Known for his TedTalk and philanthropic work in Denver, Damon McLeese, executive director of Access Gallery, is challenging the boundaries of disability with creativity. We recently spoke with McLeese about the gallery’s “STREET ART: Graffiti Gives Back” exhibit, at 1801 California now through July 27, and the inspiration behind pairing people with disabilities and graffiti street artists.
You’ve been with Access Gallery, a nonprofit that works to offer creative, educational and economic opportunities to people with disabilities, for some 20 years—what inspired you to get into this work?
“It started when I volunteered as a camp counselor when I was 13. In all honesty, I didn’t have the chance to go to camp, so this was a way of going away to the mountains for a week. I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into. I was a personal care attendant for a young man with a disability and it kind of just got into my blood from that point. I’ve been doing it more or less ever since.”
Tell us about the “Street Art” exhibit.
“I’ve worked with street artists and graffiti artists off and on for close to 20 years and I believe graffiti is a very accessible but misunderstood art form. Very often people think graffiti artists are street thugs, hoodlums or vandals but there is a powerful art form underneath it.
“The way this whole thing started was a couple years ago my mother was dying and she was in a nursing home. It was not a great place for anyone, but it was a really hard place because there was not a lot of creative outlet. I got frustrated by that. I felt like one of the things she was feeling or was nervous about was the fact that she would be forgotten after she had died, and I realized that for a lot of graffiti artists, that’s why they do graffiti: to be recognized, to be seen, to prove that they were there. So I had this idea of hiring a couple of street artists to work with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia to do graffiti … and it kind of worked. It exploded this whole idea and I realized there were a lot of groups could teach street art to and some of those fundamental skills about leaving your mark.”
How have you seen art helping people with disabilities?
“I think too often in society we confuse creativity with artistry. I think the idea of giving people the opportunity and a safe place to create art levels the playing field. So much of our society is competitive in nature and creativity doesn’t have to be. … There’s always a way to figure out how to make art or creativity accessible and I believe it’s empowering for many.”
What boundaries do you see Access Gallery challenging?
“Every day we’re trying to find quicker ways to challenge stereotypes or expectations about what people with disabilities can do. One of the things that happened after the TedTalk was this idea about accessible art. A lot of people can be intimidated by all the utensils involved with painting so we started making artwork out of stickers. We had a group of people come in who couldn’t hold a paintbrush even if they wanted to, so we were finding different ways for people to explore different medium and all of a sudden we’re making artwork out of vinyl stickers. It’s been a fabulous medium for us to explore.”
Do you have a favorite piece you’ve seen around town?
“I just appreciate all the creativity and all the different pieces. They come up so fast. Whatever you see today could be completely different tomorrow. I’m a big fan of a lot of what’s going on in our neighborhood and RiNo.”