Pop portraiture artist Rick Fleming’s affable hard-line style drew the attention of the Biden campaign in 2020, landing the painter with Down syndrome in the international spotlight. Today, his commission schedule is booked six months in advance, making him one of the most in-demand artists of his generation.
When a Presidential nominee calls you on Zoom from the campaign trail to discuss your artwork becoming official merchandise, you should probably show him your portrait of Tom Selleck. And Burt Reynolds. And Waylon Jennings. And all the other good-looking guys in your catalog to reiterate that you can capture the essence of a real man. (Yes, Prince, too.)
You may also want to talk about bodybuilding, a shared interest.
So it went between Austin, Texas-based artist Rick Fleming, who has Down syndrome, and then-nominee Joe Biden, who’d been made aware of the exceptional portraits Rick painted of Biden and Harris as a private commission.
Rick’s Biden-Harris portraits first appeared on a tote bag for the Austin studio and gallery SAGE Studio, a space for artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Co-founders Lucy Gross and Katie Stahl openly admit part of the reason (okay, maybe all of the reason) they launched SAGE Studio was to be able to hang out with Rick all the time.
“We love him so much,” Katie laughs. “He’s a hoot. He was the first artist we had at SAGE and we joke—even though it’s not really a joke—that we started the studio to continue to hang out with him. We are so thrilled for all the successes he’s had, especially this year.”
“I think there’s a big audience and appetite for the work because it’s fantastic.”
A long-time Biden fan, even before the 2020 Presidential race, Rick wore his heart on his sleeve about the Biden-Harris ticket. Everyone around him knew of Rick’s profound admiration for the two political heavyweights. “He’s a nice, wonderful guy,” Rick says. “He doesn’t take any b.s. And, he’s so handsome!”
When SAGE posted Rick’s Biden-Harris double-sided tote bag, several more commissions for Biden or Harris bags followed. The Biden campaign reached out to Rick and SAGE, asking for a new portrait on paper that they could reproduce on their own totes.
Then came the big call from JoBo himself. The two men talked for a long time about family, people they admire, and showed each other their favorite masks they wear to protect against Covid. “Rick seemed cool as a cucumber during the conversation,” Katie says. “It was a really lovely exchange.”
Get in Line
Rick, who by any standard was already doing well as an artist before the official Joe Biden tote bags appeared on the Team Joe merch shop, exploded after the public demanded to know who created the JoBo portrait. Commissions poured in.
“I am a real artist,” he says. Rick smiles with his whole face when he speaks about his art.
“He’s very talented at capturing the essence of people in not very many lines,” Katie says. “His art really reflects his humor. He has a distinct and unique voice as an artist. Even if I didn’t know Rick and saw his work, I would want to buy it.”
Once Rick drew attention to SAGE, traffic jammed the website bringing more exposure to artists like Rick. One extraordinary outcome of Rick’s international success is that more people around the world saw the exceptional artistic contributions of people with disabilities.
“There are phenomenal artists like Rick all over the country and all over the world,” says Katie. “I think as much as they can be given a platform and a way for people to find their work, then I think there’s a big audience and appetite for the work because it’s fantastic. We’re getting calls now because other people want to open studios like SAGE for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
The Bigger Picture
Like all great art and artists, Rick and his work inspire others to create, connect, converse and conspire to build a bigger, better world. His love of people and laughter is the kind of contagious we could all use right now.
We Include takes a hard line, too, about the incredible beauty we can unleash in the world when we support the artistic gifts of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We all belong in the portrait of inclusion—there’s room for everybody to make this life a work of art.