"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Art show depicts life on death row

George T. Wilkerson, Resisting Stereotypes
(humanity isn’t black and white) 2014, graphite and
color pencil on paper, 10 7/8“ x 8 1/2“
Ndume Olatushani jokes that he "couldn't even draw a crooked line straight" when he arrived on death row almost 30 years ago.

He had plenty of time to learn, though, being locked in a cell up to 22 hours a day for 28 years.

Now, one of the paintings by Olatushani, who was freed in 2012 after a judge overturned his murder conviction, is the centerpiece of a Los Angeles exhibition titled "Windows on Death Row: Art From Inside and Outside the Prison Walls."

Featuring dozens of pieces from more than 20 artists in styles ranging from oil on canvas to pencil on paper, the show seeks to depict the lives, thoughts and emotions of those preparing to be executed.

The exhibition's organizers, political cartoonist Patrick Chappatte and his wife, Swiss broadcast journalist Anne-Frederique Widmann, hope it will help advance international discussion about the death penalty.

The show opened Thursday at the University of Southern California and will remain on the second-floor mezzanine of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism building until Dec. 18. After that, it will travel next year to Switzerland's International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights and then to Ohio State University.

Olatushani, whose dark, emotionally riveting oil on canvas depicts African women and their children searching for food, hopes the show also will help change the perception of death row inmates. Not all are innocent as he was, he says, but not all are monsters either.

"The truth is they're really not," he said as he surveyed the works earlier this week. "Most people sitting on death row now are there because, in an instant, they murdered somebody in the heat of passion."

Or in the case of Kenneth Reams, for taking part in a robbery that ended with his partner shooting the victim.

Confident he wouldn't be sentenced to even life in prison because he didn't kill anybody, Reams said he rejected a plea bargain 22 years ago and took his chances at trial. At age 18, he ended up the youngest person on Arkansas' death row.

It was there he began to draw and paint, and he uses those skills to educate others about death row and its consequences, Reams said in a brief phone interview from prison.

"I think my art already has had an effect on young people to not make the same mistakes," said Reams, whose pencil-and-paper work "The Last Mile" depicts the path to his prison's death chamber.

Chappatte and Widmann say the show doesn't try to take a side in the debate over capital punishment, although it's clear they don't believe it is fairly administered.

"A lot of inmates have been telling us you can find black, yellow and white people on death row," Widmann says, "but you can't find any rich people."

Still, the organizers don't shy away from describing what each artist did to reach death row. The often brutal crimes are listed in the biographical notes placed alongside their artworks.

The show also includes dozens of drawings expressing opinions on capital punishment from Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonists such as David Horsey, Pat Oliphant and Signe Wilkinson.

But the most powerful pieces come from those condemned to die.

One of the darkest is a pencil-on-paper drawing by Karl Roberts, who was convicted of raping and killing his 12-year-old niece. It shows the artist on his knees in solitary confinement as the ghostly image of a young girl hovers over him.

"It portrays the shame, remorse and guilt of having done wrong," he says in notes written for the show.

On the other end of the spectrum is a lighthearted series of comic-strip drawings by George Ivan Lopez, who is on Pennsylvania's death row for 2 killings. One, titled "This is What We Think of on Death Row," depicts a couple of cartoon characters in prison garb tunneling their way to freedom.

The show features a self-portrait from Arnold Prieto, who stabbed three people to death with 2 accomplices during a 1993 robbery in Texas.

Prieto, the only one to receive a death sentence, said he took up art to earn a little money through the sale of his work. One of his last pieces, done in graphite on board, shows the artist, his head buried in his hands as a clock ticks down to his final minutes.

"I guess my drawings speak for themselves," he said in notes written for the show. "They'll be here when I'm no more."

Source: Associated Press, October 24, 2015

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