Curtis Bean on the Art of War -- and what it means to veterans

You can find art all over town -- not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.

Artist, philanthropist and Iraq veteran Curtis Bean, mastermind behind the Art of War project, was leading a group of snipers through the Middle East back when most of us were getting drunk, watching Saved by the Bell reruns in our college dorms. Today, that earnest Midwestern transplant -- you'll know him by his casual, down-home drawl -- has done "a complete 180," he says, and is finding a way to bring a little light to the kind of darkness only a veteran knows.

See also: Naomi Haverland on the strange things that inspire her

Bean came of age in small-town America -- specifically in Troy, Missouri -- where he spent his boyhood hunting and fishing and being outdoors. "I had a great childhood," Bean recalls. But that lulling local life developed in Bean a desire "to be a part of something larger than just my home town," he says. And while rural Missouri was a great place to be a kid, "it isn't an easy place to be an adult," Bean explains. That's because, for adults looking for careers, there's farming and construction ... and that's about it. So Bean joined the Army at age seventeen and served two tours in Iraq over the course of five and a half years, living the sort of macabre scenes we watch on Homeland. After serving as a scout, Bean's unit was dissembled, and he tried out for an open spot on a sniper team. Of twenty (or so) applicants, six, including Bean, were selected then trained as Army snipers. "I was 21 years old, leading my own sniper team, and I didn't realize until afterwards how much responsibility it was," says Bean, who turns 29 this month. "There's not a lot of responsibilities today, comparatively." Today, Bean is a student at the University of Colorado at Denver, though he entertained other plans first, dabbling with personal training (not a good fit) and then completing fire school and EMT training with the goal of being a firefighter in Denver. But shortly after migrating west, Bean realized he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and received help at Denver's VA Medical Center, which offers a seven-week-long inpatient clinic for veterans.

"I went through the clinic for PTSD and realized being a firefighter probably wouldn't be the best thing for that," Bean recalls. "Everyone has their own little gifts." Turned out, one of Bean's little gifts is art.

The veteran had taken a few art classes in high school -- nothing serious. When he relocated to Denver a decade later, Bean searched for something unique to hang in his new digs. "I couldn't find anything in stores, so I went out and bought materials, stretched canvas and started painting," he says. That's when Bean realized he wanted to pursue art professionally. So last January, Bean enrolled in college, where he is currently getting his BFA in fine arts. "Art school is like kindergarten," he says, and he means that in the best way. "I'm a totally different person than I was in the military," Bean explains. "I was very hard, and now I am more vulnerable and more open to different ideas and different things." Keep reading for more from Curtis Bean. Art has also been therapeutic. The process itself, the ability to lose oneself and "not think about whatever problems you are having," promotes healing, Bean says. Making art lets veterans get their experiences out on paper. "Instead of physically talking, which requires you to relive an experience, you are putting stuff on paper and still getting it off of your chest, but in a less abrasive way," he explains. Last year, after seeing positive changes in himself, Bean approached the VA Medical Center to ask about leading other veterans in art. "It took months, but I finally got in there," he says. His hour-long art therapy classes have been so successful that they are now officially part of the VA's PTSD clinic. Bean also leads a monthly, two-hour-long class at Hope Tank; the next session is at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 13. Both programs are free and "casual," Bean says, estimating that so far he's served about 300 veterans.

Bean begins classes by demonstrating an art form; then his pupils experiment on their own. Bean has been talking with the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield, where he'd like to start up a third branch of his program this summer.

Right now, the operation is basically a one-man show. Bean buys most of the art supplies himself through donations and sales of Art of War T-shirts and hats. And, as of last month, the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design has begun donating materials. Private donations can be made through Hope Tank.

Bean also aspires to bring on more volunteers. "I'm not an art teacher or therapist by any means, so I can only do so much," he says, lauding Denver for its vast and accessible veteran resources -- a far cry from many other cities, where resources for war heroes are scarce, at best.

It's our local community, in fact, that inspires Bean to continue his work. "As a veteran, you are compelled to volunteer more," he says. "You volunteered to serve your country, and once you leave, you still want to be part of something larger than just yourself." Does Bean's Art of War program work? Veterans are a tricky group to work with because they often have trouble expressing themselves and tend to deal with stress differently than others do. "I didn't realize how successful the program was until one class when I was passing around a notebook and asked the guys to give me feedback," says Bean, recalling how one veteran wrote: "I can't even put into words how much this is helping me." Bean is busy with school at the moment, but eventually hopes to launch an art-therapy resource center where veterans can stop by regularly to work on whatever they'd like. Bean's humble program has been a huge inspiration to others. "There's a guy in Kentucky who is using my model to do a branch of Art of War there," says Bean. And earlier this month, he received an award from Governor John Hickenlooper and the state for creative leadership.

For more information on Bean and his project, visit the Art of War on Facebook.

Follow Jamie Siebrase on Twitter.

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