Damon Lee Patterson is on a mission. His device is “Art Saved My Life,” a documentary that celebrates creativity and goes to the spirit of art. This film will feature artists from all walks of life attesting to the authority of art and the role it plays in their lives, as well as to its power to transform the world.
I sat down with Mr. Damon Lee Patterson to discover, in a world filled with documentaries about artists, why this one is so important, why he feels it’s timely, and why, in a sea of crowd-funding petitions, we should donate to his indiegogo campaign.
I walk into the coffee shop where we are meant to engage. He wears all black from the cap atop his head down to the Chucks on his feet. He is tall and slender with a kind and unassuming face.
We purchase coffee. He’s already eaten, but I gobble down a turkey wrap as I get to know him. Art saved his life.
He began as a young teen, skipping class daily at a Kansas City public school. A teacher caught him one day and advised that if he were going to skip his typing class, he’d better do it in her room. It was a literature class.
That is where he learned to read great works of art and learned to appreciate the classics. He fell in love with the process. From there he auditioned for Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts and earned a place in the program where he studied everything from acting to music composition.
Now, partnering with Chameleon Arts & Youth Development, he turns a light on the art that shaped his life and on many artists from painters to hoolahoopers who testify to the saving grace of art. Following is a transcription of our conversation.
How did you come up with the concept to make a film about art saving lives? Where were you?
I was on 18th and Troost when the seed idea started ruminating in my head. We were doing probably 3 to 4 events a week at the space and there were probably classes and workshops everyday -- ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, break dance, gymnastic, hoolahooping, recording sessions at night, a mural was being painted on the outside of the building. I mean, there was all this stuff going on. And I was seeing the impact. It was happening in front of my face. I was seeing how it was positively affecting the people that were around.
Can you give me an example?
We were throwing open mics and there were a couple young guys who came up to me who were like ‘hey, man. Thanks for throwing this open mic for us, man. We look forward to coming to this every week.’
If they weren’t coming to that open mic every week, what would they be doing? Do you know?
They said they’d probably be out getting into trouble. That’s what they were telling me. At that time there weren’t a whole lot of venues catering to that crowd. That crowd is looked at as a liability to a lot of business people.
When was this?
About two years ago.
So the idea has been--
Brewing for awhile. Not only that. It was from the experience of teaching kids in workshops. A kid will come in and be really shy and reserved and not really have a lot of confidence to express themselves. Then by the end of the workshop those same kids will be the most outspoken from doing creative writing workshops and acting workshops, and music production. What the workshops were doing was giving the kids the confidence, the tools, to find their voice, and giving them the confidence to express themselves, letting them know everybody is different.
There are a lot of different people. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to have a different background. A lot of artists didn’t have cookie-cutter upbringings. And those are some of the most successful artists. A lot of kids when they come from difficult backgrounds or upbringings they kind of feel like they’re stuck in that and sometimes they go inside themselves and feel like maybe they don’t have much to offer because ‘I came from this, I came from that’. But really it’s the opposite. Because you had this experience you have something to offer. It’s all sorts of ways to show kids that.
What you mean is art saved your life because, particularly when you have a difficult upbringing, art helps to shape your perspective of the world, yes, but also to see your worth -- the worth in your experience.
In your story. There are gifts within those struggles. There are tools within those struggles and art gives you channels and pathways to be able to use it.
How many artists do you intend to feature in the documentary?
10 to 15 artists.
And of those artists how many of them come from this “difficult” background and can attest to the fact that art saved their lives? Because the word “saved” is a very strong word.
Yea, it is a strong word. I would say if not all, then the majority of them can attest to having a difficult background or experiences. Depression, some of the artists talk about art keeping them from committing suicide. Being abused as a child and not being able to speak and it giving them a way to express themselves. I mean, it’s real serious. I chose that title “Art Saved My Life” because I know how serious it sounds. I know that it can sound like I’m trying to be sensational and over exaggerate--
So you do understand the gravity?
I understand the gravity completely and I chose that because not everyone -- especially the people who can really contribute to the world of the arts -- especially in the inner city, knows just how important that arts in school is, arts in community centers, arts in the inner city really is and how much of an important role it plays in people’s life.
What do you want to use this documentary for? Is it an educational tool? Will it be a political tool?
All of that.
Give me concrete examples of how you intend to utilize it.
I want to send copies to all of the political figures that make the decisions over arts funding. I want to put copies in libraries and different arts therapy facilities and arts schools. It’s kind of like gathering evidence to show the power of art. It’s a film. It can be entertaining and educational, but it’s also evidence to say these are the people who have been through these stories. They’ve become successful and they’ve changed their lives. They’re giving their testimony from it helping with suicide. There were a couple people who were on all kinds of medication for like ADD, ADHD and they used music and the arts to get off of that medicine. I think that's powerful. It’s really profound.
Will you be featuring organizations? Will you talk to psychiatrists who can give medical testimony of patients who have used art therapy? Will you talk to schools or administrators who can say ‘when this student first came here we had this issue, but through their arts--’
Yes. I have an arts professor from the Arts Institute. I have some school teachers, an arts therapist, someone who does innerplay. I have a guy that’s on death row who is a visual artist who’s giving an interview.
How are you getting that interview? Are you going to the prison?
I’m still in talks with his lawyer. There’re all sorts of ropes to jump through. But we’re talking. I’ve seen his art. He’s a brilliant artist.
Can I print that?
