SALT LAKE CITY — When Alonzo Clemons was a toddler, he suffered a traumatic head injury that permanently impaired his ability to learn and communicate. It also affected the way he interprets the world around him, and at an early age he had a passionate desire to express himself by sculpting.
Unable to tie his own shoes and barely able to speak, Clemons was mistreated throughout his childhood. Little was known about savant syndrome at the time, and he was institutionalized in a state hospital at the age of 10. He remained there for a decade, continuing to sculpt on a daily basis. When the hospital staff took away his clay, he’d improvise, sneaking outside to scrape tar from the parking lot with his fingernails.
Individuals with savant syndrome have developmental disabilities, as well as genius-level abilities in a specific area, and Clemons is now recognized as an artistic prodigy. He lives near Boulder, Colo., and creates sculptures in his small apartment.
When the hospital staff took away his clay, he'd improvise, sneaking outside to scrape tar from the parking lot with his fingernails.
When Utah filmmakers Joseph LeBaron and Travis Pitcher heard about Clemons’ remarkable story, they felt compelled to meet him in person. The four-minute video they created from this meeting is drawing praise from across the nation.
I sat down with LeBaron and Pitcher to learn the story behind the video and why they created it.
How did you first hear about Alonzo Clemons?
LeBaron: We first heard about Alonzo through our friends in a group called “What I Thought I Saw,” which is a photo-story traveling exhibit and book that tells stories of people we may have otherwise been overlooked. They told a beautiful story of Alonzo, accompanied with a stunning portrait in their book. When we read about him, they kindly helped produce the short by making connections and giving us an idea of what to expect.
What was it about his story that interested you most?
Pitcher: Perfection and imperfection. Lots of people see Alonzo’s condition as a disability and pity him. But really he’s a very capable man, making a life of his own temporally, artistically and mentally.
LeBaron: I wanted to let the man speak for himself. There’s a stigma attached to people with mental disabilities that makes it easy for people to write off what someone like Alonzo might say. We really wanted Alonzo to say what he wanted to say.
Lots of people see Alonzo's condition as a disability and pity him. But really he's a very capable man, making a life of his own temporally, artistically and mentally.
–- Travis Pitcher, filmmaker
Where was the interview conducted?
Pitcher: There was no space in his apartment, due to all of the drying sculptures. We wanted to showcase him and his background but had to all scrunch together in this tiny room, careful to not damage any of his sculptures.
LeBaron: We did the interview in one of his back rooms full of sculptures. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, nothing but drying sculptures.
How did you approach the interview?
LeBaron: We had seen a BBC short and German television feature on Alonzo, but they always used narrators and Alonzo wasn’t allowed to speak. We were dead-set on having him tell his own story. Once we saw that we had a major hurdle to overcome with Alonzo’s speech, our designer, Josh Brandt, came up with an ingenious way use text without traditional subtitles. This was important because it would have defeated the purpose if we had subtitled, effectively translating the entire thing.
What was Alonzo like in person?
LeBaron: That man glows. Straight up. There’s something in his eyes. Just watch the video. There’s a depth of humanity there that I’ve not quite been able to understand. He’s also a very strong man; tall, broad shoulders, but very timid and polite. There's a quiet, giant aura to him. He welcomed us into his home and was very kind.
Where does he sell most of his sculptures?
LeBaron: All of his sculptures can be purchased online at alonzoclemons.com.
Which of his sculptures impressed you most?
Pitcher: The intricacy of his elk sculptures was impressive. But what was mesmerizing was how fast he sculpts. Just to capture it all on camera, we had to have him sculpt three separate pieces, which took him in total only about 15 minutes. And that was him going slow for our sake.
That man glows. Straight up. There's something in his eyes. Just watch the video. There's a depth of humanity there that I've not quite been able to understand.
–- Joseph LeBaron, filmmaker
Your video has been getting a lot of notice. Why do you think it resonates with people?
LeBaron: Obviously because Alonzo is a special talent. I believe people pick up on how pure he is. We wanted to set the video up so people would think he was just another guy like they’ve seen bagging your groceries or sweeping on the streets. I think that reveal of what he’s capable of doing and saying is really intriguing to people. I know it was intriguing to us, which is why we wanted to meet him in the first place.
How did you choose the music for the video?
LeBaron: We filmed with Alonzo back in April and really took our time with this one. I went through so many music options. Too many to count. I happened to have Kishi Bashi playing in the background while watching raw clips of Alonzo and instantly knew it was a fit. We reached out and were thankfully able to license the song. The words, the pacing, everything about the song fits in my opinion.
What do you most want people to take away from the video?
Pitcher: I want it to break stereotypes. And actually, I just want people to enjoy it and feel happy after watching it.
LeBaron: Agreed. I want this video to further the conversation on mental illness and mental disabilities. And truthfully, I want people to want to buy one of Alonzo’s sculptures. They’d be lucky to have one sitting in their home.
What other projects do you guys have coming up?
LeBaron: We’re working with a lot of new clients, mostly in the non-profit world, but we are currently circumnavigating the world filming a feature documentary. We left Oct. 12, driving from Salt Lake City to New York City. We then flew to Sweden for a few days. We’ve been in Berlin for three days and are just a few hours from flying out to Singapore. After that, we have one last trip for the year down to Guatemala for Operation Smile. We’re really excited to work with them, because they’re an organization that’s doing a lot of good around the world. We really believe in their mission.
Grant Olsen joined the ksl.com team in 2012. He covers travel, outdoor adventures and other interesting things. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.