Curtis Bean's Art of War Is Painting a Brighter Future for Veterans
Curtis Bean with his art.
War is hell: Curtis Bean recognized that during his two tours in Iraq. But he didn’t know that coming home would be hell, too.
The native of Troy, Missouri, had joined the Army when he was seventeen, “to be part of something larger than my home town,” he says. Bean served as a scout during his first tour, and when that unit was disbanded, he tried out for an open spot as a sniper. He got it. “I was 21 years old, leading my own sniper team, and I didn’t realize until afterwards how much responsibility it was,” he recalls.
After he was discharged in 2008, Bean landed in Jacksonville, Florida, where he struggled to adjust to non-military life. He had trouble sleeping, he remembers, and “I was avoiding my problems, staying inside my apartment and drinking — a lot.” He realized that even though he had returned from the war, the war was still with him.
Curtis Bean in Baghdad, 2006.
Courtesy of Curtis Bean
“I filed the paperwork for having post-traumatic stress disorder,” Bean says. But doctors at the Veterans Affairs clinic in Jacksonville downplayed his symptoms because “they didn’t think it sounded too bad,” he says.
In 2012, Bean moved to Denver, hoping to land a position as a firefighter. He’d gone through Florida’s Fire Academy of the South and was already a licensed EMT — but he was suffering through his own traumas. “I started having panic attacks, and I realized being a firefighter wasn’t a realistic option,” Bean says.
Instead, he sought treatment through a seven-week PTSD residential program at the Denver VA Medical Center, where he and a dozen other vets spent hours every day acquiring tools and techniques for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I had to talk about the worst experiences I’d had with strangers, and that was making my symptoms worse,” Bean remembers.
But there was one thing that he found comforting: painting.
Bean had first picked up a brush back in Jacksonville. “In Florida, all of the artwork is dolphins and marshes,” he observes, so when he couldn’t find the right print for his apartment there, he bought a canvas and acrylics at Michael’s and painted a portrait inspired by American Psycho. It turned out well — so well, in fact, that a few of Bean’s friends and family members wanted their own paintings.
Although the Denver VA did offer some art-therapy classes, they weren’t part of Bean’s PTSD program. So he took it upon himself to advance his rehabilitation with art. “I was going to my room every evening and painting,” he recalls. “Instead of physically talking, which requires you to relive an experience, you’re getting stuff off of your chest, but in a less abrasive way.”
After completing the PTSD clinic, Bean decided to share the benefits of art therapy with other vets. He walked into the Denver Vet Center — a VA-sponsored counseling center in Lowry that hosts a weekly group meeting for veterans with PTSD — and asked if he could “show the guys and gals how to do art,” he says. He called his program Art of War.
Eight months later, Bean’s hour-long art-therapy classes had proven so successful that they were incorporated into the Denver VA Medical Center’s PTSD residential treatment program. “We hadn’t done a really good job of integrating our recreational therapy into the residential clinic,” says VA public affairs officer Daniel Warvi. “Curt pointed out that we needed the integration.”
But Bean was concerned that he still wasn’t reaching enough people. To access the program, veterans “had to be approved by a counselor to participate in the VA’s clinic,” he says. So in 2013, he brought Art of War to Hope Tank, a shop in the Baker neighborhood that supports twenty local nonprofit partners. There, Bean and Hope Tank owner Erika Righter offered free monthly art nights for any veteran.
“I knew the barriers vets were experiencing in our community, and I wanted to offer a space outside of the VA — one that felt approachable,” says Righter, who today is an Art of War boardmember. “The goal was to break down the barriers between civilians and veterans.”
Bean taught the drop-in sessions himself, demonstrating art forms he’d learned at the University of Colorado Denver, where he’d enrolled as a full-time undergraduate art student in 2012. The Hope Tank classes were small, “casual and fun,” Bean says, but they showed promise.
So much promise that in 2014, Navy veteran and then-VFW Post 1 commander Michael Mitchel approached Bean with an idea. “I was already pretty active in several veteran organizations, and he asked me to come to [Post 1’s] new gallery, to see if I had any ideas for how to use the space,” Bean recalls.
At the time, the 118-year-old Post 1 needed all the help it could get.
Michael Mitchel helped bring VFW Post 1 back to health.
VFW Post 1 is America’s oldest regular gathering place for combat veterans. It got its start at the Colorado State Capitol on November 23, 1899, when a group of Spanish-American War veterans, led by General Irving Hale, met there and formed the Society of the Army of the Philippines. Fifteen years later that group was consolidated with two others into Post 1; today there are more than 6,500 consecutively numbered VFW posts.
