Were this the Eighteenth Century, a time of horse-drawn carriages and omnibuses; a time of conservatories and traveling musicians and artists, Damon McLeese may well have conducted seminars while seated in a high-back, hand-riveted, velvet chair. He may have been dressed in tweed and smoked a pipe as he wove intricate yarns about the artists of the time, whose work he’d have seen, but many of his students would not have the means to know first hand. Were this the Eighteenth Century, Damon McLeese’s vast knowledge of art history, technique and teaching would have been available only to some of the most “refined” among him (which at that time usually just meant “rich”). Luckily, though, it’s the Twenty First Century, and in addition to not fearing death by Typhoid fever or Smallpox, humanity has greater access to art than ever before. Damon McLeese is at the forefront of that accessibility. He’s on a mission to bring art to people of every walk of life. He's also far more apt to wear t-shirts and tennis shoes than a frock of tweed.
The complete picture
Damon is the Executive Director of Denver’s Access Gallery, one of the great spots down on Santa Fe’s blossoming art district. And while his resume speaks mostly to his experience in working with the disabled (a term you can immediately tell falls outside his favor), Damon will entertain you with his knowledge of art history. But like a true curator of great arts and artists, he’ll not only recite the facts, he’ll bring them together, creating something of a story that speaks to his greater passion. That passion is bringing art and art training to people who are disabled, which is where his work at Access Gallery finds focus. But the professorial image of Damon McLeese isn’t about knowledge alone. It comes from the calm, intellectual tone with which he speaks, and the way he poses an argument with a Socratic grace.
He’s quick to point out, as he did when we spoke with him, that great art, some of the greatest, most celebrated we’ve known as a human culture, was conceived of and constructed by people we have or would now consider to be “disabled.” He’ll cite big names like Beethoven, Van Gogh, Chuck Close and Dale Chihuly, each of whom had or has a disability of some kind (and if you need to, Google any of them, fear not, I did too). And really, he says the next part best, so here’s the straight dope, so to speak:
So we celebrate artists with disabilities, but then we also have this sort of interesting dichotomy going on here where, well, ‘If it’s art by someone with a disability, how good can it be?’ So part of my great joy, and part of what we do [at Access Gallery] is when we show artwork it is artwork of professional grade. It's not good for ‘disabled art.’ It's just good art.
Art for everyone
See, Damon recognizes, through years of experience working with Colorado Easter Seals, Colorado Special Olympics, and as the first director of the City of Aurora Volunteer Center (where he worked with the Points of Light Foundation), that there’s still a stigma attached to disability. And that stigma is something he’s working to fight. Every piece of artwork that Access’s students create changes the public perception. Each beautiful print, carefully brush-stroked watercolor, and iconic photograph demonstrates that just because the artist may not look or act like anyone else, doesn’t mean their work is devalued. And when you hear him speak about it, his voice raising with impassioned excitement, it resonates, the way any good professor’s lecture would.
And that’s not all. Damon’s also a champion for art education in general. As art programs have been cut or underfunded across the country, Damon knows that it’s not just the kids and adults who come to Access Gallery for class who are missing out. It’s children in public school systems everywhere. And he’s an MNM Affiliate Faculty member at Regis University, so you know, the academic thing, well, it just makes sense. Damon McLeese works to bring art into the hearts and minds of children and adults with disabilities, but he also offers the gift of great artwork to the public at large. Art is expression. Art is freedom. Art is beautiful. Art is loving. Art is human. And art, more than anything else, is all-inclusive. It’s not the Eighteenth Century anymore. You don’t need a sprawling estate or regal connections to learn about art, or to create it. Art’s for everybody. And Damon McLeese is fighting to ensure that.
Awards and Honors
- 1999 VSAC co-produced "Beyond Barrier Free" an award winning educational video