Visual Arts

Photojournalist Marla Keown Uses a Camera to Heal and Help Vets

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.

Marla Keown joined the Army Reserves before 9/11, “when the thought of war wasn’t even close to my radar,” she says. But the Kansas native needed money for college, and in 2004 — halfway through her undergraduate degree — she found herself deployed to Iraq.

“I eventually came back and finished up,” says Keown, who graduated the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism with an emphasis on photojournalism. She'd taken a photojournalism course early on — "That's when I feel in love," she says — but before she went to Iraq, her focus had been on a film-making career. Now, however, she says that photography is what keeps her sane.

“I’m pretty sure it saved my life” Keown explains. “I came back from Iraq and didn’t want to socialize with anyone; I couldn’t be in crowded spaces or handle loud noises.” But she could handle a camera. 

For Keown, the camera became a security blanket. “When I was fresh back, I could pick up that camera and do whatever I needed to do to get the shot,” Keown says. “I don’t know if it helped me forget that I was in a crowded space, but I felt like I could do anything with the camera in hand, and I think it’s still that way.”

After college, Keown decided she needed to get out of Kansas. She pulled out a map and, after considering Colorado, California and Washington, chose Colorado for its proximity to her family. “If I didn’t make it, I knew I could come back home,” says Keown.

That was back in 2008, and Keown is still here. One of the reasons is the fellowship she found at VFW Post 1, the country's oldest veterans post — which happens to be located in Denver. “When you get back from Iraq you get all sorts of paperwork, and joining the VFW was one piece of paper,” Keown says. While still living in Kansas, she’d checked out a few VFW events, but found mostly “old Vietnam and WWII veterans chilling at a bar and drinking, but not interacting with each other,” she remembers. 

“It didn’t feel like my cup of tea,” she admits. But after relocating to Denver and going through some incredibly rough bouts of PTSD that left her alone and nearly homeless, Keown met VFW Post 1 commander Michael Mitchel, who talked her into being the Post 1 photographer. While doing that job she learned about the Art of War project, a unique art therapy program founded by vet Curtis Bean for veterans and their families.

“I’m like an itty-bitty, tiny helping hand in the whole thing,” Keown says. She augments Bean’s therapy program by offering a free photography class for veterans and civilians that's held on the second Friday of the month.

The class teaches students how to take a picture without being in automatic mode. “Anyone can go buy a camera, and anyone can take pictures, but it takes lessons to know how a camera works,” says Keown, rattling off information about aperture, shutter speed and so on. From there, she works to help students step out of their comfort zones — that’s what helped her overcome PTSD, and she hopes to help others use photography to deal with their own challenges.

Keown’s photography, now on display at the VFW Post 1 gallery, is as vibrant, complex and dynamic as the photographer herself.  “I do a little bit of everything,” she says, explaining that she’s dabbled in portraiture, fitness photography and is currently exploring food photography after getting "lined up with a couple of chefs in town," she adds. “I love taking pictures of pretty food and then devouring it."

Keown calls herself “a big photojournalist at heart,” explaining that she loves “hearing people’s stories and being able to fold and meld into them.”
When she isn’t teaching classes and taking photos, Keown works for Major League Baseball, making sure video and audio programming from Rockies games gets to the organizational headquarters in New York.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, at the VFW Post 1 gallery, Art of War will be raising funds while raising the roof with its first annual Casino Night. Tickets are $40, which includes beer, wine and appetizers; a DJ will spin while guests play blackjack, craps and other casino favorites before the live art auction. For more information, visit AOW’s website.  For more information on Keown’s art, visit her website.

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