This Marketplace Security Guard’s Sketches Reveal the Humanity in Everyone Who Passes Through Her Center

Dena Creaser does not have a typical background for a security guard position. But two years ago, the former elementary school music teacher — then 52 and 4 feet, 9 inches tall — had been looking for a new job. She saw the listing for Fort Collins Marketplace in Colorado on Indeed and thought: “I could do that.” Security did not evoke images just of military or police enforcement for her. “It meant keeping people feeling safe and secure, and that’s always been my role,” she explained.

As a teacher of small kids, Creaser, a caretaker by nature, had developed ways of communicating and mediating arguments and skill at reading people. Teaching, she said, “gives you a basis on how to understand people and how to talk to people. I’d taken lots of classes on development and mental issues, so it kind of fit together.”

NewMark Merrill Cos., owner of Fort Collins Marketplace, immediately saw the appeal. “Dena has just the exact skill set that we’re looking for: someone that you’re proud to put in front of your tenants and your patrons as someone who really cares about the shopping center and cares about the community,” said Danaria McCoy, vice president of operations and marketing for the company.

Dena Creaser at work as a security guard at Fort Collins Marketplace

On her first days on the job, though, Creaser wasn’t quite sure what she’d gotten herself into. Fort Collins Marketplace, a grocery-anchored neighborhood center at one of the city’s busiest intersections, attracts college students, community members and homeless people. As Creaser patrolled the center, checking on tenants and customers, she saw a homeless woman huddled in a corner with her dog and a few men stumbling about, reeking of alcohol. Creaser’s responsibility, she knew, was to move anybody sleeping and any panhandlers off the property. Some of these people “just broke my heart,” Creaser said. But she figured: “If I got their names and started to know them, they might start to feel more comfortable with me and then it would be easier to move them on.” She also hoped they’d be nicer to her. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it did not. “I got screamed at in the face a lot,” Creaser said.

“Kind but firm” is how tenants describe Dena Creaser’s security style.

To process these experiences and work through them after work, Creaser drew pictures of the people she met: The drunk man who slurred his words but with whom she sat at lunch and for whom she bought coffee or a meal. “I didn’t understand a word he said,” she recalled, but she could tell how important her presence was to him. Creaser learned that the woman clutching her dog like a stuffed animal was recently widowed and the dog was her only remaining comfort.

But Creaser’s portraits weren’t all of sadness and hard times. She also drew pictures of the patrons, shop owners’ families and people she got to know on her daily patrols: a tenant’s daughter caught laughing, mid-cartwheel, a man walking his bike while cradling and comforting a bird that had been hit by a car.

It was a way of documenting the human experience. “You look at the pictures and you see a human being. Even the person standing there screaming at you — that’s a human being right there, and they deserve kindness and love,” Creaser said.

A sampling of Dena Creaser’s sketches of people at Fort Collins Marketplace, where she works as a security guard, from left to right. 1) Creaser enjoys talking with a mother and son who visit the shopping center almost daily. 2) A homeless man who knew he could not remain said to Creaser: “You don’t have to say it. I saw you coming and started packing up.” 3) Creaser treated this man, two days from the sober-for-30-days mark, to her favorite Starbucks drink, a Strawberry Crème Frappuccino. 4) A man tunes a ukulele donated by Newmark Merrill & Co. 5) Creaser baked a cake to celebrate this man’s birthday. She said: “My mom always said that everyone should have cake on their birthday. It made his day! He doesn’t remember the last time someone gave him a cake or sang Happy Birthday to him.”

Her medium, charcoal, is an unexpected choice to personify these experiences. “Charcoal is messy,” she said. “It smudges. It looks broken because the lines don’t all connect.” But the pictures are captivating.

As Creaser got to know these people as individuals with different interests and backgrounds, she noted the things each needed. Some needs were obvious like snacks, water and blankets. Others were less obvious: guitar string replacements, harmonicas and other instruments. “A lot of [these people] are musical,” Creaser said, and that’s a language the former music teacher understands well. “It’s something I could talk about easily to them,” she said. When one man said he’d always wanted to learn guitar, Creaser lent him hers, and then she bought guitars for other people with fundraising support from her former high school classmates.

