to talking with other people and seeing what I can learn from them.”

The money from ArtPlus supports second-year students who are having a hard time paying bills to stay in school. The annual sale has raised about $42,000, and more than $20,000 has been used to keep students in college.

A majority of alumni are involved in the arts, creating professional pieces as a side business or for hobby. Artists will be available to speak with patrons, said OSUIT School of Visual Communication Dean James McCullough.

“It’s a great outreach and awareness opportunity for us to be down in the Brady Arts District and be part of the First Friday event,” he said. “There are large crowds and excellent interaction between our current students and our alumni.”

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