In the early days, Post 1 members bounced between various downtown locations — they drafted their VFW constitution on the eighth floor of the Brown Palace Hotel — before eventually landing in a remodeled commercial bakery at 901 Bannock Street in the late 1940s. Men and women had separate meeting rooms inside a gathering space with more than a few fanciful touches: mahogany paneling, for example, along with glass walls, a gallery of portraits of American generals, and an upper-level ballroom with picture windows — an idyllic setting for the organization’s weekly dances. From the beginning, one of the VFW’s primary purposes had been to bring former combat soldiers together socially.
Post 1’s ranks reached an all-time high of 2,461 members in 1949. It didn’t hurt that its home base housed one of the busiest bars in town, along with one of Denver’s first Chinese joints, the Lotus Room. But after peaking in the years following World War II, membership began waning in the ’70s, when many returning Vietnam vets didn’t want to be associated with a patriotic, openly military group.
Some folks who might have been willing to associate with the VFW weren’t permitted to join. The club is for combat soldiers only: To be eligible for membership in the VFW, ex-servicemen and -women must have been honorably discharged, and must have served in a war, campaign or expedition on foreign soil or in hostile waters. Since many soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen never deploy, they’re not eligible for membership.
Today, active members pay $35 in dues annually to belong to the VFW, but an individual post only keeps $2.50; the rest goes to the national organization to cover overhead and the cost of lobbying Congress on behalf of veterans. As a result, Mitchel notes, “Most VFWs operate a bar to serve as their revenue stream.”
And Post 1’s bar wasn’t enough to keep the club in financial health. By the early 1990s, meetings had dwindled to one or two dozen attendees, and so little cash came in that the organization could no longer afford to pay its four full-time employees. The building itself had become a money pit, and in the mid-1990s, Post 1 trustees traded it to a developer in exchange for a smaller property a half-block north, at 955 Bannock.
Mitchel stumbled upon the place in 2002, when he and his wife were driving along Bannock and noticed Post 1’s neon lights. Mitchel wanted to know whether the storefront he’d just passed was really the first VFW. It was, of course, and he joined soon after, “for the $1.25 Jack and Cokes,” he says.
But Mitchel didn’t have much time to enjoy the discounted booze. Post 1’s charter was suspended in 2003, “the civilian equivalent of going bankrupt,” he says. Someone had to do something, he thought, and so he stepped up, joining other vets in their fight to keep Post 1 alive.
Post 1 sold its building in 2007 and “was homeless for years,” Mitchel says. The membership was down to about 800, and few vets showed up at the meetings that were held around town, sometimes at restaurants or at the Denver Press Club.
In 2013, Mitchel became VFW Post 1’s commander, a position that came with a big challenge, long hours and no pay. “We’re all volunteers,” he says. “Everyone has a day job.”
Mitchel’s first task was to merge Post 6616, which was going under in late 2013, with Post 1. “Most VFWs are literally a dying model,” Mitchel explains. “Unfortunately, my best source of new members is other posts.” He isn’t joking: Despite sixteen years of continuous combat, VFW membership nationwide has plummeted from 2.1 million veterans in the 1990s to 1.3 million today. The network is getting older, too: The average age of members is now 68. Young veterans show little interest in linking up with their local VFW chapters. In fact, only about 15 percent of eligible Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are members of the VFW.
Mitchel knew he would have to adopt a new battle plan. In July 2014, VFW Post 1 did something completely unconventional: It purchased a former art gallery at 841 Santa Fe Drive for $650,000, using funds left over from the sale of 955 Bannock and Post 6616’s building at 4300 Pecos Street. “We paid cash and own it free and clear,” Mitchel says.
There’s a wraparound wood counter near the back of the first floor, but it isn’t a bar. “We call it a saloon,” Mitchel says.
The former gallery on Santa Fe.
“We’ll sell alcohol for special events, but that isn’t our focus,” adds John Harry, Post 1’s current commander and executive director.
That’s because the new home of Post 1 serves as much more than a gathering place for vets, though Mitchel had some success recruiting members at area colleges and adding programming that resonates with millennials. He also lifted the rule that barred non-members from attending meetings, and even made Post 1 more family-friendly, bringing in retired art teacher Sharon Frickey to lead art projects for members’ children during meetings.
When Mitchel heard about the work that Bean was doing at Hope Tank, he thought that the post’s veterans might benefit from art, too.
“I went down there and was blown away by the space,” Bean recalls. At Hope Tank, he and Righter had talked about someday moving Art of War to a spot that could accommodate more people — and the former gallery definitely fit that bill.
Although Righter still sold Art of War work at Hope Tank, all of Bean’s programming moved to Post 1, and he promptly made the post’s gallery a regular First Friday stop for veterans and civilians alike. Under the VFW’s nonprofit umbrella, the program grew enough that Bean was able to establish a board for Art of War.
He also did work on the new Post 1 itself. “Once we got our feet on the ground, we started improving the space,” Bean says. He and some friends tore up old carpet and made other improvements.
