When Phillip Person pointed his camera lens at one Fort Smith artist, he had no idea his creation would reach so many viewers.
Person, a 40-year-old Fort Smith native and movie maker, opted to act as "director and one-man crew" to highlight how Fort Smith artist Ryan Starkey has overcome a disability for the documentary "I Am We." The 5 1/2-minute movie, which showcases the personality and the artistic skills of Starkey, won first place at the Artifact Forum and Gallery's Short Film Festival in Hawthorne, Calif.
"When I made it, I had no idea it would win an award," Person said of the film, which can be seen at vimeo.com/phillippersontv. "I just set out to make a film about Ryan and help tell his story, so the award is very flattering and humbling for me. It's a bonus that the film won something."
The 30-year-old Starkey, who also is a Fort Smith native, has a disc-kinetic movement disorder, yet the condition doesn't hamper his ability to use his hands to create unique, impressive paintings, said Person.
"Ryan's condition is undiagnosed; there's no official diagnosis," he said. "Ryan has a great heart, a great smile and is very well spoken."
For part of the film, Person sat off-camera and asked Starkey the first questions that popped into his head. Person refused to make a list of questions before the interview, because he had hoped to get what he called "great answers" from Starkey.
"I paint as an outlet to the world that I don't really — that I rarely get access to," Starkey says to the camera about a minute into the documentary. "What do I fear? I guess I really don't fear anything ... because the fears just keep on changing.
"My physical condition is something that is unknown, meaning they don't have a diagnosis," he added. "They did a bunch of tests on me when I was like 6 or 7 years old, and .... they couldn't find anything. They did say, however, that it won't get worse with time."
Starkey's art can be seen at www.instagram.com/rstarkey32/, and some of it also can be seen on the Ryan Starkey Art Facebook page.
During the making of "I Am We," Person said he viewed Starkey as "an artist first" and as a person with a disability second.
"The interview and the film are about Ryan," Person said. "He was the driving force. Ryan was the voice of it and the nature of it. I had to get inside his head and figure out how to tell this with the camera."
Starkey also is a deep thinker who harbors a "beautiful" outlook on life, said Person, who obtained a bachelor's degree in film from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
"Ryan doesn't watch TV or get bogged down in other people's affairs on social media; he sees the world as we should," said Person. "And looking at Ryan's art, there's a lot happening. It's erratic and directly reflects his condition. A straight line in the art can go left quickly and then come back. Ryan's art is beautiful."
Starkey, who admitted he was surprised when "I Am We" won the first-place prize, has always been fascinated by art, but he didn't start painting seriously until he became a teenager.
"I definitely want to make art my career," said Starkey, who believes he is a distant relative to Beatles drummer Richard "Ringo Starr" Starkey and Ringo's son, Zak Starkey of The Who. "I'm also painting a mural at the Future School in downtown Fort Smith," he said. "I just started it and am about to go work on it some more."
Person, who has worked in feature film development and as a production assistant for the films "Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest" and "Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End," among others, partnered with Fort Smith nonprofit 64.6 Downtown for "I Am We." The 1995 Southside High School graduate used a Sony FS700 camera to capture Starkey and his artwork in and near Fort Smith.
"The camera has 4K resolution, so it eats up a lot of memory cards and batteries," Person said with a laugh. "It's a labor of love. We did the film on my free time, whatever time I had, over the course of six or seven months."
The Artifact Forum and Gallery's Short Film Festival also featured work produced by disabled individuals of all ages, he said.
"When Ryan and I showed up, we walked in and we were all dressed up, and those kids' eyes lit up," Person said. "It made their day. It made them smile, because they had seen the documentary before the festival. Those kids seeing Ryan in the flesh truly inspired them, not to mention it inspired me just as much."
The public's feedback from "I Am We" has been positive, he said.
"I hope when people see the film, they appreciate what they have," Person said. "Someone else always has it worse. Whatever you can do and whatever you have in life, make the best of it.
"Because Ryan is making the best of it," he added. "Ryan is leading by example."