Portrait Of a Free Man

It took a while, a whole lot longer than it should have. But Tony Papa finally got to see his painting hanging where it belonged. Thirty-five miles and 16 years from the prison cell where he painted it. Displayed in a gallery at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

This wasn't the first time that Papa's self-portrait, which he titled "15 to Life," was shown at the Whitney. But the last time Papa wasn't able to make the museum show. He was otherwise detained, serving an absurdly long prison term at the Ossining Correctional Facility on a nonviolent drug conviction under the state's harsh Rockefeller laws.

"That portrait changed so much for me," Papa said. "I was sitting in my cell, three years into my sentence. I picked up a mirror. I looked in the mirror. In the mirror I saw an individual who was gonna spend the most productive years of his life in a six-by-nine-foot cage. Then I went to the canvas, and I captured that look."

The picture Papa painted was foreboding and dark, acrylic paint on an 18-by-24-inch canvas. He was holding a paintbrush. His fingers were spread. His hands were resting on his head. His right eye was in a shadow. His left eye was wide open, staring ahead.

"I created this painting, and seven years later an angelic letter arrived from the Whitney Museum, asking me to put a piece of my work in an upcoming show," he said. "From that point on, I knew that was the key to my freedom. If I could show my work at the Whitney, I could paint myself free."

It wasn't quite that easy, of course. People inside and outside the prison admired Papa's talent and recognized the injustice of these counterproductive laws. Various friends interceded on his behalf. And in that roundabout fashion, Papa's confidence in the power of his art was ultimately borne out.

The painting was shown, him still at Sing Sing. The story got some media play. That generated a second look at the drug conviction and his long prison term. Finally, in 1997, Gov. George Pataki signed the executive-clemency order that set Papa free. For a single cocaine sale, his first conviction, he'd served 12 years of his 15-to-life.

"I really did paint my way out of prison," he said.

He never gave up on the broader cause. He has spent the past seven years working to change the law that locked him up. He co-founded a group called the New York Mothers of the Disappeared, organizing relatives of Rockefeller law inmates and trying to push Pataki to expand his one-man clemency into a more sensible drug plan.

It's slow going, but the signs of hope are real. Again this year, Papa and his drug reform allies will take their case to Albany.

He's written a book about it, being published next month by Feral House, "15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom" by Anthony Papa with Jennifer Wynn. There's a Web site, www.15tolife.com, and the story's already been optioned for Hollywood.

But Tony Papa had one piece of unfinished business. He had never been able to see his portrait on the museum wall.

So the other night, there was a party at the Whitney to celebrate the new book. Hors d'oeuvres were passed. Wine was served. Mario Cuomo turned up. So did most major players in the drug reform movement. Several of Papa's paintings, including the famous self-portrait, were hanging in a beautifully lit space on the gallery wall.

People kept saying what an inspiration Tony Papa is.

"Tony is the human face of these inhumane laws," said Andrew Cuomo, the former federal housing secretary who has been championing the drug reform cause in New York. "Here is what a Rockefeller prisoner looks like. Here is his art. He was locked in a cage for 12 years. Was he really such a threat to us?"

Miele Rockefeller, the granddaughter of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, for whom the laws were named, was there to support Papa. "The Rockefeller laws should be renamed the Pataki laws," she said. "My grandfather would have changed them by now, and George Pataki won't."

After the museum show, the group retired to an after-party in the Waldorf Towers apartment of hedge fund director Lawrence Goldfarb, a Republican. Wealthy Wall Streeters mixed with freshly released ex-prisoners. It was about as far as you could get from Sing Sing.

"I'm a Republican businessman," said Goldfarb, whose company is called Baystar Capital. "In dollars and cents and in social devastation, these laws make no sense at all."

All evening long, Papa, who is 49 now, looked humbled but also energized. "So many people are reaching out with love," he said. "They're walking up to me, crying, asking, 'What can I do?' "

He had an answer for all of them. "Speak to your political leaders. Put pressure on the governor. We have to change these laws for everyone.

"One person really can make a difference," he'd say each time. "Believe me. I know."

This article originally appeared in Newsday (New York).

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