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As chief of staff of the Denver Public Schools system, overseeing 90,000 students and a near billion-dollar budget, William Lee-Ashley manages the district’s communications, government affairs, and outreach work. He’s also a celebrated visual artist, working largely in mixed media including oils, pencils, and spray paint. Featured in three solo shows in Denver in the last four years, Lee-Ashley’s art wrestles with issues and ideas from the personal (raising his two little kids) to the philosophical (“how society is dealing with race”). We asked him what sparks his creativity.

Sixth Extinction Book Cover
Lee-Ashley is reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning tome—at a glacial pace.

Book: The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert

I’m averaging about a page a day, so the sixth extinction might happen before I’m done with the book.

Technology: Apple earphones

I’m on the phone about two hours a day and they actually make that tolerable. When I get to the studio, the same earphones call up the music that helps me get into the headspace to produce. 

Artists: Jean-Michel Basquiat and William Kentridge

Basquiat is a New York artist who died young and left behind a huge number of jaw-dropping, socially conscious pieces. Kentridge is a South African artist who animated charcoal drawings that told the story of the death of apartheid.

Artistic Medium: Everything

I spend a good amount of time looking through construction dumpsters to find materials to paint on, which I then load into the ’02 Dodge Caravan (a great vehicle, by the way). My favorite brand of spray paint has to be Montana GOLD. The paint is thick, the cans come with custom nozzles, and the color choices are ridiculous.

Denver Art Museum
Photograph courtesy Denver Art Museum. 

Museum: Denver Art Museum

When he is not painting, Lee-Ashley likes to visit the Denver Art Museum with his children. It is a special place. I’m often there with my one-year-old and my three-year-old, and there are activities for them in every corner. I have also always liked the Centre Pompidou in Paris, with its external pipes. Paris always seemed like a serious place and the Centre seems like a really good practical joke.