He was sentenced to life for a crime he didn't commit. Now he's an artist with his own documentary
Imagine spending one-third of your life in prison for something you didn’t do. Would you bitter, angry or resentful? For many people of color in America, this is not a mere thought experiment, but a real possibility. According to a report from the National Registry of Exonerations, innocent black people are 12 times more likely to be falsely convicted of a drug crime than innocent white people.
Fulton Leroy Washington of Compton, California, who goes by Mr. Wash, is one of those who was wrongfully convicted of such a crime. In 1997, Washington was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to manufacture the drug PCP. His youngest daughter was two years old at the time. For over 21 years, Mr. Wash served time in prisons in Kansas, Colorado, and California. In that timeframe, he taught himself how to paint after his attorney asked him to draw the witness who could help corroborate his story. Then, in May, 2016, Mr. Wash was one of 58 prisoners who had their sentences commuted by former President Barack Obama.
Mr. Wash took to continuing to paint after being released from prison, and to date, he has painted nearly one thousand paintings, including portraits of public figures and prisoners. Perhaps his most well-known painting is his take on Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation with Abraham Lincoln. In Mr. Wash’s painting, President Obama replaces Lincoln; the emancipated is Mr. Wash.
Now, Mr. Wash’s life story is being told in a short documentary titled “Mr. Wash,” produced by WeTransfer and which can be seen on YouTube. Mr. Wash lives in Compton today, painting and spending time with his family, and headed to Africa to fulfill a prayer request and visions of his dreams (more on that here.).
When I sat down to interview Mr. Wash in Telluride at the ideas festival Original Thinkers, he started by interviewing me. “Who are you?” he asked, following up with more questions about my life. “This what happens when you're in court. When you're fighting your case and fighting for your life, you learn to get the proper information,” he explained. This bit of wisdom recalls the words printed on a shirt sold on his online store: “Reading can seriously damage your ignorance.”
Here is the rest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
So can you share more about what brought you to this festival?
When people hear that a person was wrongfully convicted, and he's out of prison, I believe that in their minds, they have a pre-existing idea of what type of person that would be. And when they meet me, their whole reality change[s]. This is what I'm hearing from people — is that, “I would have never known that you'd been in prison for many years.” They say: “You are not angry, you are not institutionalized, you have a different type of spirit about you.”
What was that like in 1997 to be wrongfully convicted?
It was unbelievable. It was surreal because I was a person who was raised up to believe in the system. And I still do. But, I always —I watched the conviction, and I thought that it was part of a ploy, that the government used to weed out the truth. And because I'd never been to these places that they went to, and I never committed a crime, I always felt that I was going to go home, once they got everything settled. But, instead, I learned that they actually fabricated the evidence against me to cover their own investigative failures.
Who is “they”?
It would be the team taskforce. A team of federal, state, and local officers and agents comprised of DEA, LAPD, LASD, and BNE.
So, 21 years in jail. Your life changed in many ways. Can share more about what your day-to-day was like, and how that changed in prison?
I think the first year in transition was about letting go. I had a company, I had employees, I had family, and so the first couple of years was letting go of the company, letting go of the responsibility of my employees and their families. Then, while you [do] that, you're losing your equipment, you're getting sued for the contracts that you weren’t able to finish, and the companies have to have other people to do it, and now they're billing you. I had to go through all of that type of stuff, and that was like the first year or two.
And then, following that, the transition was about learning more about the law, a lot of reading. We have a T-shirt on Wash Wear that says, "Reading will seriously damage your ignorance." I realized how ignorant I was about the law. And how it had me captivated when I was reading and finding truths. So then, I guess I was coming to an awareness, that, “wow, the system is not what I thought it was.”
Then, from there, it became survival, at the same time. All while this is going on, there's a survival mode because you're in a new environment, and time is of the essence. You have to try to prove your innocence by such and such a time. And if you don't, you lose the opportunity but, you have to survive, while trying to do that, and how you balance the two. It became kind of difficult.
Of course. And is that how you turned to painting?
The art came prior. It came during the time in court. We were having a post-conviction hearing, my attorney asked me to draw people that I worked with, when the government said that I was purchasing chemicals to be used in the manufacture of illegal drugs. And that sketch drawing became a piece of evidence because they found the people from that drawing. And that became a piece of evidence, and that day I cried in court. I couldn't control it. And I promised God, I would continue to practice that type of art, and to share it, freely.
So then how did your art style change when you were in jail? It seems you advanced from sketching to portraiture, maybe.
