There is a constant positivity that Damon McLeese brings to each work day at the VSA Colorado Access Gallery in the Art District on Santa Fe.

You can see it, you can hear it, the second anyone walks in the door.

“Hi, Richard! Nice to meet you. Welcome!” Damon says to a man who has stepped inside the gallery for the first time. “We're going to give people a few more minutes to come in and we'll get started.”

Richard and about a dozen other seniors are showing up to the gallery to get their hands on something unfamiliar to them: Graffiti.

“One of the stereotypes we're trying to fight is the idea that graffiti artists are all thugs and criminals and vandals, cause they're really not,” Damon explained.

The day’s class is officially in session, taught by Damon’s friend, local street artist Ratha Sok. The assignment? Creating a graffiti mural.

“These guys are muralists. Their work is seen all across the city. It's really beautiful wonderful work,” Damon said. “We've worked with the graffiti with our younger students for many, many years.”

But this time the students are older, and despite the spray cans that await them, what they’re here for is because of something as unfamiliar to them as street art.

“It was a project that we wanted to try and break down some stereotypes about what people with Alzheimer's or dementia might be interested in,” Damon said. "Just because somebody's a little bit older or might have dementia or Alzheimer's doesn't mean that they're not interested in creating and pushing themselves a little bit.”

He’s talking about people like Lehman Hoag, 80, who seems to have a knack for the art. He picked up a spray can and didn’t want to put it down.

Hoag was diagnosed with a mild case of dementia in November 2014

“He really got into it, ready to go from right at the beginning,” Damon said. “He was ready to paint or do something. He was one of the first ones that jumped on the mural.”

And just like that, his gallery’s mission became apparent with a whole new group of students.

“I love the arts. I love what arts can do for people,” Damon said. “I've seen people's lives change, not just by our program but other programs.”

VSA Access Gallery

Damon began running the VSA Colorado Access Gallery in 1997.

“We find a lot of people, in this country, with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed. We find a lot of people are kind of locked out of some of the cultural scenes,” he said. “About 15 years ago, we had a group of artists that weren't getting representation in other galleries, so we decided to open our own gallery.”

The gallery is full of different styles of art for sale, all created by people with disabilities. In many cases, the profits may be the artists’ main source of revenue.

“We find that a lot of people with disabilities are either locked out of traditional, or jobs period. We find that art is a way for a lot of doors to be open for people with disabilities,” Damon said. “And it's a way for them to really express themselves. It's a non-competitive environment that really focuses on the internal, not the external.”

It’s not every day that the gallery works with people who have been diagnosed with dementia, but the project was inspired by his mother, who was an artist.

“Last fall, my mother passed away and she was having some dementia and some issues before she passed away. She was in a nursing home the last six months of her life,” Damon said. “One day I was coming over to the gallery, we were going to do something with a group of students and she says, ‘Oh, I wish could come with you because I'm tired of doing coloring books. I'm tired. I want to just get out of this place.”

And that is what Damon says sparked the idea to have people battling the irreversible disease try something more than coloring books. It’s a chance for them to interact with new people, to face new challenges.

“I know coloring books are great. That's a great stress reliever, but really, it's not hard to introduce other things,” Damon said. “I could see us doing this on an ongoing basis with the Alzheimer’s [Association]. We have a little crew. Maybe one day we can get a commissioned mural on a wall somewhere. That would be awesome.”

And after three hours or so of watching this group of people from the Alzheimer’s Association tackle something they knew nothing about, there it was: Damon’s everlasting positivity shining through.

“How can you not be positive? I mean, I wasn't sure it was going to work,” he explained. “To see the finished product is really -- it's hard not to be positive when you're around here. A lot of the people that we work with are in very, very difficult situations, yet the drive to create is always there.”

The mural will debut on April 1 at the gallery, during the monthly First Friday event on Santa Fe at 5 p.m.

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