Alonzo Clemons, artist, sculptor, savant came to Boulder Rotary Club on Friday along with his personal assistant Nancy Mason. In addition to his art work, Alonzo also works at the Boulder Valley YMCA and has for over 27 years. Boulder Valley YMCA CEO Chris Coker, introduced Alonzo, and shared that through his work at the YMCA Alonzo has made hundreds of friends and that they light up every time they see Alonzo.
Alonzo worked with clay during the program, and his personal assistant, Nancy Mason, related Alonzo’s story. At the beginning of the presentation, Alonzo took out what looked like a baked potato but was
actually a lump of clay. From the unformed lump, Alonzo started working on a sculpture.
Nancy spoke for Alonzo on Friday because Alonzo speaks slowly. Alonzo had an accident in his home when he was three years old. The injury caused significant damage to Alonzo’s brain. Nancy said that the injury left Alonzo with, “what we would call disabilities.” The injury changed the way Alonzo thinks and learns and communicates. That injury has persisted in causing challenges for Alonzo throughout his life. The injury also caused something “miraculous,” according to Nancy. She said that when Alonzo recove
red from the injury, he “knew” about sculpture. It was not just that he knew about sculpture, he had a nearly irresistible drive to do sculpture even though he’d never been taught how to sculpt. (At this point in the program, the lump of clay was recognizable as the beginnings of a horse.)
By age five, Alonzo’s mother noticed something unusual was going on. Alonzo would scour the house looking for any material he could use to manipulate. He’d find and use things like wet soap and lard to make figures. It became his constant activity.
At the time Alonzo was growing up, there was no program to educate people with mental or physical disabilities or challenges in public schools. Nancy explained that Alonzo’s family was faced with some extraordinary challenges in raising him and in order to get help, the only choice was to have him go to an institution. That is not the standard practice now, but it was not uncommon during Alonzo’s childhood.
While he was at the institution in Grand Junction, Alonzo continued to use whatever material he could find to sculpt figures of animals. The staff noticed and also noticed that it seemed to be the only thing Alonzo wanted to do.
For the staff at the institution, Alonzo's sculpting was kind of a problem. They were attempting educate their charges and to teach life skills. Alonzo did not want to engage in anything other than sculpting. The staff at the institution then decided to use Alonzo’s drive to make sculpture to motivate him to learn what they wanted to teach him. To do that, the staff took Alonzo’s clay from him and made him “earn” it by paying attention to what the staff was teaching. Nancy said she would not say that the motivation of the institution’s staff was, “bad or evil,” but she said, “that’s how Alonzo saw it.” In fact, Alonzo still sometimes shakes his head and says sadly, “took the clay away, child abuse.”
Nancy, who has worked with Alonzo for more than twenty-four years says she thinks that in many ways, “it was abuse.” She knows Alonzo well and she believes that Alonzo’s sculpting was not a favorite activity or a hobby. Nancy believes sculpting is, “an integral part of his person-hood.”
Nancy went on to say that even when the institution’s staff took his clay, his need, his passion to sculpt would not be stopped. Nancy says that Alonzo is very, very observant. He looked at this environment at the institution and found other materials to use for his sculptures. For example, when the tree pruners would come and trim trees, they coated the branch stubs with tar. Alonzo would go and carefully scrape off that tar to use for his sculptures. He also mined the tarry substance that is used to patch cracks in roads and concrete. He hid the tar sculptures in his bed. (Nancy thinks that may have only worked for Alonzo until the staff had to take his bedding to be laundered.) Nancy told us that Alonzo was so observant, he even found the glazing putty used to keep window panes in place was a good material to use for his sculptures. She did not say if there were lots of loose window panes in the institution.
In the 1980’s, there was a change in how society viewed these institutions and the people who lived in them. Integration into their communities became the standard practice and Alonzo moved from Grand Junction to Boulder to be in a facility that allowed people with a variety of challenges to live and work in the community and still have some financial, medical or therapeutic assistance.
While he was living in his new home in Boulder, a move came out that changed Alonzo’s life. The movie Rain Man brought international media attention to a phenomenon known as the Savant Syndrome. Savant Syndrome is a term describing people who have both a developmental disability and a specific, untaught, genius-level skill. During this time of intense media attention about Savant Syndrome, Alonzo was recognized as a savant and was featured on TV programs. The show 60 Minutes did a segment with him for example. Because of that attention, he was able to “go professional” as a sculptor. He found an art agent who helped Alonzo make bronze pieces out of his sculptures and sell them.
Alonzo interjected to ask Nancy to explain the “rule of 8.” Nancy said that artists making bronze sculptures make a clay or plaster mold of a wax and clay sculpture. Bronze is then poured into the mold and when removed, the bronze is in the shape of the original s
culpture. Usually, artists make a limited number of sculptures from each mold. Alonzo usually makes around thirty of any sculpture. After those thirty bronze sculptures are cast in the original mold, the mold is broken. This is called a “limited edition.”
When Alonzo sells seven of a run of one of his sculptures, number eight is his to keep. The sculptures Nancy brought to show the audience are Alonzo’s eights. Nancy also takes Alonzo out to dinner to celebrate when he gets one of his eights!
Nancy was ha
ppy to tell us, “no one takes his clay away anymore.” Alonzo is now his own man. He has his own home, his own business and works at the YMCA. Alonzo’s art made his transition to living on his own somewhat easier when the place he’d been living, with others who had disabilities or needed assistance, was de-funded and shut down. The residents of the home had to find homes in the community, living individually.
Alonzo also uses his art to make presentations to inspire people about creativity and sometimes to address bullying. Alonzo has been speaking in grade schools for years. He’s inspired young people to be creative and to pursue their dreams. When he does presentations addressing bullying, Nancy says it is a way to illustrate to young people that different is not always bad or less. She said when she and Alonzo talk about bullying, they talk about the fact that human beings, tend to want to be with people who are like themselves. When humans find a group of people that are like themselves, they can look at people who are different as “other.” When children (or adults) see someone different, sometimes it can lead to teasing, harassing, or disenfranchising those people. Alonzo is there to show the young people that every person has a “treasure inside” and that those treasures may be in people who are different than yourself. She and Alonzo hope they will look for the treasure rather than dismissing or bullying people who have differences.
Nancy said that art is significant to Alonzo in another way. She pointed out that when Alonzo is making art he is not disabled. He is the opposite of disabled. As an artist Alonzo is proficient in the way that a master of any art is- significantly more skilled than any other person and uniquely talented.
You can see (and purchase) Alonzo’s work by visiting his website, alonzoclemons.com or you can go there by clicking HERE
It was amazing to watch the clay that started out looking like a baked potato turn into a fully realized sculpture of a horse (swishing tail and all.) if you missed this program, would like to see it again or share it with friends, you can do that by clicking HERE
The Friday meeting is always full of interesting and informative content- last Friday was no exception and if you want to see it you can find it by clicking HERE
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