The differently abled thrive under the watch of VSA Colorado/Access Gallery executive director Damon McLeese.EXPAND
The differently abled thrive under the watch of VSA Colorado/Access Gallery executive director Damon McLeese.
Courtesy of Damon McLeese

100 Colorado Creatives 3.0: Damon McLeese

#4: Damon McLeese

Some people might be different, but in Damon McLeese’s mind, that doesn’t mean they are disabled. With a little bit of spit and gusto, he’s been mentoring differently abled folks in creative pursuits as the director of Access Gallery and its parent organization, VSA Colorado, for more than twenty years. As far as he’s concerned, anyone has the tools to make art: Grannies with dementia can write graffiti, the blind can take photographs, and kids with developmental challenges can make a buck painting pet portraits or creating public-art installations for corporate clients. It takes someone with an artist’s soul, an activist’s drive and the voice of a true believer to get this kind of work done every day, and the big-hearted McCleese is living proof. Hear all about it via his answers to the 100CC questionnaire.

Westword: If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be, and why?

Damon McLeese: Keith Haring. He was one of the very first artists whose work I felt a personal connection to. I remember when he died, I felt such a loss. I share his philosophy of art being for everyone and love the idea of the whole world being a gallery. As I learned more, I was drawn to his support of and his willingness to share his talent on behalf of causes that were close to his heart. I love how his work is still relevant nearly thirty years after his death.

Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why?

I am so taken by Mark Bradford’s work. I first saw his work in Chicago, and have been following his career since. I love the fact that he is representing the United States at the Venice Biennale. An openly gay African-American artist from inner-city Los Angeles as our representative gives me hope and reinforces my belief in the power of art to transcend bigotry, politics and racism. You cannot stand in front of one of his large paintings and not be moved. I recently saw the exhibit Shade at the Denver Art Museum and was blown away at the work and how much it has changed over the years — yet it remains so obviously his.

Kids get creative at Access Gallery.
Kids get creative at Access Gallery.
Courtesy of Damon McLeese

What's one art trend you want to see die this year?

Actually, there really isn't any trend that jumps out at me at the moment. I kind of think trends are interesting in general, but my experience is that often the most interesting things are born out of a response or a reaction to a trend. I would say emphatically that I am not a fan of the trend of grown men wearing onesies, but that could just be me.

What's your day job?

I am the executive director of Access Gallery here in Denver. We are an organization working to increase economic opportunities for young people with disabilities through the arts. We use the arts as an entry point for people who are locked out of traditional jobs. Our students do not get traditional jobs. We do everything from selling art from a retired cigarette machine to creating large-scale corporate commissions. Every single day, I see art change people’s perceptions of disability, but more important, I see what creative expression can do for people who are constantly told what they cannot do. I always approach my work from a place of ability, not disability. I truly believe we are all creative geniuses; we just forget it somewhere along the way. Access Gallery is a place where people discover or rediscover that fact.

A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it?

I would build a completely accessible art center here in Denver. A place where people with and without disabilities can live, work and create together. The artists we work with are typically young, they age out of school, and due to a disability or perceived disability, they do not get jobs, and therefore they do not get housing, and the cycle of poverty continues. I envision a place that is free of physical, financial and attitudinal barriers. By providing affordable housing, a place to be creative and a community to be part of, our students can continue to grow as artists and become self-realized individuals. I truly have seen lives change and keep wondering what could happen if economic, physical and community barriers were removed for the artists I work with.

Denver, love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?

Love it. Denver is home. I don’t know if people realize what an amazing creative community there is here in Denver. Every day, I have the opportunity to work with some of the most open and giving artists and creatives, and am constantly reminded what a special, supportive city Denver really is.

Discussing art and discrimination at Access Gallery.EXPAND
Discussing art and discrimination at Access Gallery.
Courtesy of Damon McLeese

What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?

Create affordable housing for artists. I have lived in Denver my whole life. I have seen different pockets of creativity come and go. I believe there could be an opportunity for longer-term strategies to keep the artists in the neighborhoods. My wife’s business got priced out of RiNo a few years ago. I went through the area the other day and barely recognized it. I am all for progress, but let’s not forget that the creatives are normally the first to recognize the potential in an area, and then they are often the first to be priced out. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could incentivize an artist community instead of a multinational?

Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?

I am so happy and excited for my friend Nancy Rourke. Nancy is an artist who is deaf and who is gaining international recognition for her work in the DeVia’ (Deaf Art and Life) movement. I have watched Nancy’s work gain recognition in the deaf community here and am so excited to see what she is doing nationally. The stories of the deaf community are well represented in visual form, and Nancy has developed a style that tells the stories beautifully.

Everyone gets in the act of making art at Access Gallery.
Everyone gets in the act of making art at Access Gallery.
Courtesy of Damon McLeese

What's on your agenda in the coming year?

After running an arts organization for twenty years, swearing up and down that I was not creative, I am finally opening up to my own creativity. I am working on a book and have been doing more speaking and training. What I would love to do this year is take an actual art class. I don’t think I have taken a formal art class since college. I am drawn to creativity like a moth to a flame, yet have always worked at an organizational or systemic level. I like the idea of literally getting my hands dirty in the next year.

Who do you think will get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?

We have two artists working at Access who are doing some amazing work together: AJ Kiel and Josiah Lopez. AJ is a young man living with autism, and Josiah is one of our teaching artists and has been leading our Granny Does Graffiti program. I am a big believer in collaborative art-making, and a couple of years ago I paired these two artists to do a piece for a show. The result was amazing. They seemed to bring out the best in each other. We ended up doing a show with them, and the collaboration continued and is getting stronger on every project. Having a strong interest in street art and murals, I am looking for a wall they can do together. I would love to see this style on a bigger scale.

A dragon-themed art show, Here They Be Dragons, opens June 16 and runs through July 7 at Access Gallery. Learn more about Damon McCleese and Access Gallery online.

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