The Art of War: A Creative Salve for PTSD

Iraq War veteran Curtis Bean discovered a path to healing in art and yoga -- and he wants to help other Denver-based vets find peace, too.
Baghdad smelled like bread, which was always rising in ovens heated with cow patties. Art of War Project founder Curtis Bean remembers the yeasty scent, along with the weight of what he shouldered: up to nine liters of water, 600-plus rounds of ammunition and the colossal burden of survival borne over five years and two tours through Iraq that transformed the seventeen-year-old high school graduate into a scout and, eventually, a sniper. 

Today, pasted on the bottom left-hand corner of one of Bean's vibrant mixed media collages -- the artist's favored form -- is a simple notion articulated with newsprint: War is hell. 

Bean's other pieces hang on the eastern wall inside a boxy ecru building at 841 Santa Fe Dr. Aqua doors give way to a 7,000-square-foot gallery the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 1 purchased last June in an effort to attract new members and, also, to help Bean expand the homegrown art therapy program he's been leading at the Denver VA Medical Center since completing an in-patient therapy program there in 2013. 

"We are the very first VFW in the world, and the largest in the state," says Commander Michael Mitchel. His organization was founded in Denver 115 years ago, and is currently comprised of over 1.5 million veterans, Bean included, who served in foreign wars. 

"The location of our current building attracted us because we have been trying to dispel the image of VFW," says Mitchel. Bean's program offered an opportunity to break down barriers while attracting a new generation of members. "We told Curt we wanted him to use [the building] to its maximum potential," Mitchel says. And that's exactly what Bean did.

Art therapy for PTSDCurtis Bean started leading art therapy sessions in 2013.

Bean has the gentlemanly disposition of any other Midwesterner you'll meet. He's young, guarded, but warm and intensely passionate about whatever he's doing. "In the military, I was driven toward being the best I could be at my job," Bean says. 

Today, it's art that drives Bean to his highest. He's a full-time art student at the University of Colorado Denver, and an ardent advocate for local veterans with a soft spot for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

"I was in total denial until about four or five years out," Bean says about his own struggle with PTSD. "I started seeing it interfere with my work and daily habits," he continues. "You're 20-something years old, and, physically, you're in good health. You don't want to think something like that can affect you." 

Art therapy classes weren't part of the Denver VA Medical Center's PTSD clinic when Bean attended. After completing the program, Bean started painting, and quickly realized how much it was helping him cope. So, he approached the Denver VA Medical Center about leading other veterans in art. "It took months, but I finally got in there," he says. 

Art therapy has been used to treat patients since as early as the 1700s, and professionals have begun exploring its effectiveness in reducing PTSD symptoms. The process of creating art, the ability to lose oneself, promotes healing, Bean says. "Instead of physically talking, which requires you to relive an experience, you are getting stuff off of your chest, but in a less abrasive way." 

"What we are seeing in veterans coming back with PTSD is that there is no single answer," Mitchel says. "Different things work for different people, so we are trying to provide an outlet for that. What Curt is doing is a model of what other organizations should be doing."

Expansion and interactionArtwork by Spec. Angel Espino, US Army.

Bean's hour-long art therapy classes were successful -- so successful, in fact, that they've become a permanent fixture at the Denver VA Medical Center's PTSD clinic. That prompted Bean to start teaching classes at Hope Tank in Baker. And, thanks to the VFW Post 1's donation, Bean now has a third venue for engaging veterans and growing his project. 

Everything at 841 Santa Fe is free for veterans and their families. Art therapy classes are held on third Fridays. They're casual and fun: Bean demonstrates an art form then guides participants as they experiment. 

Yoga classes, another nonintrusive form of therapy, were added in July, and occur every Tuesday at 7 p.m. "I've found a lot of peacefulness in it, and it's a good way to get away from relying on medication . . . or self-medication," Bean says, explaining that the goal is to expose veterans to as many outside-the-box-resources as possible. "It's also about interacting with each other."

In an effort to build camaraderie, Bean holds film nights the last Friday of each month and opens the gallery to the public for the Santa Fe Arts Walk, giving veterans free gallery space and an opportunity to show their work to civilians. The VFW's largest source of new members is referrals from existing members, Mitchel says, adding, "We pick up new members every First Friday." 

Resources are an issue. The volunteer-based program is funded by Bean and through proceeds from Art of War Project T-shirt and hat sales as well as donations. "I'm always struggling to pay for the next class," Bean admits. 

Rallying volunteers is another task. "I'm not an art teacher or therapist by any means, so I can only do so much," Bean says. He's managed to find support from other veterans who, like former marine Tylor Belshe, also an art student, hear about the Art of War Project and want to help. 

"As a veteran, you are compelled to volunteer more because you volunteered to serve your country, and once you leave you still want to be part of something larger than just yourself," Bean says. "I've wanted to quit plenty of times, but every time somebody comes up and says, 'Thank you,' that keeps me going." 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
Signup for Email Alerts