Texas Talent: Raising a Hand for Rett

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Kevin Black and Dave Clements are no doubt “Texas talents,” but when it comes to their story, having a “gift” is just the first chapter. They are both extraordinary photographers who capture incredible moments in time though their camera lenses; and Kevin has enjoyed a successful 30-year career as a singer and musician. While the art they create is undeniably breathtaking, it’s their grit and “no quit” attitude that make their tale a real page turner. 

More than 17 years ago, Kevin and Dave set out on a mission to raise awareness for Rett syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that most often affects females. When children with Rett reach a year to 18-months of age, their social and motor skills begin a state of regression, and they live the rest of their lives similar to an infant. Kevin knows all too well how Rett can impact a child and a family. His daughter Cortney passed away from Rett in 2003 when she was 16 years old. 

In 2016, Postcards Magazine sat down with these two talented photographers and shared their journey in creating a book, Raising a Hand, that showcased their photography of famous singers, each with a hand raised. Their mission was to sell these unique coffee table books to raise money for Rett syndrome awareness and research, and they did just that – selling over 10-thousand copies. 

While some would call their success a happy ending to a tale of two dads, they’ve decided to add another chapter to their story, or in this case another book – Raising a Hand, Volume 2.

So, first things first, which one of you said, “Let’s do Volume 2?” 

Kevin: It wasn’t me. (laughs) In fact, after Volume 1, Dave and I were getting out of the book business. We weren’t gonna stop the mission, we were just gonna change direction and find another way to raise money and awareness. It took three years to do the first book, and three years is a long time. 

Dave: It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. It was a stressful experience to do the first book. 

Yet, you felt motivated to do it all over again… why is that? 

Dave: My motivation has really been to help keep other families from having to do what my friend Kevin and his family had to do… and that was bury a 16-year-old girl. The day of Cortney’s funeral pretty much changed my life – not because I knew Cortney – and not because I knew about Rett syndrome. Both my wife Cathi and I stood in the shadows that afternoon watching a family bury a child, and my thought was – I couldn’t imagine doing what Kevin had to do…our daughter was the same age as his daughter.

Kevin: Dave was the person who energized me to be more useful than walking away from Rett and other families and to do something to honor Cortney’s name and her life; so that’s how we got into this 17-year, action-packed journey. We’ve been raising money in all kinds of different ways since 2003. 

It took three years to create the first book. What did you learn from creating Volume 1 that made the decision to do Volume 2 easier? 

Kevin: We are just two dads who weren’t in the book business and didn’t know anything about it. We had to learn along the way and ask questions. Then we were going into self-publishing, not being in the publishing business. Initially it was a struggle, but then we thought we had a wonderful book that showed so much respect for the artists who let us use their likeness and their brand for our cause. We thought we had something special. 

What can you tell us about Volume 2? 

Dave: First, I can say we are ahead of schedule. Part of the reason is we had the template – Volume 1. We learned how to get in touch with artists more effectively, and we’ve become better photographers. Put all that together – we are well on our way with the new book and months ahead of schedule. The good news is we have great artists who have said yes to being in Volume 2. 

Who said “yes?” Can you give us some hints? 

Kevin: Garth Brooks is one of the biggest names in the music industry, and he personally said yes and chose his picture. Gene Simmons with KISS personally said yes, and so did Lionel Richie. 

Kevin and brother Clint Black 

Dave: A big one for us is Tom Petty. To get an estate – the family of Tom Petty – to agree… that’s a big deal. The good news is we have every genre covered. We have the state of Texas covered. We have Conroe covered, and we have 30 more artists than we had in Volume 1 – 234 in total. We have some famous actors, too – Dennis Quaid, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Costner, and Steve Martin. 

I understand you have a new section in Volume 2, kind of a “behind the scenes” look… 

Dave: Yes. Kevin said, “We need Volume 2 to look a little different than Volume 1.” So, we ended up writing a section called “Stories from Behind the Lens.” It includes stories of our interactions with the artists. I wrote some, Kevin wrote some – the idea was so good that I couldn’t say no. 

Kevin: Yeah, we have some really cool stories about how we met the artists and what happened. It’s a real special section of the book. 

What are your hopes for Volume 2? 

Gene Simmons 

Dave: Early on in our process, we met a guy named Tom Brown, and he was able through a family trust he managed to make a $250-thousand donation annually to Texas Children’s Hospital in the spirit of Rett syndrome – as a result of hearing Kevin’s story. So, we don’t know what will happen with Volume 2. If there is another “Tom Brown” or “Thomasina Brown” out there that is touched by this story, who knows the impact it could have. What if it’s an artist… we don’t know. But, if you’re not doing anything, it stops. 

What are you most proud of in your journey to help Rett families? 

Dave: What I’m most proud of is not that we’ve raised so much money, but we’re giving a lot of Rett families hope. We’ve provided a lot of joy. A lot of people love music, and when they see our photos, it brings back their personal stories about these artists, and it tells the Rett community there are a lot of pretty famous artists that know enough about their child’s disease to agree to be in the book. 

Kevin: For me, it’s when a Rett family says “thank you” – because it means so much more. These families work hard to take care of their children. They often have multiple children, and life changes for the other children. My two boys didn’t get to grow up the same way they would have if they had had a sister without Rett syndrome. Life changes for everyone in the family, and because I am a Rett father, when they tell me their story, I can say, “I understand what you’re going through,” and I feel so bad for them. My heart breaks when I go somewhere and there are Rett families, because I know they are still going through it. All I can recommend is for them to hold on, get as close as they can to their spouse, set their problems aside, and figure out how to love one another. 

Dave: Every day Kevin makes a difference that I can’t make, because he walked in their shoes. I take my hat off to him, because I have not let him bury his daughter emotionally. She guides us – she intervenes in what we are doing — that’s a blessing and a curse for Kevin; and it’s a motivational factor for me. By his presence and his daughter’s spirit – the project will help people we will never know about. 

What do you think the future looks like for the two of you and your journey to raise awareness for Rett syndrome? 

Dave: Our whole mission is to raise money and awareness so other families don’t have to go through what Kevin’s family had to go through. Until there’s a cure, we are committed to doing everything in our power within reason to raise money and awareness for Rett syndrome. 

Kevin: I know at some point Dave is gonna say, “What about Volume 3?” 

Dave: I do think that when Kevin gets to the end of his time on earth and reflects back on his life – high on that list will be what he gave back to a community that desperately needed him. So, I have no qualms about it. 

“Raising a Hand, Volume 2” can be preordered on raisingahand.com. The book is $35. Visit the website to learn more about Rett syndrome and how you can make a donation to help bring awareness to this disorder. 

Kevin Black 
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