How Art Found Me
Thousands of years ago, the earliest humans documented their existence by simply spitting berry juice around their hand and then making an imprint on a rock wall. It is through this simple creative act that we know they were there. Humans have a built-in creative gene that cannot be denied. Simply put, we are all artists. We all have a spirit in us that makes us want to create something beautiful. This innate creativity has been behind the ingenuity of the human experience. We only need to look around us to marvel at the beauty of us.
Among other descriptors, I am an artist, son, brother, father, uncle, philosopher, teacher, and student, but I am a human being first. Ironically, it was not until I was sent to death row for a crime I did not commit that I found my creative space dwelling in me. As I sat in a tiny cell on death row, with the prison system denying my humanity at every turn, I bent inward and found my own creativity as a means of raw survival and resistance.
I was raised in St. Louis, Missouri by my amazing mother, Moosie. I am the seventh of her eleven children. I am the person that I am today because of the seeds my mother planted in me. It may have taken a range of life experiences to water those seeds, but whatever good exists in me is all owed to my mother. I carry her with me every day as I smile upon the world around me because she taught me that if you smile, someone may smile back.
During the 20 years I sat on death row, guards and prisoner alike would ask me: “Why are you always smiling? Man, you are sitting on death row.” The short answer was “So?” What they did not know was that I was not sitting on death row waiting to die; I was living. It was not until I was literally walking in the shadow of the prospect of death that I begin to live.
In large part, it was art that saved my life, because I found it there or it found me in the most unlikely place. Before I was sitting on death row, I had no interest in art. I could not even draw a crooked line straight. You see, I did not understand the fullness of my own humanity or that I came with a built-in creative spirit. If you have ever been inside a jail or prison, you know it is an environment that is devoid of color. If there is paint on the walls, it is a dull off-white, battleship grey, or some drab equivalent. Painting allowed for me to resist in color. Though I was in this colorless environment, I refused to allow that circumstance to stop the color that was happening in my head. The truth is, I found inner peace and a deep sense of freedom in the forced isolation of my 4x9 foot death cell where I spent 23 hours of the day. Every time I was taken out of my cell, I was chained and shackled like some imaginary monster. But, through it all, I refused to allow my humanity – or the smile my mother put on my soul – to be stolen from me.
Every June 1st, the anniversary of my release from prison, I am reminded of the 28 years of my life that were taken from me. Because of what I’ve survived, I never lose sight of the preciousness of life. Every day, I celebrate how fortunate I am to be alive and free. I learned so many lessons during the 28 years of my imprisonment. There are two lessons that are the most central and important to me. First, at some point in life, we are going to be knocked down. We cannot get stuck in despair when we do get knocked down. Instead, it’s important to try to focus on how we’re going to pick ourselves back up. Second, once we do pick ourselves back up, we should know that the hardship that we survived was not meant for us. In other words, we have an obligation to share that experience with others and help to uplift them and get them through. Your survival is the means of my survival because our shared humanity cannot be separated.