Something Good in the Neighborhood – Dena Creaser

Dena Creaser had never been insulted so badly in her entire life, and it shook her. She’d hear it throughout the day on her patrols as a security guard. But rather than replying in anger, she’d later respond by drawing the person.

Creaser works for Fort Collins Marketplace, an unassuming strip mall for an unassuming patrolwoman. The job called to her, even if it didn’t seem to fit her at all.

Creaser worked for more than a decade as a music teacher for elementary students in Fort Collins. That job fit her. She’s not even five feet tall, she’s quiet and she prayed a lot, even though she isn’t religious. She’s also a little skittish: Her son jokes with her that she’s afraid of the dark. But she had nothing to fear around little kids.

Ashley Doebbeling and Dena. Photos by Jordan Secher.

When her mother, Dorothy, of Greeley, became sick with cancer, Creaser left teaching to care for her. After Dorothy passed away, Creaser needed something to do. She chose a new job as a security guard. She’s still not sure why. She thought maybe she could reach out to more people that way.

The job was a culture shock, as if she was a yacht rock guitarist joining a metal band. Many of the people she came across were belligerent, threatening and rude. Elementary students, on the other hand, typically don’t call their teachers fat and ugly, and they definitely don’t call them the “B word” to their face. It wasn’t just the homeless people who called her that either, though many of them would when she had to tell them to move or to stop drinking.

Creaser needed a way to get all that darkness out of her heart. She didn’t hate them; she tried to understand them. So, she began to sketch them.

She didn’t like the drawings, but the few minutes it took her to sketch a person and write a short story about her encounter emptied all that ugly out of her system. Putting the bad moments on paper released them from her thoughts.

“It was art therapy,” she says.

Creaser’s father was an alcoholic, and she thinks maybe that was why she tried not to judge the people who insulted her. Her mom, Dorothy, was the kindest person she knew, and she wanted to be like her. She wanted to treat people with kindness and respect.

“It’s not always easy,” Creaser says. “I have to remove [people from the marketplace] sometimes. How do I justify that in my head? I do it with kindness.”

Word got around, and the homeless population now generally considers Creaser a friend. One man in particular comes by every few weeks to make sure she’s treated well. If she’s not, he tells her, he’ll beat up those responsible.

At first, Creaser didn’t want to show anyone her drawings, even if she would sometimes give them to her subjects. She did that with Ashley Doebbeling, owner of Brightway Insurance in the marketplace, after she sketched her.

“This is wonderful,” Doebbeling told her, and Creaser rolled her eyes. But Doebbeling persisted, and Creaser began sharing more drawings and the stories she wrote to accompany them. “You should write a book,” Doebbeling told her. Now she’s self-published two books and, at age 54, will soon host her first art show. The proceeds from one book, “Out of the Shadows,” benefit homeless organizations as well as a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention.

“She helped me believe in myself,” Creaser says, though Doebbeling says Creaser was an inspiration to her.

“She would take the time to get to know someone and understand where they came from and translate that into her drawings,” Doebbeling says. “Many of her drawings are of the marginalized community. That makes them feel seen and heard.”

Doebbeling was the first to support her, and since then, Creaser’s had help from her employer, NewMark Merrill, which owns shopping centers in California, Illinois and Washington in addition to the Fort Collins Marketplace. Not only does NewMark Merrill allow her to use an empty commercial space, essentially giving her a gallery until it sells, but they also hired a muralist to paint one of her drawings (one of Dorothy and Creaser’s son) at the Village at the Peaks shopping center in Longmont.

“Dena uses sketching to align her beliefs with her duties as a security guard, allowing her to bridge the gap between her empathetic nature and professional responsibilities,” the company wrote on a page honoring her on its website.

Despite her positive messages of kindness and love, Creaser’s two books fit the mood of the black-and-white sketches. Her stories are full of F-bombs and the scary situations she faces as a security guard as well as the empathy she feels for people she encounters, including the woman who spits on her and the many she shoos away after telling them they can’t sleep on the property.

Now people know Creaser as an artist, not just a security guard. One day a homeless man approached her, and she stopped her patrol, worried about his plans.

“Could you draw a picture of me?” he asked.

A trio later came by and said they could draw too. Creaser told them to find a piece of cardboard and draw on it for her. Drawings from all three will be in her upcoming art show.

A year ago, Creaser offered a drawing to another homeless man who said he’d love it but didn’t have a place to hang it. Just recently, he returned to the marketplace and said he found a place to live with his brother. He asked for the drawing back. It now hangs on his wall.

Creaser misses teaching every day. She misses the kids and their gentle, goofy nature. However, she doesn’t think she would’ve healed from her mother’s death in the same way she has through her patrols, her drawings and telling the stories of people she meets.

“My mom gave me a lot of that kindness,” Creaser says. “I hope I’m living up to what she would want.”