Film is to be made about local artist

Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman expresses excitement at Soul Bar on Sept. 17 during the first night of filming the documentary. (Photo: Joshua Adams)
Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman expresses excitement at Soul Bar on Sept. 17 during the first night of filming the documentary. (Photo: Joshua Adams)

 By Joshua Adams | Staff Writer

What does it take to be happy? Sometimes we go through so much turbulence on the plane of life, we start to think the whole thing is about to crash into the cold, hard ground. The pilot might offer some assurance that we will pass through the storm momentarily, but it often seems like it lasts forever.

If you live in Augusta, it is hard to miss the HAPPY campaign: from the stickers on cars and laptops, to the button on your friend’s hat or t-shirt. It is, however, easy to miss the mind from which HAPPY came from.

Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman, 43, of Augusta, never leaves his signature on his HAPPY creations-instead of longing for the spotlight, he wants his message to shine.

For him, happiness was a choice he made while dealing with the loss of his partner of almost eight years.

“For about a year and a half, nothing made sense and I was probably at the lowest I had ever been in my life,” Zimmerman said. “At that point of seeing no light, I realized that if I was going to be happy and if anything was going to change, I was going to have to make it happen. About a year and a half later, I made a conscience effort to see the silver linings that were there. It took a while, but that’s when my life began to turn around.”

Zimmerman began to use his sketchbook as a form of therapy.

“I started to draw what I was feeling,” he said. “I used robots because Robots can represent anyone-any age, any gender. I was trying to illustrate ‘what was this empty feeling I had?’ or ‘what was this pain?’ and that was helping getting out of me. After doing that for years, I feel like I’ve worked through the loss of [his partner]. While it still hurts and every once in a while, I’ll just tear up, it just doesn’t cripple me like it used to.”

He hands almost every person he talks to a HAPPY button, which is comprised of a smiling robot face above the word “happy.” Every person he gives a button to lights up with a smile. In Augusta, you can find HAPPY stickers on cars, notebooks and just about any surface you can fathom.

“In a nutshell, a smile is contagious,” Zimmerman said. “If you can get someone to smile, they’ll probably pass that on to someone else. A smile from a stranger, I know, has brightened my day before. I’d like to see people interacting like that, passing on some happiness to someone else. The way I’ve been doing that is either passing out buttons or stickers to people.”

Zimmerman had the idea during an election season. As a man who works in advertising, he noticed all of the campaign ads and realized that he wanted to advertise something meaningful. Being a graphic designer and knowing the contagiousness of smiles, Zimmerman decided to advertise happiness.

“It started with a few posters that I printed out and put up downtown, but they started to disappear,” Zimmerman said. “I found out, on social media, that people were taking them down and putting them up in their apartments. I started making buttons and stickers and just left them around places downtown.”

Through social media, word of mouth and traveling, the HAPPY campaign has made its way around and outside of America.

“It’s cool to log on to Facebook and see a photo that someone tagged me in, like Seattle or Brooklyn, where stickers are popping up,” he said.

Upon the spread of HAPPY, producer-director Michael Patrick McKinley heard Zimmerman’s story and was inspired to make a documentary about it and the HAPPY campaign.

“I first became familiar with Porkchop on social media, which led me to his Ted talk,” McKinley said. “It was very powerful and it moved me. There was a moment last January where I had an epiphany that someone needed to take Leonard’s story in the Ted talk and expand on it and make a film about it.”

McKinley said that the film will be portrayed as a survivor story.

“It is one man’s journey through the storm and the sunshine he found on the other side of it,” McKinley said. “The idea is to create a positive story-telling experience that leaves people feeling really good after watching it. Hopefully it’ll shine the spot light on the happy campaign. Hopefully we’ll get billboards in stickers in more places throughout the country. We want to reach people with HAPPY.”

The whole film will be shot in Georgia. Most of it will be shot in Augusta and the rest will be location shooting in Athens and Atlanta, McKinley said. It’s planned to be released in the film festival circuit in early 2016 and will be available for digital download and DVD after its run in the circuit.

“The documentary is broken down into two filming chunks,” Zimmerman told me. “The first one will be in Augusta during Arts in the Heart. Augusta is going to be looking its best, and I love my hometown and I want it to look its best.”

He is not doing it for money. He never even puts his name on any of the HAPPY merchandise, which ranges from buttons and stickers to t-shirts and phone cases. Any money Zimmerman receives from any of the HAPPY campaign is used to purchase more merchandise. In a society that revolves so much on money, why does Zimmerman want to spread his work for free?

“What’s amazing is how this one simple thought, smiling and being happy, can spread,” Zimmerman said. “Seeing other people get happy is what is so powerful about this whole thing. Yes, it’s just a dumb little robot sticker, but the emotional impact it has on people is really kind of fantastic.

Although Zimmerman has endured more emotional turbulence than anyone should ever be forced to, whenever he gives someone a button or sticker, he smiles from ear to ear. His happiness is seeing everyone else happy.

So what does it take to be happy? Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman, who has endured just about all the turbulence a person can withstand, found out what he had to do-he took his seatbelt off, stood up, walked to the cockpit and became a pilot. He flew straight through the storm and into the sunshine. How much longer can you be a passenger on this plane called life?

Contact Joshua Adams at: jadams35@gru.edu.

Published on September 23, 2015 in Volume 58, Issue 1 of The Bell Ringer newspaper.

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