by Jana Riley
Leonard "Porkchop" Zimmerman does not hide his emotions well. His eyes convey his feelings explicitly; he would be a terrible poker player. His laughter is unrestrained, exuberant, and nearly impossible for one to witness without laughing right along with him. Intensely empathetic, Zimmerman immerses his whole self into conversations with friends and strangers alike, and he can find himself brought to tears at the simplest of shared sorrows. In short, Leonard Zimmerman is genuine. What you see is what you get, and what you get is truly a treasure.
As an artist living and working in Downtown Augusta, Zimmerman is a familiar face around town, and his work is regularly featured at art shows and galleries within the region. The casual observer - watching Zimmerman bear-hug neighbors in the street, high-fiving passersby, and laughing that raucous laugh - could assume that Zimmerman is simply a happy person, one who has lived his life with an overall feeling of joy. But such an assumption would be far from the truth: Zimmerman has experienced both the highest peaks and the deepest valleys of life, and it is from his experiences that he became the man he is today.
Leonard Zimmerman is an Augusta native, spending his formative years honing his creative talents at John S. Davidson Fine Arts School, where he graduated in 1990. While in school, an artistic photograph earned him a scholarship at Savannah College of Art and Design, and he graduated with honors in 1994. He went on to work as a manager at Blockbuster and at a music store called "Tape World" before landing a graphic design job back at SCAD as a docu-tech operator. One day in 1998, while browsing AOL chat rooms, he met someone, and that someone changed his life forever. Brian Malone was as handsome as he was hilarious, and Zimmerman found himself utterly smitten with his new beau. Living hours apart, the two nevertheless fell in love over weekend visits, phone calls, letters, emails, and online messaging. Theirs was an inseparable bond.
"With Brian, it was the first time out of anyone I dated that I knew what real, across-the-board love was," remembers Zimmerman, smiling. "We could be mad at each other and then in an instant, we could get over it, and it was back to looking out for each other. Neither of us were perfect, but we had this incredible communication. With one look from him in a challenging moment, one tiny little smile, I would know that everything was okay."
After two years of traveling between Malone's Atlanta and Zimmerman's Savannah, the pair moved in together in Atlanta and created a happy home. They were inseparable, madly in love, and intensely, wonderfully happy together. Malone encouraged Zimmerman to soak in the little moments in life like the sound of snow falling and the intrinsic beauty of a sunset. Zimmerman was a wellspring of joy for Malone. They introduced each other to their friend groups, adopted pets, and lived to positively impact one another.
On their fourth anniversary, the two swapped titanium rings as a symbol of their dedication to one another. Life was blissful for quite some time - until is wasn't. In early 2006, Malone began experiencing headaches and exhibiting other symptoms of an infection. Zimmerman urged him to go to the hospital. Finally, after passing out one morning in their bathroom, Malone was admitted to Grady Hospital in Atlanta, where he was quickly diagnosed with cryptococcal meningitis, a fungal infection that impacts the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
During the ten weeks Malone was at Grady Hospital, Zimmerman visited him nearly every day, keeping him company, sneaking their dog, Spike, into the parking garage to meet with Malone, and bringing him meals. For two and a half months, they held hands, talked at length, played games, and rested in each other's presence. On May 19, 2006, Brian Malone passed away. Simultaneously, Leonard Zimmerman's spirit collapsed.
"People said to try to live one day at a time," recalls Zimmerman. " I couldn't even live an hour at a time. I couldn't live twenty minutes at a time."
Zimmerman sank into an immense darkness. In the process, he lost his job and home in Atlanta. Hopeless, he returned to Augusta, to his family, to the place that felt devastatingly familiar. He was listless and brokenhearted, unable to cope with the death of the love of his life. After six months, he got a typographic design job at Phoenix Printing, working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., a routine monotonous enough to at times provide a slight distraction from his pain. As soon as he got off of work, he would head down to Metro Coffeehouse and spend hours drawing in his sketchbook. With each completed sketch, the darkness lifted slightly, and Zimmerman filled up book after book with artistic representations of his thoughts, feelings, and emotions. At the same time, he became more involved with fellow artists in Augusta, all of whom supported and encouraged Zimmerman along his journey.
