Fast forward to a better time in my life, still in prison though. I moved on from that hustle and had been into fine art for about four years. In 1994, thanks to the tremendous programs that professors Buzz Alexander and Janie Paul implemented inside Michigan prisons, I exhibited my work for the first time at the University of Michigan. Buzz and Janie started the Prisoner Creative Arts Program (http://www.lsa.umich.edu/english/pcap/), which made it possible for prisoners to exhibit and sell art annually at the University of Michigan. That year too, I worked as a tutor in the only formal art program in the Michigan prison system. A very talented artist, Mr. Herschell Turner, was the director and, curious about his pastel work, I watched him for months. I was impressed with how easily he turned out dramatic paintings with “chalk.” I eventually tried the medium but only succeeded in getting colored dust all over the walls, floor, my face, clothes, and hair, I quickly left that alone. But I watched and asked questions until I finally got the nerve to try again. My attempts produced dull, muddy pieces. Nowhere near the luxuriant and vibrant ones Mr. Turner produced. However, the pastel stayed where it was supposed to and that progress. Since then, pastel has become one of my preferred mediums.
BIRTH OF THE PUDGIES
Pudgies are a signature style of art that was given to me as a gift, or evolved, as a result of a donation I made to a worthy cause. I produced, and gave, 40 quickly sketched pieces to an organization seeking assistance for a fundraising event.
This came at the heels of a friend’s encouraging suggestion that I develop a personal style. She told me that my work was too eclectic and I should try painting a series of pieces that weren’t so diverse. I thought about that but didn’t quite get it. When I was asked to donate some work to help victims of Hurricane Mitch. And thinking quantity, not quality, I worked furiously for a month to complete as many pieces as I could. The rudimentary beings that came out were highly accepted and produced a demand for them. This encouraged me to paint more. This brought more positive comments and more of the primitive looking beings. Pudgies evolved as a result. Devoid of racial, ethnic, national or religious identity, these universal figures convey basic human feelings common all people. Maybe that’s what makes them so popular.
Depending on the type of painting I’m working on the process rely on usually goes like this. Spontaneous creations flow freely whereas more complicated pieces require detailed sketches. Once the sketch is on the painting surface I block in large areas with patches of color. This is like a primer for surface colors to sit on so as to not appear flat. I usually paint shadows first, highlights are always last.
Portraits are more detailed and complex. There are so many surface textures and details that if any one of them is wrong it throws off the entire painting, especially the eyes or skin tone. I usually start with the eyes because if they’re done right the rest is a piece of cake. I tried putting eyes in and found that the closer I got to finishing a piece the more I worried that if the eyes came out wrong I’d have to do the piece all over again. That was way stressful. I still do that occasionally though. On portraits, I rely on detailed photographs and discussions with whoever commissions the work. Success comes from paying attention to details. To me, what is not there is just as important as what is. I try to let the personality of the subject shine through along with the eye color and positioning of a torso. I don’t trace my subjects but because of the delicate intricacies and need for perfection in portraits, I sometimes use the grid method artists have utilized for centuries.
Once upon a time, my surroundings were very confining, as can be seen in the painting entitled “My Studio.” Now I can choose from one of two studios in and my wife’s home in Grand Ledge, Michigan, where there is plenty of room and, more importantly, plenty of light as well.
WHY DO I PAINT?
Art is therapeutic. Instead of spending thousands of dollars a year on Therapists I choose to make money creating something that others find pleasure in. For as long as it takes to paint whatever I’m working on, psychologically, spiritually and emotionally I am stress-free and in an environment that is pleasing to me. To escape reality some people choose booze, drugs, sex or violence. I choose art.
Becoming an artist enabled me to connect with professionals and lay people whom I would not have dreamt of meeting. Not only am I blessed to have made so many sincere and caring friends but some of my work is displayed in courtrooms, offices, hospitals, and homes throughout the United States. Some of it is as far away as Mexico, Israel, Canada, and Germany. One of my originals may even be hanging in the United States Supreme Court since its owner is Justice Sonia Sotomayor!
The main reason I paint is a lot more personal, however. I enjoy the feeling of individuality and self-worth These sales not only allow me to purchase necessary supplies and donate to worthwhile causes, but they also help me connect to the world in ways that give me an identity. Art gives me a sense of belonging to that world. It helps me find a personal identity, and an answer to that old question: “What do you want to be when you grow up.”