Joe Biden campaign tote bag features portrait from artist with intellectual disability

Erin Donnelly
·3 min read
Rick Fleming's portrait of Joe Biden (similar to the one pictured here) has been made official campaign merchandise. (Photo: Courtesy of Sage Studio)
Rick Fleming's portrait of Joe Biden (similar to the one pictured here) has been made official campaign merchandise. (Photo: Courtesy of Sage Studio)

Due to restrictions in Texas regarding his intellectual disability and guardianship situation, Rick Fleming won’t be able to cast a vote on Election Day, but he’s got his presidential pick: Joe Biden, who has tapped the 51-year-old Austin native to be part of his official campaign merchandise.

Alongside Biden/Harris-branded face masks, “No Meowlarkey” cat collars and apparel from fashion heavyweights like Vera Wang, Tory Burch and Prabal Gurung, fans of the former vice president can sartorially signal their support with the Biden portrait tote, a canvas carry-all which features Fleming’s portrait of the Democrat candidate.

It’s quite the coup for the Biden supporter, whose portrait originally came about as a commission from the mother of Katie Stahl, co-founder of Austin’s Sage Studio, a studio and gallery space working almost exclusively with artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including Fleming. Stahl tells Yahoo Life that she and co-founder Lucy Gross first met Fleming while working as art instructors at the local arts organization The Arc of the Arts.

“When we started Sage in 2017, he was our first artist,” she says. “We kind of joke and say that we started Sage just so we could work with him again.”

When the pandemic forced them to shut down their studio space, Stahl and Gross launched a tote bag commission project to keep artists like Fleming afloat; clients could request a particular portrait subject to be drawn on their tote bag. Fleming had completed a series of Nick Cave totes when he got the request from Stahl’s mother to create something closer to his own interests.

The original tote is double-sided, with a portrait of running mate Kamala Harris on the opposite side. Sage Studio posted a photo of the piece on social media, which Gross’s father, who happened to be phone banking for the Biden campaign in Michigan, sent to his volunteer coordinator. Before long, it had caught the attention of Biden’s digital director, who reached out with an offer Fleming couldn’t resist: the opportunity to meet with the presidential candidate himself, over Zoom.

Related: Trump, Biden hold events on final weekend before Election Day

During the Oct. 10 call, during which the two men discussed art, dogs and the pandemic, the former Delaware senator broke the news that his campaign would be selling his work.

“I was so touched by your art and your dedication to our campaign that we’ve commissioned your work to sell as a tote bag on our website,” Biden told Fleming, who immediately flashed two thumbs up.

"I felt proud of him,” Fleming tells Yahoo Life of the meeting. “I showed him the pictures that I made."

Although proceeds from the $30 tote bags, which are one-sided, will financially support Biden’s campaign, Fleming has been paid a commission for his original work. While the exposure has prompted other artwork commissions to come flooding in for Fleming, the biggest buzz for him seems to be Biden himself.

"I love him,” says the artist, who lives with his parents. “He's the best man for the American people. I trust him and Kamala Harris. He's going shut down the coronavirus so it's gone for good forever."

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