Meals dye as paint, hair as a brush: how a lifer discovered an escape in artwork | Artwork

His paintbrush is constituted of his personal hair. His paints are the colored pigments from M&M sweets. His canvas is the again of a used greetings card and his studio is a cell that measures seven toes by 11 toes. That is the world of Donny Johnson, sentenced to life in California in 1980 for a homicide dedicated throughout an argument over medication when he was a teen. When you had been to pitch his story as a movie, you may recommend it was the Birdman of Alcatraz meets A Sense of Freedom however there is no such thing as a want for such a pitch as a movie, Painted With My Hair, has been made and can premiere later this month to coincide with an exhibition of his work in London on the Riverside Studios.

Donny Johnson was 5 when his violent ex-con father subjected his mom, Helen Grimes, to a savage night-long beating. “He was a carefree little baby till then,” recalled Grimes on a go to to London to see the movie. “However after this occurred he bought hostile, he would break issues. The beating was one thing that went on for 9 or 10 hours – we had neighbours on either side however no one referred to as the police. I bought away at six within the morning and referred to as the police however after they got here he [her ex-husband] was gone.”

It was one other 5 years earlier than she found that Donny had heard all the beating and nonetheless felt responsible that he had been unable to cease it.

The broken little boy grew to become a drug-using, wilful teenager. This led to a confrontation over the sale of the drug PCP, wherein he and two different younger males had been concerned in a homicide in San Jose, California. The police wished to know which ones carried out the killing and the trio determined that they might toss cash and whoever misplaced would confess.

Donny Johnson along with his mom Helen Grimes and filmmaker Mike Dibb. {Photograph}: Donny Johnson

“They flipped a coin and Donny misplaced,” mentioned Grimes, a retired nurse from Castro Valley, close to San Francisco. “They agreed that whoever will get the dangerous flip they might deal with – and naturally they didn’t.”

After being sentenced to fifteen years, his state of affairs worsened in 1989 when he bought concerned in a jail struggle with a member of the far-right Aryan Brotherhood (AB). Throughout the confrontation, a jail guard opened hearth and the AB gang member was badly injured. “They [the AB] instructed him ‘you need to pay for this, you’ve bought to do a guard’,” mentioned Grimes.

She claims that they then instructed her son they might kill his household if he refused and gave him a blade. Johnson duly badly wounded a guard. The opposite guards retaliated, beating him right into a coma, she mentioned. “The priest referred to as me and mentioned if you wish to see your son alive, you must come now. After I bought there, they mentioned he’d been in a scuffle.” At his trial, he pleaded responsible to assault and was sentenced to an additional 18 years.

Solitary confinement within the infamous Pelican Bay jail in northern California adopted. It’s based mostly on the “panoptican” design of Jeremy Bentham, the 18th-century thinker, whom Johnson describes, in a laconic letter from jail, as “that outdated Utilitarian”. The design signifies that prisoners can at all times be noticed from each angle. There was no bodily contact with different folks, aside from strip searches by guards, for the subsequent twenty years. Visits from his mom had been carried out behind bullet-proof glass.

Another Johnson work.
One other Johnson work. {Photograph}: Donny Johnson

Then, in 2002, a New York psychotherapist and author, Steve Kurtz, noticed Johnson’s profile on an inventory of inmates in search of pen mates, contacted him and inspired him to color. Entry to artwork supplies was prohibited however Johnson had seen a fellow prisoner use M&Ms to color a greetings card and one other prisoner had as soon as requested him for a bit of his ponytail to make a paintbrush. He borrowed these concepts, giving his work additional texture with apple and sesame seeds and egg shells.

“I paint within the blood of the prison-industrial complicated,” he writes in a single letter. “I dig the look of Jackson Pollock and Miro – Miro is so playful and energetic … I like Van Gogh and relate to his outsider standing … I can really feel his exile in my garret, his asylum in my cell.”

One in all Kurtz’s mates is the English film-maker, Mike Dibb, who made the celebrated Methods of Seeing with John Berger within the Nineteen Seventies and has since made numerous tv documentaries, most just lately a movie on Parkinson’s illness, Taking part in In opposition to Time, with the jazz musicians Barbara Thompson and Jon Hiseman. Dibb was fascinated by Johnson’s story and made contact.

The prisoner wrote again: “If you’re buried alive you dig in your life. Digging the place you delve in solitary confinement, into the unconscious, I discovered a pool of mythic pictures and painted them with my very own DNA, ie a brush usual out of my very own hair.”

He and Dibb have since met in jail and preserve in common contact. Within the movie, Johnson’s phrases are voiced by actor Stanley Tucci.

“Donny’s ordeal is an inspiring instance of 1 man’s astonishing resilience and private transformation, achieved in defiance of a gratuitously merciless jail system,” says Dibb.

Will he ever be launched? He’s now within the Excessive Desert jail in Susanville, California and his subsequent parole listening to is in December. Within the meantime, he paints and writes and writes and paints and digs for his life.

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