In the video documentary I Am We, videographer Phillip Person asks artist Ryan Starkey, Kappa Alpha Order (Arkansas-Fort Smith ’09), “If you didn’t have this condition, do you think you would be painting?” Tears welling in his eyes, Starkey answers, “Probably not. Probably not. Because as odd as it seems, tragedy goes with the most beautiful things created.”
“This condition” is an undiagnosed movement disorder Starkey was born with, a condition similar to Parkinson’s Disease or Cerebral Palsy. But it hasn’t stopped him from becoming a noted artist, a man whose award-winning work is displayed in his hometown of Fort Smith, and has hung on the walls of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Starkey was quick to clarify his remarks in that documentary to this Kappa Alpha Journal reporter, however. “What I also was referring to by that was the impact my disability has had, how it’s shaped who I am and my art. I didn’t necessarily mean that I wouldn’t be creating, but that it wouldn’t have the same effect and result it does if I didn’t have my disability.”
Starkey’s paintings, drawings and more have made him a local celebrity in Fort Smith, where he shares his gift by doing things like leading free, interactive drawing classes at a local library, teaching art techniques using pencil and charcoal. “I really like all kinds of mediums, and I’m not opposed to trying anything new,” he said. “I really like being involved in different processes. I just like jumping into something I may not know a lot about, but any way I can use my creative voice, I will. I’m very involved in always trying to expand my awareness of a new medium. I just like all things creative.”
Starkey wasn’t necessarily planning to join a fraternity when he started school at UAFS, but he became involved in Greek life through a serendipitous introduction to another student, Aaron Brown (Zeta Rho–Arkansas-Fort Smith ’09). “The founding of our chapter was a lot different, due in part to the campus having moved from a two-year college to a four-year institution and joining the University of Arkansas system,” recalled Brown, who held several officer posts in Zeta Rho. “The Provisional Chapter was mostly military vets like me and older students. A few of the guys in the chapter knew Ryan from high school. It just so happened Ryan was in the Campus Center at the time of our recruitment event, and Ian Miller (Zeta Rho–Arkansas-Fort Smith ’09) asked me to go talk to him. I walked over and struck up a conversation and the rest is history.”
In Zeta Rho, Starkey said he was able to just be himself and not necessarily be viewed any differently because he used a walker or was an artist. “Acceptance, I think, was certainly part of being in KA because, you know, I was just one of the guys. And they all loved what I did, I even sold a couple paintings to my friends. We were all in it together, just enjoying life and planning for the future. We were just a group of friends who, at the time, felt like we should have a presence on campus, a group of regular guys who really wanted that to happen. And for me, being disabled, you don’t fit a lot of stereotypes, so you’re really an individual. It’s just always been kind of how I look at life, and it’s how they looked at me.”
To view more of Ryan’s art or contact him, visit his Instagram, @rstarkey32.