Part 1 of a 2-part series.
A Walk Through the Dark
I grip my steering wheel tight and lean forward in frustration. “I am so over this bullshit construction.”
It’s dark and I’m tired. I’ve been in a writers’ conference all day and have no business driving around downtown Albuquerque at night. I should be at home, curled up in the corner of my couch, binge-watching Master of None and drooling slightly.
Instead, I detour to the Wells Fargo parking lot. It’s free, out of the construction zone, and only a few blocks away from my destination. What’s a few blocks?
A few blocks is a lot. When it’s cold, and the plaza I have to cross is inexplicably unlit, and strange men lurk in the shadows. I unlock my pepper spray and plan a letter to the new mayor-elect to spring for some lighting on the Civic Plaza at night.
A tall, lanky man stands up from one of the darkened cement benches. He slings a backpack over his shoulder and heads toward the crosswalk. I fall into step behind him, deciding for some reason that he’s safe, and that I will be safe as long as I am in his proximity. He starts gesticulating to the air and talking to himself. That doesn’t worry me. It means he’s in his own world and completely oblivious of me. Even better.
I spot the multicolored lettering in its yellow and blue and purple glory, beckoning above the tunnel of tall bleak office buildings:
Relief washes over me and I start bookin’ on over there.
The man I’ve been following heads in the same direction. He stops right outside the KD Neeley building, where a group of volunteers are handing out clothing and blankets to those without shelter. My pseudo-guardian takes a coat. “Thanks. This is all I need.”
I really did pick the right one to follow. Not only is he totally safe, but he is also one of the population group the gallery owner strives to assist—the homeless.
I walk into the bright, industrial chic gallery. The floors swirl with color and bubble under a shiny surface like those big rocks that you see at Natural History Museums, cut in half to reveal some beautiful mystical mineral. Warm earth-toned movable walls are adorned with art pieces.
I join the group of patrons gathered in a loose semicircle in front of the mic. I listen to the featured artist, Vietnam Vet George Salas, talk about how painting saved his life after he returned from the war. I listen to the homeless spoken word artist that the gallery owner is helping out. I recognize Katie Neeley herself from the photos in the newspaper article, and smile at her as she passes by. After the crowd thins, I wander around, looking at the art.
It is when I am gazing upon this piece, which was featured in the show Breaking Bad, that a man comes up and starts talking to me.
He introduces himself as Steve, the gallery owner’s agent, and describes, with obvious admiration, how Katie spent six months renovating this entire space herself. During our chat, I reveal that I am a writer and he says that Katie hosts a blog and podcast where she interviews creative types. “You two should interview each other.”
The opportunity to hear, first-hand, the story of how a former Marine opened her own art gallery in downtown Albuquerque and organizes fundraisers to help her fellow service men and women?! “I would love that.”
Two days later, I return to the KD Neeley gallery for the interview.
A Princess and a Thief
“I’ve always been an artist.”
In Kindergarten, when the class played “house,“ Katie would don the red fireman‘s hat and run around pretending to extinguish fires. The other kids told her she couldn’t be a fireman, because she was a girl.
Katie wasn’t having any of that. “Then I want to be a princess,” she told them. If she was a princess, she could do whatever she wanted. “I can be a fireman if I’m a princess.”
She sat down and drew a picture of herself. As a princess, riding a unicorn, through outer space.
That’s how it all began.
She had to get her hands on more crayons and paper. Her kindergarten teacher, Miss Irene, kept crayons in her desk drawer. Katie knew it was wrong to steal, but these were desperate times. When Miss Irene wasn’t looking, Katie would sneak over to the big desk and grab handfuls of crayons. “But I had a code or something as a little thief. I only wanted one of each color. So I meticulously went through and took all the doubles and put them back in the drawer.” She did the same thing with the colored construction paper. She stapled together three sketchbooks and filled them all with drawings, enjoying how the colors of the crayons blended with the different colors of paper.
When Miss Irene confiscated her sketchbooks, Katie knew she was in trouble. When Miss Irene showed up outside her house, Katie knew she was in big trouble. She ran upstairs and hid in her room while Miss Irene talked to her mother. After Miss Irene left, her mom came up the stairs.
Instead of a scolding, she gave Katie a color book and a box of crayons.
Katie shows me her sketchbook from when she was growing up. The progression from the brightly colored and sensuously rendered princesses and nymphs from her youth to the darker, black and white images of pain and purgatory in her sketchbook as an adult, is striking—and fascinating.
Waiting for a Bus / Jesus Stayed Around For A While
One of Katie’s sketches (not pictured here) is of a landscape, with a tree, and a man hanging from it. “A friend of mine,” Katie says. She drew the scene from a memory, although to this day she doesn’t know if it really happened or not. (Katie would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia.)