With more room for events, Bean soon added Final Friday film nights. He and Mitchel rallied other veterans to lead on-site yoga and meditation sessions, and engaged print journalist Marla Keown, herself an Army veteran, to teach photography courses. All of the programming was free.
Mitchel had won his first battle. Post 1 now has a membership of 1,100, and that’s not including two dozen new members who were sworn in last month. Post 1 even brags of a few famous members, among them astronaut Scott Kelly, who joined a year ago, and Robert J. O’Neill, “the Navy SEAL who nabbed Osama bin Laden,” Mitchel says.
Mitchel stepped down as commander last spring, in order to spearhead a $1.5 million capital campaign that will allow Post 1 to continue renovating its building.
John Harry, the new commander of VFW Post 1.
Harry, Post 1’s new commander, continues to push for the inclusivity that Mitchel promoted. Today about one-third of Post 1’s officers are female, and an estimated 20 percent of its board identifies as LGBTQ.
Harry himself is reportedly the first openly gay commander in the nation — “I hope that’s not true,” he says — after spending his ten-year military career in the closet under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
He had come out to his parents when he was fifteen, and “they were really nonplussed with it,” he recalls.
After spending much of his adolescence only halfway out, Harry says “it wasn’t super-difficult” to compartmentalize in the Air Force, where he specialized in aerospace physiology. Being a gay pilot “was like having two separate personalities. I would come home from work, take off my uniform, and close the closet door on it so I could be John.”
Post-service, it took Harry a couple of years to reintegrate his two personas; he didn’t even consider joining the VFW. “I’m a gay veteran. The VFW isn’t going to want me,” he remembers thinking. “And I wasn’t about to go back into the closet to be a part of a veteran organization.”
Instead, Harry joined the Rocky Mountain chapter of the American Veterans for Equal Rights. Although AVER has been around since 1990, its Rocky Mountain chapter was founded in 2011, around the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed. That chapter was initially formed as a color guard for Denver PrideFest; after a few drinks with a friend, Harry reluctantly agreed to don his old uniform and lead PrideFest in the chapter’s kickoff event. He served as the first treasurer, and a year later became its president. He led the group until April 2016, a week before he was sworn in as Post 1’s commander.
“The VFW had never seemed like a good fit,” says Harry. But that was before Mitchel approached him in 2013 and suggested a collaboration between Post 1 and AVER. The two veterans hit if off, and Harry quickly realized that his sexual orientation was a non-issue at Post 1.
He started going to Post 1 meetings, joining up at the end of 2013. “I realized it’s an amazing group of folks who really do have the passion and heart for taking care of veterans,” he says.
Back then, Post 1 was still in a temporary home. But then Mitchel moved it into the building at 841 Santa Fe, and Bean came on board with programming that breathed new life into the organization.
“I think it really did start with Art of War,” Harry says.
John Harry and Mike Mitchel at the new home of VFW Post 1.
Tensions soon broke out, however. “In October of 2015, the New York Times did an awesome article on how great Post 1 is — and they didn’t mention Art of War,” Bean says. He coordinated a meeting between Post 1 and Art of War’s boardmembers: Righter, Kristen Sweat, Kevin Clark and Deborah Jordy, then the executive director of the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts.
The two groups “came to the conclusion that the VFW wanted full ownership over the programs under its roof,” Bean recalls. Mitchel remembers it somewhat differently: He says Bean had expressed an interest in rekindling Art of War’s original mission by taking the program directly to veterans.
Both sides agreed that Art of War would need to find a new home in order to cater to its growing constituency, which included non-combat veterans and civilians, too. By that November, Art of War and Post 1 had officially separated.
“It was an interesting divorce,” says Keown, who was stuck between the sides. “All I want to do is help veterans.” But then, that’s all Art of War and Post 1 really wanted to do, she notes.
Bean’s organization skipped around for a year, each month offering art classes in a different venue: Access Gallery, Battery 621, MCA Denver and the Denver Art Museum, among others. For a while, Bean led an art-appreciation meet-up on First Fridays for a small group of veterans interested in gaining exposure to high-level art. He also put together a series of retreats, starting with a weekend getaway at Granby Ranch Resort, designed to aid veterans in deepening their art, meditation and yoga practices.
Last July, though, Bean took a break. “Going to all of these different places was great, but to create a sense of community, I knew we needed to stop bouncing around,” he explains.
By then, Bean had been pushing Art of War for four years, never drawing a paycheck. He considered setting it up as a nonprofit, but instead decided to partner with one. He’s now attempting to unite with the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center, and hopes to one day earn a part-time salary for his art-therapy work.
In the meantime, he’s focusing on Art of War’s new partnership with RedLine, the nonprofit that uses art as a tool for social change at its space at 2350 Arapahoe Street.
