Fort Smith artist at heart of award-winning film: ‘Tragedy goes with the most beautiful things’ 

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 1,270 views 

Fort Smith-based artist Ryan Starkey and filmmaker Phillip Person recently won first place at the ARTifact Forum & Gallery’s Short Film Competition held on Oct. 6 and 7 in Hawthorne, Calif. The festival honored the pair for their short film “I Am We” that details Starkey’s struggles and triumphs creating art as a person challenged by a disc-kinetic movement disorder.

The director, a 1995 Southside High School graduate who worked as production assistant on the blockbusters Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3, admits he had “no idea” how he was going to direct or produce the footage until he interviewed Starkey. He went into the initial meeting with no preplanned questions.

“I wanted to put him on the spot, to challenge him to give good answers. If we had rehearsed anything, it would not have come out as good,” Person told Talk Business & Politics in a recent interview.

Throughout the five and a half minute runtime, culled from hours of footage and “large amounts of hard drive space,” Starkey answers “some tough questions, and we got some tough answers. After that, I knew how I would make it,” Person said, adding Starkey’s voice “is the driving force. He’s the subject matter. It’s about him, so that’s how I made it.”

The film (see below) lasts about 339 seconds but it tells a complete narrative starting with why Ryan became an artist.

“To feel,” he says. “I paint as an outlet to the world that I rarely get access to.”

Starkey has a caretaker and lives in a duplex his father owns. To help make ends meet, he sells artwork. His condition is not known. If you “google” it, you will find information on a number of movement disorders, but his is undiagnosed, and doctors have been trying to figure it out since the first series of tests when Starkey was around “six or seven years old,” he says in the film. To look at and talk to him as he sits in a chair, there isn’t a discernible difference from most people.

“He’s mentally all there and well-spoken,” Person explained. “But he needs the walker to get around. Sometimes, just for a few seconds, he can stand on his own, but the way his hands move, he could be steady and start going erratic.”

(from left) Filmmaker Phillip Person and Fort Smith-based artist Ryan Starkey

Starkey’s metaphor may sum up the condition best. “It’s kind of funny. … It’s like I bought a car but then I didn’t receive the instruction manual for it.”

Person said he met with founder and CEO of Propak Corp. Steve Clark in October 2016 “and he wanted me to meet this kid named Ryan.” Person credited Clark, who has known Person and Starkey separately for years, with the idea of putting them together and doing a documentary about an artist living with a disability.

“I immediately said, ‘Yes.’ It was great subject matter, so I decided I would just have to shoot in my free time. It took six or seven months, whenever we could pick up shots, and then I just had to get it all together,” Person said.

Starkey’s artwork mimics his disability to some degree, demonstrating fluidity at times before becoming erratic.

“It kind of comes out of nowhere. It’s not a seizure type of movement, though.”

Person explained that Starkey’s message of positivity and “spreading love and being accepting of other people’s differences” is what drew him in as a filmmaker, and it’s what drew Clark – the entrepreneur behind 64.6 Downtown and The Unexpected annual art festival – to the idea of funding the project.

“The film is consistent with the concept of The Unexpected, to always challenge perspective, to see more than what meets the eye, and to challenge the definition of artist,” Clark told Talk Business & Politics.

As Starkey says in response to one of Person’s questions during the film (“How would you like the world to be?”), “I think, just, more accepting of people’s differences instead of just fearing what they don’t know. I would like to be remembered as someone who made a difference, not someone who’s sort of begging for love. But someone who, who just deserves it, and who, in turn, will, you know, make sure that love gets to other people.”

The question Starkey struggles with the most in the film: if you didn’t have this condition, do you think you would be painting? Through tears, he responds “Probably not. Probably not. Because, as odd as it seems, it’s like tragedy goes with the most beautiful things created. So, probably not.”