We had the good fortune of connecting with Damon McLeese and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Damon, how has your work-life balance changed over time?
The irony of lying flat on my back, in my own living room nearly 50 years to the day after my father committed suicide, was not lost on me. My father killed himself in the living room of our little house in Aurora, CO. In a split second he soiled the rug and changed the trajectory of my life and many other lives. His choice forever changed my choices or at least my understanding of my choices. Here I was nearly 10 miles due west of that sad little house a half-century later, understanding pain like I never had in the past. In some ways, I think that cold November morning I also understood him like never before. I realized my choices were leading me to an albeit, slower but almost as certain death. I was not taking a gun to my own head, but I was laying on the carpet of my living room, physically, mentally, and spiritually spent. My father took his life, quickly, brutally, and violently. My choices were ultimately taking mine, although my family could probably save the carpet. I had become a bit of a cliché. I was in my mid 50’s I had had the house with the lawn and the 2 car garage. I had found a job I liked and was good at. I had a happy marriage and did not want for anything. I was also, nearly 300 lbs., had developed a heart condition, sleep apnea, had given up on any kind of exercise other than walking to the donut shop. Much like drinking food had become a “fix”. If one donut was good six must be better. I was burned out on the role of caretaker and I was going too fast to even notice the wall I hit. I threw out my back moving into our new home. Still wearing my version of a super-suit decided to save money and do much of the move ourselves. Truly a bad idea. I threw out my back and went from going 1000 miles an hour to a dead stop. On the day after Halloween 50 years after the death of my dear old dad and 30 years after taking my last drink. I was spent. In the early morning hours of the months of November and December, I began to understand. I understood pain, I understood hopelessness, I understood fear, I understood him. Somehow, I found a way to be still and listen to the thoughts and the emotions I had spent a lifetime ignoring or pretending were not for me. For the first time ever I understood my father, I no longer felt anger or even sadness, just understanding. I chose life and every day since then I make a point to slow down, to pay attention to what my body is telling me. To stretch when I feel tight, to ask for help when I do not know something, to hire younger men to move heavy things, and to be ok with sadness. I am 30 lbs. lighter, I am so enjoying my job and I own my pain. I share when it is appropriate. I felt shame for so long about a man I did not know. I have no time to look back with remorse. I am the person I am today because of all of something I never told anyone. I find balance means we do not always have to be happy = that is impossible – balance to me is remaining grounded.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
After about 15 years of running an arts organization and swearing up and down, I was not creative, “I just ran the place”, I had a rather profound shift in my thinking. I realized that like so many people I was confusing creativity with artistry – they are two very different things. I cannot draw, paint, dance, or sing but I am very creative. Perhaps my biggest joy in the world is helping people rediscover the creative genius they all knew they were when they were in second grade. I love challenging assumptions about what people think other people can do. Over the years I have taught people who are blind to take photographs, people who are deaf to dance, we made an entire gallery show out of things we got at IKEA and my personal favorite taught people with Alzheimer’s and dementia to do graffiti. I love the fact that in the studio we encourage mistakes, we learn from our mistakes – where else do you get to do that? I have recently turned my attention to creative aging. I believe an 80-year-old has as much right and interest in creative pursuits as an 8-year-old. I love my big messy life and sharing ways to help people reconnect with that kid who could not color within the lines.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Well, pre COVID we would include things like Red Rocks (best concert venue in the world. Depending on the friend we would have to decide between City O City or Beau Joe’s. No trip to Denver would be complete without a loop through the mountains – I love driving through Rocky Mountain Park up Trail Ridge Road. But since this is 2020 and everything is either in the toilet or on fire we might have to adapt. I love the murals in Rino and the Public Art across Denver so a day on a bike would be in order. I also think Denver has a lot going on in terms of Museum’s the DAM, MCA Denver and Redline are all worth a look-see – I realize Redline is not technically a museum but it is one of the best places to check out contemporary art in the City. In COVID reality I think a bit of sun at Cheeseman or City Park is a good thing. Ok shameless plug here but if you want to have a very interesting conversation with an artist come to Access Gallery and I will introduce you to the artists we work with – Nicole V. will tell you all about dragons, Lorne T. will share with you his comic book Volcano Man, Allie G, will share why it is so important for everyone to vote, and AJ can help you find your way home on the RTD. While you are there you can pick up a $5 piece of art from our Artomat machine, a retired cigarette machine that dispenses original art.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
My family of choice – my wife Lynn, my daughter Zoe and all of those sisters and brothers of another mother I have in my life. If you read my story you know my childhood was not exactly rosy but in spite of that, I have found true joy and live an extraordinary life. I have been fortunate to have great teachers and mentors along the way and hope now in some small way to pass some of my experience and wisdom on to those I know.