When Bean first approached Robin Gallite, RedLine’s executive director, the partnership seemed like “a perfect fit,” Gallite recalls. “We’re a small staff, and we have to say no to lots of groups. But nobody even questioned collaborating with Art of War.”
Last month Art of War began holding classes at RedLine. Up until now, Art of War has largely been viewed as a veterans’ organization. “But more than that, we’re a community-based organization,” Bean says, adding that the social aspect of the program is every bit as important as the artistic elements. At RedLine, anyone is invited to “just show up and make art,” he says, though non-veterans are charged $20 for the classes that remain free to veterans.
Fifteen people showed up on January 11 to learn block printing from Eric McCulley, who has been working with Art of War since its inception. “My goal is to find people who are specialists in various forms and to bring them in to teach their expertise,” says Bean. He was impressed by the diversity of the first class: Participants ranged in age from 16 to 65; in addition to veterans and Art of War regulars, civilian artists showed up, including a few from RedLine’s Reach Studio program, which was started by Metropolitan State University of Denver students in 2010 as a way to bolster a community of outsider artists experiencing homelessness or severe financial hardship.
The Reach Studio currently hosts a core group of twelve artists, but up to twenty members might show up on a Tuesday afternoon during open studio hours. While RedLine hasn’t “specifically targeted a veteran population in the past,” Gallite says, the nonprofit routinely works with under-resourced groups. “Veterans are certainly a group in need, and we’d love to figure out how to connect better,” she adds.
She also hopes to see RedLine’s artists-in-residence — there are sixteen for every two-year term — take on teaching roles with Art of War.
Art of War classes are currently held at RedLine on the second Wednesday of every month. The two groups signed a one-year contract, ensuring that the program will continue through January 2018. “I don’t see how it wouldn’t continue after that,” Gallite says.
Post 1's new home on Santa Fe Drive is a former gallery.
Post 1 still opens its doors for First Fridays, which can draw several thousand people to the Art District on Santa Fe on a warm night. The post has continued its free arts programming, too. Keown has teamed up with startup Task Force ISO and is offering photography classes to veterans in Denver, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs. The program launched with a workshop last month at Post 1, which will continue hosting Task Force ISO’s free gatherings.
Last year, Post 1 established the Veterans Arts Council, with the goal of bolstering the professional art careers of veterans. Through that group, Mitchel has paired vets with mentors in the local arts community, “to help them learn about the business of art,” he says. The council is run entirely by Post 1 members, who are tasked with managing Post 1’s gallery and curating its exhibits.
Over 80 percent of the art shown at Post 1 is created by veterans. “The gallery is about giving veterans a place to showcase their work,” says Harry. “We reserve some wiggle room to be able to bring in spotlight artists and create space for civilian artists in the district.” It’s all part of the post’s mission of offering programming for combat vets.
“We’re not trying to compete with what Art of War is doing,” Harry adds. “Art of War’s absence is definitely felt.”
But while Art of War might have left the building, it isn’t totally out of the picture. Harry would like to see another collaboration between Art of War and Post 1. Although he and Bean haven’t been able to connect yet, Bean did get together with Mitchel for an informal conversation earlier this month.
Veterans face many challenges, and more cooperation between the programs designed to aid them can only help the process, says Harry. At least fifty organizations in metro Denver are providing services for veterans, but few have successfully linked up. “It feels like there’s competition between some of our veterans’ organizations,” he admits. “We’re all working toward the same goal, which is to take care of veterans.”
Last month, Harry pitched an idea to Post 1’s board. “We are going to host a Serving Veterans Symposium in order to get everyone together in one room,” he says. Slated for April, the symposium will focus on structured networking to engage the leaders of area organizations. Veterans fought enough overseas; they don’t have to fight here at home, too.
Neither Harry nor Mitchel suffered from PTSD. “Not all veterans come back broken,” Harry says. But that doesn’t mean reintegrating into civilian life is easy, as Bean learned. Coming home can be hell.
In basic training, cadets are programmed to be soldiers, Bean explains: “It isn’t easy to reprogram your brain.”
“It’s easy to think of supporting our troops when they are deployed, but it’s when they come home that they can use the transition support as they look for jobs, go to school, and work to leave the war behind,” adds Mitchel.
Whether a vet is suffering from PTSD or grappling with anxiety or other homecoming challenges, “there’s no silver bullet,” Bean says.“But having access to as many alternative, healthy and sustainable services as possible is essential for our veteran community.”
Art, yoga, meditation: These aren’t activities typically associated with men and women who’ve been to war. “It’s a hippie practice,” Bean admits. “But once veterans start practicing these forms of therapy, they usually see positive results.”
After all, “I went from being a Cavalry Scout Sniper to a hippie who practices yoga, meditation and art,” Bean says. “I’m much softer now.”
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