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A Gallery With Heart

How one nonprofit is helping young artists with disabilities find their creative passion



Don Riley

If you’ve ever strolled through Denver’s art district on Santa Fe the first Friday of the month, you’ve probably wandered into Access Gallery. You might have admired its captivating contemporary art, hung simply on white walls under perfectly placed lights, and assumed that it’s just another gallery in this cultural paradise.

Not quite. The nonprofit gallery has a distinctive mission: to give people with disabilities the opportunity to learn about, create and display art—good art. How do they do it? We asked executive director Damon McLeese for the details on what makes Access so valuable.

Gallery director Damon McLeese poses in front of 126 and Swim, both by Melanie Yazzie.

Colorado Homes & Lifestyles: How did Access come to be?

Damon McLeese: We started the galley itself after meeting several artists with disabilities who couldn’t get into traditional galleries, even though their work was wonderful. For example, if you’re talking about someone with schizophrenia, gallery owners might not necessarily want to deal with an artist who is battling mental illness. So this was a place where they could—and still do—find representation.

But along the way, we realized that it’s not enough to just be a gallery. We started working with kids with disabilities—physical, mental, learning, all kinds—who are transitioning from high school into the next phase of life. These young people aren’t getting jobs; they aren’t going to college. So using art, we’re teaching them job skills and helping them earn some money by creating and selling art.

CH&L: What does that process look like?

DM: About two years ago, we began creating the gallery shows with our students. We had a group of 14 students who were either still in high school or just transitioning out of school. The show was called Pop Art With a Purpose. We studied Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney. Then the young people created 20 pieces of pop art based on Lawrence Argent’s blue bear sculpture [at the Colorado Convention Center]. We have our kids work in teams, which are led by professional artists. It ties back to job skills: You can’t just work alone. You have to learn to collaborate, communicate, share ideas. The show was awesome, and we realized we were on to something.

We call this our Artworks program. We always start by studying an artist or a movement with our students, and then we create a show. When pieces sell, we pay our artists commission, just like any gallery. Our goal, if people don’t already know who we are when they walk through the door, is to surprise them with great art.

Art-O-Mat machines, made from retired  cigarette vending machines, dispense original, pocket-size art. Sales support the gallery’s ongoing Artworks program.

CH&L: And we hear that people commission your young artists.

DM: Absolutely. We’ve just started making these collages based on words people give us. Students take photos of individual letters they see on signs around [the art district], and then they create original art—paintings and collages—using these words. You go to so many businesses and see the same prints from the ’70s. These works are original, they’re accessible and affordable.

CH&L: What do you want art lovers to know about Access?

DM: Historically, programs for people with disabilities are seen as very nice. ‘Isn’t it cute that they’re making art?’ But we aren’t trying to be cute or nice. We’re running an art gallery, and we’re doing necessary work. It’s transformational—for all of us.

A Little Piece of Picasso

Check out Access for yourself this month, when young artists will study Pablo Picasso and then create graffiti art inspired by his work. The show takes place in conjunction with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ production, “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso,” a one-man show that runs March 22-April 28. Stop by the gallery on March 15 to meet the playwright, admire the art and meet some of the artists.

Plan to visit access

The spring and summer exhibit schedule includes:

Access Denied, through March 10

A Little Piece of Picasso, March 22 - April 28

Sustaining/Creating, May 3 - June 9

Cause Related, July 19 - August 10

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