A brush with success — vet’s hard life framed by survival and perseverance

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Jack Butler has been painting since he was a teenager, mostly to stay out of trouble, he says jokingly. Butler will have a new exhibition opening at Peak to Peak Brewery, at 9735 E. Colfax Ave., Sept 5, with a reception Aug. 30 from 6-8 pm.
Portrait by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Jack Butler is a survivor.

The 58-year-old is a veteran of not just several Air Force tours, but also bouts with cancer, depression, schizophrenia, homelessness, drug addiction, childhood abuse and post traumatic stress disorder. He also crashed a Greyhound bus and says he saw a plane fly into a World Trade Center tower on 9/11.

He’s got a storied past that would challenge most people’s ability to get up in the morning.

But Butler laughs a lot these days. Recently, his cacophonous crack-ups rippled through Peak to Peak brewery on East Colfax Avenue. Behind him hung about half a dozen of his paintings — his first big art show, he said.

“I paint to stay out of trouble,” Butler said, bursting into unabashed laughter.

His Peak to Peak exhibition is showing through September 5, with a reception on Aug. 30 from 6 p.m.-8 p.m.

With the exhibition, Butler’s acrylic paintings are now hanging all over the Denver metro. A member of the local Veteran’s Arts Council, he says his art hangs in a veteran-run gallery in Denver’s Santa Fe arts district, in Aurora’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center gallery and a Stapleton art hub.

At Peak to Peak, his paintings include an image of Harriet Tubman on a 20-dollar bill; New York City’s two World Trade Center towers, silhouetted behind rows of coffins draped in American flags; and portraits of Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and his 3-year-old grandson, Aidan.

The paintings are mostly from the last year or two, Butler said.

He nursed a beer at Peak to Peak last Friday evening, sporting a purple polo shirt, thin mustache and a baseball camp emblazoned with “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

The work is all from the last year or two, except for one a small piece from the 1970s of a Cleveland industrial site.

He painted that before his long military career, many ups and downs, trials and redemptions.

When Butler was growing up between New York City and Cleveland, he said he spent much of his childhood alone. He was already 13 before he had a sibling, he said. He also said he was sexually abused as a child, but he did not elaborate.

He turned to painting, first with watercolors.

His work showed promise: He took college art classes as a teenager, he said. He was even offered a scholarship to a fine arts school.

But he turned down the opportunity for a steady paycheck from the Air Force at age 18, hired as a graphic designer to create maps and visual aides.

The Air Force took him to Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Aurora’s Buckley Air Force Base.

In 2000, Butler took a leave of absence and a job driving Greyhound buses.

While driving passengers back from Atlantic City, he said traffic accordioned before he had time to stop the 40-ton bus. Instead of slamming into the stopped traffic, he steered the bus over a sloped median, flipping the bus.

He said 27 people were injured. He was fired.

Shortly after, he said he saw a plane fly into the a World Trade Center tower from his mother’s house in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River. He said the city was covered in ash for miles.

He fell into a deep depression, he said.

However, Butler rejoined the Air Force. In 2004, he found himself on a Qatar base with a new job reviewing video footage of combat filmed from planes.

He said his job required him to watch Air Force planes provide air cover for American soldiers trapped on the ground.

“A lot of people died,” he simply said.

Butler was honorably discharged in 2005, he said. He left Buckley Air Force Base and embarked on a new life as a veteran.

The next few years were rough. He said he found himself with little to do and too much time to think.

“It all came to a head a few years after I went overseas,” he said. “All the depression, and everything else happened.”

“I had thought about putting a gun to my head,” he said.

Butler isn’t certain on years and dates. But for two years after leaving the base, he was homeless. Around 2008 he contracted prostate cancer and had a procedure to remove it.

He survived, but the treatment and long recovery left him depressed again, and with a new struggle: a cocaine addiction.

A heart attack brought him out of the drug use, he said.

That wasn’t the last of his health problems. Around 2016, he said he had a stroke that left the right side of his face drooping and unresponsive.

“Will I ever draw again? Will I ever paint again?” he remembers thinking. “Will my Mom have to take care of me the rest of my life?”

But Butler picked up the paintbrush once again, began to heal, and began creating the art that now hangs in Denver galleries and Peak to Peak.

Butler credits government assistance — social security, a forthcoming Air Force pension, Section 8 housing and more assistance for his PTSD — for allowing him to create art and mentor other military veteran artists.

His next life goal is to buy a motorhome and travel the country, painting landscapes. But he acknowledges he’d have to pinch pennies to make the dream reality.

“I’d pretty much have to scrape, and try to sell things and hit the lotto,” he said, chuckling. “The plan is in place.”

Butler is proud of his work. But the true achievement is that he’s still around to paint, laugh, teach and spend time with his mother, who lives in Thornton.

“We lose 22 veterans a day,” he said. “I’m just trying not to be one of them.”