Dogs, bodybuilding and tote bags have nothing in common — except as topics of conversation between Austin-based artist Rick Fleming and presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Over a Zoom call on Oct. 10, Biden commissioned Fleming to draw a tote bag for the official Biden campaign store. The tote became available for purchase at the Team Joe Store on Oct. 24 and features a portrait of Biden in a blue suit.
“I felt proud,” Fleming said. “I did great. I hope people will buy it.”
Fleming, who has Down syndrome, was the first artist to showcase work at SAGE Studio in Austin. Lucy Gross and UT alumna Katie Stahl co-founded the studio in 2017 to increase the visibility of Austin-based artists with disabilities.
“It's important to us that our artists are earning a commission,” Stahl said. “They're able to pursue a career as professional working artists to the furthest extent that they can.”
SAGE Studio closed in March because of COVID-19, so to keep their artists engaged and earning income, Stahl said she and Gross launched the “Commission Project.” The project uses the SAGE social media accounts and newsletter to promote their artists available for commissions.
Through the Commision Project, Fleming sold over 30 portrait tote bags, including ones with drawings of singers Dolly Parton and Nick Cave.
“It’s fun to draw on bags,” Fleming said.
Stahl said Fleming has a unique and strong voice as an artist.
“He really is able to capture the essence of who he’s drawing,” Stahl said. “His art is phenomenal. (Fleming is) one of the most dynamic people I know.”
A supporter of former Vice President Biden, Fleming donated $155 of his profits to the presidential nominee’s campaign.
“Biden is the best,” Fleming said. “He is going to end the coronavirus forever.”
It was Stahl’s mother who first commissioned Fleming to make a Biden tote.
“My mom is a Biden supporter, and she knew Rick was also a Biden supporter,” Stahl said. “This was the bag that he was most excited about.”
Gross sent a photo of Fleming with the Biden tote to her father, who was phone banking for Biden in Michigan. He then sent the photo to the field organizer for the presidential election in Michigan, Lauren Carr. On Sept. 8, Carr posted the photo on Twitter, and it soon reached Biden’s digital director.
“(Carr) sort of made it her mission to try to get the attention of the campaign,” Stahl said. “This is (Fleming’s) art being recognized on an international stage … He is deserving of that.”
Biden’s digital director then worked with Carr, Stahl and Gross to schedule a Zoom call between Fleming and Biden.
“Rick was thrilled,” Stahl said. “He said he was not nervous — he was excited. It was a lovely conversation. We were still pinching ourselves that it was happening. ”
During Fleming’s call with Biden, Stahl and Gross sat off-camera, and his parents waited outside.
“It was one of those situations in life that you can hardly believe,” Rick’s father Wayne Fleming said.
Wayne wrote Biden an information sheet about Rick with details such as his love for animals and competitive bodybuilding experience. Wayne said his son just wants COVID-19 cases to drop so he can continue his artwork and other activities in person.
“Keep it clean (from COVID-19), Texas,” Rick said. “Like it was before.”