Katie Neeley has always considered herself an artist but said when she reached adulthood she lost her voice and inspiration.
“I got to a point in my studies where I could draw or paint anything,” she said. “But I felt like I had nothing to offer. I had no life experience.”
Neeley, 33, decided joining the military would give her that life experience while giving her some direction. That decision would send her on a dark path that ended with a suicide attempt and hospitalization. Now the former Marine is using her experience, and money, to help other veterans dealing with the emotional ramifications of their military service.
The Albuquerque native opened the KD Neeley studio in the heart of Downtown and uses the gallery to not only display the work of local artists but as a place to host fundraisers. The gallery is located on Fourth Street just north of Central.
Neeley said she transformed it from a plain industrial looking space with a plain concrete floor, brick walls and exposed air ducts and piping. The studio now has a floor covered with bright paint, freshly painted ceiling and movable walls on which she displays the artwork.
Neeley will hold a fundraiser Nov. 11, Veterans Day, for the Heroes Walk Among Us nonprofit organization that helps veterans find jobs, housing, obtain an education and puts them in touch with other organizations that can offer them assistance.
Heroes Walk Among Us founder and disabled veteran Shane D’Onofrio said he met Neeley when she approached the organization for help. He said she’s a model of what his group hopes for veterans when they offer them assistance. D’Onofrio said the group will use the money from the fundraiser to fix up an eight-plex the organization purchased to house homeless veterans.
“She is a wonderful person,” he said. “She has gone through hell and is now back on her feet. We are proud of her.”
Neeley said she does not regret her decision to enlist in the military.
“When I joined the military, I got exactly what I was looking for,” she said. “I got to see the world and see and meet all types of people.”
But there were other things she hadn’t anticipated. Neeley said she was sexually assaulted by another service member although she never reported it. Her last six months of military service were spent in Iraq where she worked as a field wireman making sure the phones were hooked up and working. Not only did she endure all the horrors that come with combat, but lived in constant fear of being sexually assaulted again.
Despite the fear and trauma, she said the work and mission there was one of the “coolest things I’ve ever done. I liked being useful.”
The service took its toll although Neeley didn’t realize it at first.
“The first time I got bombed there (Iraq) I remember my first thought was ‘Where’s my socks?’ because I had just taken off my shoes,” she said. “I did not realize it was causing me trauma.”
Neeley left the military in 2007 and said strange things started to happen to her. Loud noises would illicit an involuntary physical reaction in her. When she would hear a garage door opening or closing, a few seconds later she would find herself under a table and behind a chair. Anytime someone was whistling she would start to shake. The sound reminded her of the mortars in Iraq.
“I was a mess when I came back,” she said. “I had PTSD and didn’t know it. I didn’t even know PTSD was real. Before I went, I didn’t believe in it.”
Neeley continued on a downward spiral before finally attempting suicide. This led to her hospitalization where she said she finally got the help she needed. She was put on medication, and diagnosed with PTSD and early onset schizophrenia. She also got intense therapy.
“When she ended up in the psych ward, everything came through for her,” said friend and roommate Lynn Johnson. “She was like an arrow to a bulls-eye. Everything solidified into one direction.”
That direction was the gallery and her commitment to helping others in the community like her. She also has a blog called Creative Encounters and a podcast called Wet Stuff that features fellow artists who are making a living with their craft. Neeley received a lump sum of money from the military, which was compensation for her PTSD, that allowed her to open the gallery.
“I had more money than I had ever had in my life,” she said. “But I needed a sense of purpose. All I’ve ever known to do is art but I thought that was vain and pointless. I wanted a way to help other people.”
Johnson said Neeley has created a unique space with her gallery that isn’t available anywhere else in Albuquerque. Johnson is an art instructor at Central New Mexico Community College as well as an artist. The two met when Neeley was a student in her class and became friends sometime later.
Because Neeley is using her own money and not government funds or sponsors to operate her gallery, Johnson said she can display any type of art she chooses. She said most local galleries are hesitant to display any kind of erotica or other controversial subject matter.
“She gives opportunities for people to show their work who may not have opportunities otherwise,” she said. “She’s really bringing a very new look to the gallery scene in Albuquerque.”