2001 Concordia alum Stephen Letnes was recently nominated in the 2019 Emmy awards. The composer has gained attention for his scoring of the documentary “Beneath the Ink,” which is part of GQ magazines “Short Stories” series and was nominated for an Outstanding Short Documentary Emmy. The film focuses on Zanesville, Ohio, tattoo artist Billy Joe White, who offers to cover up swastikas and other hate-filled imagery for free. The narrative and score have both gained acclaim, attention that Letnes is using to promote a cause.
While Letnes has made great achievements through his work in the film and music industry, he intends to take advantage of this recognition by advocating for disabled professionals. Outside of composing, he uses his time to promote the organization he began—the Able Artist Foundation.
The Able Artist Foundation helps educate special needs musicians by offering vocational classes, seminars, and mentoring from veteran professionals in the industry. They also provide various forms of financial aid, including scholarships, grants, and established partnerships with companies who provide their software and services at a 50 percent discount.
Letnes has stated that while his foundation only serves musicians, he wants to see it expand to help disabled people of all professions.
“I want to help the whole world,” he said in an interview with the The Forum.
The philanthropy is personal. Letnes himself is legally blind, needing to stand about four inches away from screens when watching movies. However, he is combative towards the notion that his limited vision affects his ability to work. After all, he’s credited as the composer for over 113 films, according to imdb.com. In the same interview, he elaborated on the conclusions that his colleagues may make about his ability, stating that he sometimes doesn’t inform filmmakers about his disability until after the work is complete.
Part of Letnes’s mission is not only to assist disabled professionals who have limited access to resources, but also to change the stigma that creates this imbalance. Many disabled employees, not just in the film and music industry, but everywhere are underrepresented due to often misplaced concerns about their capabilities. Letnes claims that disabilities are often a benefit for filmmakers, since employees can positively shape projects from a unique perspective.
“People will ask me, ‘How can I help you?’ People with disabilities are natural problem-solves because we’ve done it our entire life. You’re not helping us. We’re helping you,” he said in the interview. “I have the luxury of seeing the world in a unique way. That is a huge asset.”
Letnes recently came to Concordia, where he visited professor Greg Carlson’s video production class. He spent the time speaking about his work on “Beneath the Ink,” and also to offer some insight about his experience in the film industry. Student Grant Klevgaard learned a lot from his visit.
“My greatest takeaway was learning more about working in the film business,” he commented. “It’s all about how you present and market yourself. Steven did not let his disability get in the way of his success, and in a way, used it to his advantage.”
Carlson further explained what makes Letnes such an exceptional professional in the film industry.
“You can look at Steven’s list of credits to see just the sheer number of different projects that he’s contributed to. This is a prolific composer who has an understanding of how to work on any different style of projects. From shorts to features, his expertise is sought after,” he said.
Throughout his career, Letnes has continued to exceed expectations with both his activism and his talent. Even though he didn’t receive the Emmy, one can argue that the greater achievement was the resulting attention towards his foundation.
“The nomination is enough. I’ve already won,” he stated in an interview with WCCO radio.
And so have artists all over the world—because of Letnes.