Yeah. Yeah. I’m in talks with someone on death row about featuring their art and speaking with their lawyer. Someone on death row and they’re creating art, which is helping them stay sane in such an extreme situation. I tried to cover the full spectrum, not just visual artists or musicians, but all these different forms of creativity. Because art is not just painting or dancing. Life is art. Life really is art as cliché as that sounds--
I don’t think it’s cliché. I think everybody believes that, especially believers in a Judeo-Christian philosophy. You know, in the beginning God created--
The creator. That’s what we call Him. Creation.
I watch a lot of documentaries. Just this weekend I watched one on Anna Wintour, one on J.K. Rowling, and one on Jay-Z. These are about artists that came from particular backgrounds. A couple of them had seemingly insurmountable circumstances and through their art overcame the blight of their experiences. How is this documentary different? Where will “Art Saved My Life” have a place in all of those others that already exist?
Because I’m going directly to that. It’s about the artist. But it’s a documentary on art itself, like on the power of art. Not just the artist and overcoming their obstacles. I’m using artists to tell the story, but the documentary is on the power of art. I’m addressing exactly that.
You’re saying you’re giving a voice to art itself?
Yea. I’m putting the magnifying glass on the power of art. I’m doing it because in my mind everyone doesn’t know completely. Sometimes I feel like the world looks at art as if it’s a hobby. It’s this fun thing, this extracurricular thing we do. But if it can keep people from committing suicide, get people off medication, give people a vision for their lives it’s much more serious than that.
Do you think that arts necessity needs to be politicized?
Very much so. That’s the first thing they start cutting when they cut funds.
And we agree with it because we seem to be of the mind that, especially after the Obama presidency, that renewable energy deserves all the funding, so we have billions of dollars being funneled into renewable energy sources and that’s also to save our lives. Do you think art is equally as important?
I think it’s more important.
This whole world, everything that we’re looking at, was created. Minds create it. The more creative and open that people’s minds are... It takes a really creative and confident mind to tackle the problems this world is facing. It’s going to take open minds to imagine solutions. That’s what you do when you create. You have to imagine it first. Like ‘alright, this is a problem, what can happen?’ I feel like the more, especially this next generation, you know, they’re inevitably the ones that are going to solve these problems.
You’re saying artistry and creativity is central to critical thinking?
I think it’s probably one of the most important things that we do. And when I say art I mean in the broad sense -- anything that we put our mind to; that we dedicate our energy to, arranging things and creating something -- I look at as an art form like inventors.
So, you don’t think there is a separation between art and science, art and engineering, art and--?
There is an art to science. Science is art. It’s what we do. We’re making stuff. We’re creating stuff. Whatever that is, we create some new formula.
Well then, I guess my question becomes, if everything is art then why is this important? It’s like that, if every day is a sunny day then what’s a sunny day? If philosophy is art, because I agree with you, but I think further and--
Right, like you said, if everyday’s a sunny day, then why do we need to talk about a sunny day. Because I feel like the world has forgotten that. I feel like we’ve moved away from it. A lot of schools don’t even have arts programs. There’s no emphasis on it. It’s not there. Kids are not creating. They’re not engaging in stuff like that.
Would it be a fair assessment to say that you’re not talking about art in the way that we generally think about it, but more about cultivating the spirit of creativity, especially in youth?
Yes. It’s fair to say that. But you have to use what we’re familiar with to talk about what we’re not familiar with.
We need a point of entry.
You have to. Or it’s like what are we talking about. You have to show how it is there first to--
To deconstruct it.
I agree with you wholeheartedly. Why is now the right time for this documentary?
Because I feel, in my opinion, that the world is at a major turning point. I feel, I mean, it’s in everything. All sorts of things are falling apart. The veil is being pulled off of many of the things we’ve come to believe as true. Authoritative concepts we’ve come to abide by, ways of doing things, we’ve just, a lot of it is falling apart. All over the world there’s societies overthrowing their governments and not agreeing with the way things are done. The only way that we are going to continue in a productive, positive way is if everyday people realize their own power; if everyday people realize that they’re contributors -- that they can contribute to the world that we’re creating.
So, you believe we’re at a precipice in history? If I donate to your indiegogo campaign and help you make this documentary happen, how will you capitalize on the energy that is at a precipice in time? How do those dots get connected between your documentary and changing the world?
Well, changing the world starts with changing individuals. You can’t change the world until individuals know that they are the world. The world isn’t these far away governments and people in suits and lawyers. The world is me and you sitting right here; the world is them right there; the world is the people walking down the street; in our houses. The world is made up of everyday people, everyday interactions. The more that people realize their power and ability to contribute to life then the pendulum swings. It’s like they say ‘power to the people’. That phrase, what’s it mean if the people don’t know that they have power or what their power is?
You believe as a man, as an artist, as a documentarian that the power that the people have is their creativity, their artistry--
Is their gifts. It’s their God given gifts. Following their excitement; following what pumps you up, the things that excite you, leading you, what interests you, what causes your eyes to sparkle...it’s your gifts calling you. I mean, I’m one person. You’re one person. One person can do a whole lot, but more people can do more. One person can spark something else. I just want to remind people of their power, that they do have something that they can contribute. There was a kid the other day, I don’t know if you saw that being posted. Some fifteen year old kid just invented a new, cheaper way to detect early stage cancer. It’s like a fifteen year old kid tampering with stuff.
And you attribute that to art?
I think him being interested in stuff and tampering with stuff and arranging stuff is a form of creativity. And that’s a fifteen year old kid. That’s what’s going to change the world. ▪
There are just a few days remaining in the funding campaign. To learn more about this project, or to donate, please visit the indiegogo page.