She met him when she was enrolled at the Art Institute of Colorado. “His name was Michael Gonzales. He was homeless. I used to hang out with him. When I first met him I was waiting for the bus and I had my headphones on and back then I was into heavy metal and I would have the volume turned all the way up and I would just be entranced in Cradle of Filth or some terrible band and I . . . passed out. My blood sugar was low and I passed out on the sidewalk waiting for the bus. And I woke up when Michael came by with a Big Gulp cup full of Vodka and he poured it all over my face to wake me up. I remember opening my eyes and seeing, like, Jesus. And that’s Michael—he looked just like Jesus. A white Jesus. He had the bright blue eyes and the long hair and he was homeless, so, that’s what Jesus looks like.” Katie and I both crack up at this. “So I remember being, like, ‘Jesus?’ When it was Michael.”
She and Michael sat together and talked about music. Michael told her he liked that she wasn’t afraid of him, because most people were. She loved listening to Michael play the guitar; every song he played “sounded like you were hearing it for the first time, like magic.”
But Michael was an alcoholic. “He had problems. He was homeless for a reason.” She would hang out with him during her class breaks, in the smoke pit, watching him dig for cigarette butts. “I was the one who always brought the bad crowd around, because the homeless people would be my friends.”
One day Katie found Michael drunk and unconscious in the park across from the campus. She sat down and cradled his head in her lap, crying, trying to get him to wake up. Finally, Katie’s roommate, who had come looking for her when she didn’t return home after class, found her and pulled her away from Michael’s body. He told her there was nothing more she could do for him.
That was the last time Katie saw Michael. Except for the dream.
“I have a memory of holding Michael’s feet and pushing up on him because he hung himself from a tree. . . . I remember holding his feet, his shoes, and pushing up and screaming, and he was dead. I don’t know if that really happened or not.”
That day Katie had first met Michael, the day he had revived her up with the Big Gulp of Vodka, he’d had a rope in his hand. “He was actually on his way to hang himself. And then he stuck around a while longer while I was in school and we were friends Eventually I think he committed suicide. I don’t know if I found him like that or if it’s a dream falling into the wrong part of my brain.”
She has searched records for any information of Michael or of a suicide in the park, but in vain. “My only way of contacting him in the first place was running into him at the bus stop.”
She has no idea of he’s dead or alive.
Once Katie’s college scholarship ran out, the terror took hold. She saw her debt piling up, and was not learning any skills that would help her make money. It was time to grow up, get out, and start making a living. Even though she had straight A’s, was one of the Institute’s best students, and her advisors and peers tried to talk her out of it, Katie dropped out of art college. She doesn’t regret that decision. “I’d be in so much debt right now if I’d stayed.”
9-11 had just happened, and the war was all over the news. This was her opportunity to gain real world experience and make a difference.
Katie joined the Marine Corps.
Bye Bye, Princess
Katie’s sketchbook from her service days are completely different than what she’d done before.
Gone were the princesses and the fairies and the sensuality and the color: being a woman in the military presented unforeseen challenges.
For one thing, she wasn’t allowed to participate in the camaraderie and bonding that her male counterparts enjoyed. “I was so fucking lonely. Just so lonely.”
She asked her boyfriend at the time why he wouldn’t let her go with him and the rest of the guys to hang out. “Don’t you understand?” he said. “They’re attracted to you. As long as you’re attractive to them you can never be one of the guys.”
Which led to the other thing—her fellow servicemen often proved to be a threat. She didn’t realize until years later that part of the reason she would get into a relationship was for her own protection. “Which is sad,” Katie says.
Katie used to hide a sketchbook in the waistband of her fatigues, tucked against the curve of her lower back. (She still wears the trousers she was issued, now decorated with splatters of paint.) For the four years she was in the Marines, she filled her book with new art, journal entries, and poetry. Darker images of disillusionment, sorrow, destruction, and death. That was how she coped until her service was up.
After returning from Iraq, she treated herself to a Wacom Cintiq digital tablet, and she began drawing in color again. “When I got out, the first art work I made was just like the artwork I would make before I got in.”
She became fascinated by the masks and costumes of the Venetian carnival, particularly the jester and its “laugh now cry later” spirit. She started working on what she calls the “Fool” series that harkened back to the princesses she used to draw, only now they were these “princess-looking fool characters. With fancy dresses. Stuff that I thought was so stupid when I enlisted.” But it was exactly the kind of stuff she needed to return to.
“I was all messed up after I got back from Iraq. A sound would go off and my body would react without my permission. I would just take cover.”
Katie didn’t know at the time that she had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
“I didn’t even know PTSD was real, ‘till I had it. I was so ashamed of the thought.
It got to the point where I actually committed suicide.”
Check my site next week for part two of my interview with artist and former Marine Katie Neeley.
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
The current exhibit at the KD Neeley studio, Face Palm Patriots, benefits Heroes Walk Among Us, a non-profit group that helps veterans find jobs, housing, and other resources. It runs through January 5, 2018.