By Shawn Williams – Dallas South News Editor
What do you want to do before you die?
The question sent four friends (all born while I was in middle school) on their life’s journey that landed them a show on MTV. In the process it also lead a Dallas man from the streets to his own arts studio.
A little over a month ago, the guys behind an upcoming series titled The Buried Life were in town looking to see if Dallas had something to offer their show. The concept is a take on a “bucket list”, with Canadians Ben Nemtin, David Lingwood, and brothers Jonnie and Duncan Penn running down their list of 100 things they want to experience in life before they die.
The guys take a bus across North America marking items off their list -like teaching an elementary school class, making $100 street performing, and learning to fly- while looking to pay it forward, helping others accomplish their goals and dreams along the way. In Dallas, the crew took notice of a man on the streets selling his drawings. Sam Fuller’s art mixes vibrant reds, oranges and yellows, often depicting musical settings; dance halls, concerts, and nightclubs.
Not only did Fuller’s work make an impression on the guys from The Buried Life, but also the fact that all of his drawings had two signatures at the bottom. They asked him who was “Laban” the other named the appeared in the corner of each piece. “Laban is my son,” he said, a son who he hadn’t seen in over 15 years.
So Duncan Penn and the guys asked Sam the question: “What do you want to do before you die?” “Reunite with my son.” Fuller said. They had found their man.
The Buried Life and a full film crew came back to town looking for Fuller. The closest thing he had to a permanent address was the Austin Street Shelter. But they had bought him his first cell phone so they could get in touch with him whenever they needed to update their story.
The fellas took him to Opening Bell Coffee at Southside on Lamar to film a segment for the show that is slated to start in December. While they were shooting, Ms. Jan Gore, owner of Texas Caribbean Foods next door came over to see what was going on. Sam’s life hasn’t been the same since.
Ms. Gore is an art enthusiast to put it mildly. Every quarter or so, she rotates the work of different artists on the walls of her restaurant. Before she learned anything about Sam’s story, Ms. Jan was already thinking about how she could feature the pieces that he had brought to the film shoot.
She told one of the assistants from the film crew that she would like to host a reception for Fuller and put his red and yellow images up on her store walls that are similarly hued. The assistant began texting and calling the 4 principals from the show who had taken Fuller to another location. It was just the type of break that the show looks for.
Once Ms. Jan met Penn and and his three counterparts, they began to expound on the premise of their show and speak more about Sam. She felt something bigger was at work. “When they told me Sam’s story, I said we can do more for this man.” While Gore was sensitive to Fuller’s desire to reconnect with his son, she was more concerned about getting him stable and off the streets. Gore also felt that his art should have a chance to reach a wider audience.
She scheduled a series of meetings, with everyone from Southside on Lamar proprietor Jack Matthews to Dallas Mavericks General Manager Donnie Nelson. Momentum built quickly, and she started connecting with Fuller more frequently, bringing him into her restaurant while preparing him for her ultimate goal: his own live in art studio in the Southside’s Artists’ Quarters.
The first time I met Sam he was having lunch at the restaurant and Ms. Jan was blessing him out because she couldn’t find him for a meeting she had scheduled. I told Sam to join the crew having been on the receiving end of several Ms. Jan tongue lashings myself. He showed me his drawings, which were amazing. Although they were stills, the dancers seemed to dance and the musicians seemed to play. I was sold just like everyone else, it was only a matter of time.
So Tuesday night was the culmination of the work of a lot of people pitching in to help a fellow traveler on this Earth. A man who was homeless just over a month ago stood at the steps of Suite 109 looking down on a distinguished group of Dallasites gathered to celebrate his new start. Willis Johnson of KKDA Soul 73 served as emcee, and Dallas Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Pauline Medrano had words as well. Other politicians, business leaders, art enthusiasts, and Southside residents witnessed the event as well.
“This whole thing has been overwhelming,” Fuller said. “I used to have a dream of having my own gallery that I could live in,” he said, “now I do.” In the background beaming was one of Fuller’s early champions, Jaffre Dick. Dick -a man who says he’s had his fair share of blessings in his life- noticed Fuller’s work while getting his car washed one day.
“I thought he had a very unusual talent” Mr. Dick said. He bought some of Sam’s work and every since he’s pushed him to keep working until his big break came. It looks like Fuller is on the brink of that big break.
So what was the critical moment? Duncan Penn and the Buried Life guys for finding Sam in Deep Ellum? Ms. Jan Gore agreeing to display his work? Jack Matthews finding space in his building where Fuller could pursue his dream. Jaffre Dick pushing Sam since meeting him a couple of years ago?
Joy Tabernacle AME Church pastor Rev. Michael W. Waters called it “Divine Providence” before he prayed on the steps of Fullers new studio. Divine Providence is a theological doctrine that suggest God sovereign guidance and control through the course of human events. Without stating it so clearly, many of the evening previous speakers suggested the same thing.
Sam might say that the critical moment hasn’t happened yet, since he still hasn’t connected with his son Laban. As excited as all of us are for Sam, it’s understandable that his son is still a bit skeptical. Fuller has yet to hear back from his son though he has attempted to contact him on several occasions.
MTV will likely chronicle Fuller’s journey in an episode in December, but even with his recent success, Sam’s Buried Life list still has an item that has yet to be crossed off.