"The art was keeping me alive," says Zimmerman. "The community was embracing me. That is how I am here today."
As Zimmerman rose from his darkness, he began taking part in art events and gallery shows. In 2009, he was hired by a creative firm called Wierhouse, which later became Wier/Stewart, where he found his ideal balance of creative expression and work. Zimmerman continued to be a standout in the Augusta art scene, lending his talents all over town. It was not until 2012, however, that he lit the torch to set off an international movement.
"It was an election cycle," Zimmerman remembers, "and there was a lot of negativity in the air. I thought to myself 'If I could advertise just one thing, and use my powers for good, what would I do? How could I condense the message I want to convey?' I kept thinking, 'happiness.' That led to 'happy,' which I combined with the image of a robot head and put on my first posters. I pasted a bunch around town as a sort of one-off contribution against the negative noise."
Soon, Zimmerman noticed the posters were going missing, and he saw people on Facebook posting that they had taken them down to hang in their homes. He made more, and they went missing too. So he made buttons and then stickers. He took the stickers along on his travels, posting them and handing them out everywhere he went. People wanted more, so he kept making more, even going so far as to create billboards with the logo around town. He designed special stickers and buttons for major events and tragedies, translated them into different languages to be passed out by friends traveling the world, and he even did a breast cancer themed sticker that patients in treatment soon put on their chemotherapy bags. He included a website on the bottom of each sticker, which led to his post office box address and instructions for sending a self-addressed stamped envelope. Once received the SASEs, he would then stuff them with stickers and mail them back, spreading the image across the globe. The simplicity of the message, as well as the cheeriness of the robot, has resonated with people far and wide, but perhaps most affected by the experience is Leonard Zimmerman.
"The whole thing is kind of bonkers that a little smiling robot has gone all over the world," laughs Zimmerman. "But I get joy out of seeing other people get joy. They don't have to know it came from me. Honestly, that's a buzzkill. But to see someone taking a selfie at my Tire City Potters mural, or to see a photo of the sticker in some foreign country, or to get a message from someone who was having a terrible day, only to have one of my stickers help turn it around, well that does it for me. I get a little giggle out of that."
Zimmerman went on to discuss the Happy campaign at the 2014 TEDx event in Augusta, titling his talk "Making Happy." He posted the various iterations of the stickers and buttons on his social media accounts, and not long after it all began, filmmaker Michael Patrick McKinley reached out. He wanted to tell Zimmerman's story in documentary format.
"I agreed," says Zimmerman, "Because if what I've been through can show anyone who has been through loss and grieving that they can be okay, and that life can be pretty cool, eventually, even after something like that, why not sit in front of the camera for a few minutes and talk?"
The documentary, titled simply, "Happy," debuted in Augusta in 2016, and then began the film festival circuit. Winning awards on multiple continents, it has proven that sometimes, the simplest messages are the most impactful. Now, the film has been picked up for distribution, which opens channels to streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and physical retailers like Wal-Mart and Target.
Zimmerman still continues to stuff envelopes, and every trip to the post office reveals another person - or twenty - who have been touched by the Happy campaign. Now, Happy stickers can be found in every corner of the globe, inspiring people to smile and to seek their own personal happiness. Zimmerman is quick to point out, though, that the message isn't meant to convey that one should simply just "be happy" while pushing their sadness away. From his experiences, he knows that it is impossible and damaging in the long run.
"One of my early shows was called 'Welcome to the Land of Happy/Sad', because to me, it is 50/50," explains Zimmerman. "You can't have extreme happiness without feeling those really sad feelings, because then you don't know how good you've got it when it is good. I just want to make people smile, and just maybe, if they are feeling sad, that can start a path toward feeling happy again."