Landlord, Tenants and Community Members All Get Involved in Her Art

Eventually, Newmark Merrill’s leadership discovered Creaser’s off-hours work. For certain property owners, this sort of philanthropy might raise concerns, scarping the line of promoting kindness and encouraging homeless individuals to settle on the premises. “We want to make our shopping centers safe places and we want to create environments for our tenants to be successful and for our patrons to have a welcoming experience,” McCoy explained, “but we also want to be kind.” NewMark Merrill has come to believe there are different ways to keep people safe, and Creaser’s way of doing things “was one of the best approaches we’d seen,” McCoy said. In fact, the company has encouraged security personnel at its other properties to adopt her approach.

Rather than curtailing Creaser’s efforts to distribute supplies, NewMark Merrill purchased them for her. There’s not a budget, McCoy said, but rather, when Creaser expresses a need she’s discovered, the company tries to fill it.

Creaser also has continued to draw the people and things she notices on her patrols. One day, she showed her sketches to Ashley Doebbeling, the owner of Brightway Insurance, a Fort Collins Marketplace tenant. Doebbeling had known Creaser for the whole of Creaser’s tenure, but Doebbeling was shocked. “I had no idea she was an artist,” said Doebbeling, who loved the drawings. “They kind of tell their own story. They’re not too finely detailed where you might be able to recognize exactly who the person is, but you get a sense from the drawings about who the person is and what they’re about.” Watch a video below about Haley Titus’ Kind Words mural at Marketplace 99 in Elk Grove, California, which incorporates a sketch of some of the women who work at Brightway.

And when other Brightway employees saw the sketches, they offered to help Creaser self-publish a book. It was the least they could do, Doebbeling said. “Dena has a really tough job. She goes above and beyond. She puts herself in situations that aren’t the most comfortable. It could be picking up trash or having to wake someone up out of a dead sleep. We wanted her to know that other people are looking out for her, just like she’s looking out for all of us.”

Creaser allocated funds from the book, which she published on Amazon, to local organizations focused on homelessness and suicide prevention.

BUY THE BOOK: Out of the Shadows: Drawings from My Daily Walk by Dena Creaser

When NewMark Merrill leaders saw the book, they were blown away. “It was a combination of artistic talent and storytelling and empathy,” McCoy said. “The world is a place full of stories when you’re as observant and caring as Dena. We wanted others to see what she put together and the approach she takes to her life and her work.”

Before COVID, NewMark Merrill had started a program to bring the community together through public art and murals at its centers. The company’s leaders knew Creaser’s drawings should be a piece of that community art program, McCoy said. The company commissioned artists to combine Creaser’s sketches and integrate them into murals at four properties. The resounding messages revolve around Creaser’s life philosophy: “Don’t wait to be kind.”

As part of its community arts program, Newmark Merrill & Co. commissioned four murals that incorporate sketches by Dena Creaser, a security guard at the company’s Fort Collins Marketplace. Angie Nordstrum’s Kindness was unveiled at Newmark Merrill & Co.’s Village at the Peaks on Aug. 14.

When Angie Nordstrum, who painted the first mural, saw Creaser’s sketches for the first time, she cried. “She captured moments of kindness and caring for each other in the most unexpected of places,” Nordstrum said. The drawing Nordstrum chose for her mural was of a younger man reaching to help an older woman. Only after she painted the mural did Nordstrum learn that it was a sketch of Creasers mother and son. The mural was unveiled at Village at the Peaks in Longmont, Colorado on Aug. 14, the anniversary of the death of Creaser’s mother.

Dena Creaser sees the mural Kindness, which incorporates a sketch by Creaser of her son helping her mother in her mother’s final days battling cancer, for the first time. The mural debuted on the anniversary of her mother’s death. “It just meant so much,” she said. “I miss my mom, and she always talked about the importance of kindness.”

Creaser herself does not care much for publicity and shrugs off the extra attention she has been getting. But NewMark Merrill leadership “wanted the whole world to see what Dena is doing,” McCoy said. Creaser wants people to be seen, McCoy said, and in the same way, she deserves to be seen “because she is a fabulous person making a difference.”

When asked what she hopes community members, tenants and customers will take from the muralsS, Creaser offered this guidance: “Get to know people. Say hi. Smile. We’re all human beings and we all deserve to be treated with respect and love.”

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