News 07.10.09

Art and Injustice


By: Dan Bolick, Artist & Retired Art Teacher

Export, Pennsylvania





[Editor’s Note: This is the second part of Dan Bolick’s post on his artistic process in painting portraits of exonerees for an exhibition at the Westmoreland Museum. Part one is here, and more details on the exhibition are here. At left is Bolick’s portrait of

Michael Graham

, who was cleared after 14 years on death row. Part one of Bolick's post is

here

.]



In May 2008 I met John Thompson. JT, who spent 18 years incarcerated for a murder he did not commit – 14 of those on death row – is the founder of

Resurrection After Exoneration

, which provides support for the wrongfully convicted after they are released from prison. The organization has built an incredibly inspiring and cooperative community.

I showed JT some photos of my portraits and explained my project to him. He was enthusiastic about it and began to contact other exonerees who would allow me to do their portraits. During my first trip to New Orleans I met with and photographed five of the ten men I would eventually paint.


Ryan Matthews

spent 5 years on death row for a murder he did not commit before DNA testing proved him innocent.  He was rather quiet and said he had found peace.


Dan Bright

works with at-risk youth in New Orleans. When I showed him photos of some of the angry youths I had painted, he said that those faces were his face when he was that age. He said that he would love to come to Pittsburgh to tell the kids his story. He told me of how he was in a parish prison when Hurricane Katrina hit. The guards ran away, abandoning the prisoners. They escaped the prison as the hurricane hit it and made their way to an overpass to await rescue. They stayed together and told their rescuers that they were prisoners. Dan spent 10 years on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Greg Bright was sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he did not commit. He was exonerated after more than 27 years. He told me that at the time when he was first incarcerated at age 20, he was totally illiterate.  He taught himself to read by sounding out the words to “The Lords Prayer,” which he found in the Bible. At age 47, when he was exonerated, he was writing his own legal briefs.

I also met Curtis Kyles, the subject of the excellent book “

Desire Street

.” Curtis was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit and spent 18 years in prison, including 14 on death row. Curtis was put on trial five different times for the same murder.

I left New Orleans with sketches and hundreds of photos of these five exonerees and a feeling of being very privileged to have been allowed into their inner circle.  When I arrived back in Pittsburgh I was able to meet with Drew Whitley, who spent 18 years behind bars before DNA testing proved his innocence. He also said he would participate, and I felt the project coming together.

In October of 2008, JT called me and invited me back to New Orleans. Resurrection After Exoneration was planning to inaugurate a new building and

Innocence Project New Orleans

was having a fundraiser at the Downtown Sheraton Hotel with John Grisham as the keynote speaker.  JT wanted to know if I would be able to show my art work at both places over a two-day period.  Also, JT was inviting as many as 20 exonerees to the festivities who I could meet with and photograph for my painting exhibition.  I jumped at the chance!

On this trip, I met exonerees

Albert Burrell

,

Calvin Willis

, Michael Graham and

Clyde Charles

. Sadly Clyde died this past January. He is missed by all of the exonerees.

I painted portraits of these ten exonerees, and the show opened at the museum on June 13th with a powerful reception. I have found through this experience that most people do not wish to talk about the issue of wrongly incarcerated people. But when the issue is turned into art and these men are humanized, people become passionate and freely give their opinions. During the opening there were more than a few tears shed. Art can be very powerful.

I want to keep the project going. I hope to paint additional exonerees in the months ahead and bring the paintings to more audiences around the country, because this is a critical issue and I believe art opens to the door to an important dialogue about injustice.

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