PORTAGE PARK — Perched high on his father’s shoulders, 1½-year-old Leif Nielsen laughed and pointed to the sculpture of a penguin holding a red string in its beak attached to a plane soaring over the gallery at the National Veterans Art Museum.
The sculpture is one of several works created by Iraq War veteran Ash Kyrie for the museum’s Welcome Home exhibit, which was unveiled Sunday as part of the museum’s grand opening and Veterans Day ceremony.
The sculpture that delighted Leif and his father, Ken Nielsen, explores the disconnect between civilians and the war being conducted to protect them, Kyrie said.
“The future of the museum was in doubt for a while,” said Nielsen, a veteran of the first war in Iraq and a Hyde Park resident. “It’s a big deal that we are here.”
Welcome Home also features work by Charles Smith, who served with the Marines during the Vietnam War. The exhibit is designed to explore the war in Afghanistan and the need for mental health care for returning veterans. It will be on display through May 2013.
More than 250 veterans created the museum’s collection of more than 2,500 paintings, prints, drawings, poetry, photos, sculpture, collages and video.
“Whether you create to heal, to vent or to inspire, may you always see this space as your sanctuary,“ said Ald. John Arena (45th), addressing veterans during the grand opening ceremony.
Vietnam veterans were singled out for special honor during the ceremony, as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the war in southeast Asia.
The museum was founded in 1982 as the Vietnam Veterans Art Group, and opened at its first location on South Indiana Avenue in 1996. In 2003, it began focusing on art by veterans of all wars and in 2010, changed its name.
Maria Torres, who has a friend who served in Vietnam, circled the gallery slowly examining each piece of art during the grand opening ceremony.
“I always do something to mark Veterans Day, to thank him,” said Torres, who lives in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood.
The museum’s new home at 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave. was rehabilitated with $250,000 from the area’s tax increment financing district’s small business improvement fund, Arena said. The building, across from the Portage Theater, was originally built in the 1920s, Arena said.
The museum will share the building with the Filament Theatre Ensemble, a folk art theater.
The museum’s opening is the next step in the effort to turn the Six Corners area into an arts district that will attract shoppers and diners, Arena said.
“This is part of the resurgence and renaissance of Six Corners,” Arena said, noting that the shopping district at Milwaukee Avenue, Cicero Avenue and Irving Park Boulevard has struggled for decades.
Six Corners was the best choice for the museum’s new home because of the ample parking nearby, and its access to the Kennedy Expressway and the CTA Blue Line, said Levi Moore, the executive director of the museum, which moved to Portage Park from the South Loop.
Portage Park is going to be the next Chicago neighborhood to be revitalized, Moore said.
“And we get to be here early,” he said.