During that time of incarceration, I quickly learned that you cannot become emotional in prison. If you become emotional, and show emotion, several things could happen. One, the guys would think that you was wussy or whatever, and then you become a victim, and you [are] subject to everything that you could imagine under the sun; beatings, rapes, and everything else. Two, if you're especially emotional around the police, the staff or the institution, then their psychiatrist would interpret it as being that you're mentally unstable. So you have anger issues, or you have [something else] — the psychiatrist will find some kind of box to put you in.
So you have to build your life, your personality around — how you navigate between that, how do you stay strong in front of all the prisoners that you’re with. But also, stay sane in front of the officers.
So the artwork became that vent, that, okay, I'm not going to say what I feel, my feelings are mine but, I'm going to paint them. And then I'll give the painting to the world, and let you interpret it, you say what it makes you feel It became a way of communication, and it became a storytelling process.
So I think when you look at the work collectively, that's what you see. If I could ever get all the paintings back, and put them in a line, from the very first one, to the last one, it would be a story that people look at and say, you go in and out of my mind like this, like a wormhole.
I have a hard time remembering what I paint. I don't know what I paint. If I don't have a photograph of it, I don't know, I paint so many because that's [how I] stay balanced. You have emotional things that come in, and okay, you put it on a piece of paper, fold it up, put it in an envelope. That emotion is safe.
Yeah, and I guess that's kind of how art is. You put something out in the world, and it's really up to the people who are taking it in to decide what it means.
Yeah. Speaking of which, I did a couple of pieces, and the institution accused me of trying to escape from prison, and seized all my work and punished me. So then, I became afraid to be expressive, even of art.
How long did that go on for?
That was for ninety days but it was so severe because I was not allowed to paint anything. For a period I was kicked out of the art room. I could only look through the windows. That was, traumatizing.
Were there any points where you felt like giving up?
No, never to the point of giving up. You can't give up on life. Life only goes in one direction. Definitely, there's points where you tire down, your body needs to rest, your mind needs to rest, you need to think about something different. And you have those little moments that come in between, from one following to another. You work three or four months on one document, and you want to dot all your I's and cross all your T's, so you write it, rewrite it, read more or research new laws come out, and incorporate it into the document. The new law points to the facts and reasons why you shouldn’t be here. And then, once you file it in court, then you know you got to wait. And sometimes the wait can be anywhere from months to years. You never know. So how do you keep sanity in between that time, for me, that’s when I paint.
And I switch around from five days a week, two days painting, to five days painting, two days, reading over case logs. So you get about a month or so of that. One time it went for like ... I was in the Supreme court for almost two years, waiting on them. So you just waiting, in limbo. And then what happens, is that, every time you file these types of petitions, and all your family get with you, and everybody excited and they with you, and then when you get denied, they're hurt so bad, that pretty soon, they never get excited no more, to help you.
Yeah. So what does your art look like now? Has your art changed since now, you've been out of prison?
It hasn't really changed much. I consider myself [s]till in prison. I'm still on parole. I don't fool myself into thinking that I'm not incarcerated because I'm sitting here in a restaurant with you. I still have to report [to my parole officer]. So I never mistake myself to let myself be part of that delusion, that I'm free. I'm not free.
So that’s what happens when people have that false sense of freedom. They forget. So when you asked about how did my art change now that I'm out — I'm not out, and the art hasn't changed. I'm doing the exact same thing that I did then. I paint portraits for people. If you want it painted, I'll tell your story. When it comes to telling my story, I'm still trying to finish telling my story.
What do you hope that people learn from your story?
I hope that they learn [how] to become proactive [e]arly. The youth, when they coming out of high school, pay attention to the law, and change the law. And I think that instead of always looking for news and stuff, to get highlights, you got to read, and get in there to find out your own future.
What’s next for you?
What's next for me is this, the end of my journey. When I was in prison,. for some reason, the very first painting that I painted was the Amistad, the dead slaves in the ship. At that time, in painting that, I didn't know I was born on a plantation. Every other picture that I painted of myself, was telling my story and my journey, I was always in shackles and chains. All the way until the last picture, the Emancipation Proclamation.
So with that said, the next step in the journey, is, I told a lot of the inmates, they said, “Mr. Washington, what are you going to do when you get out of prison?” They say, you got life now, I don't have a life, I'm going to get out. What are you going to do when you get out? “I'm going to Africa,” I’d say. In my mind then, I was going to stay and never come back.I guess a part of me will live in Africa forever in my art, because when I get there I will paint and capture history with my brush. I expect to become a visual voice for those that can’t find the words to speak.
Nicole Karlis is a news writer at Salon. She covers health, science, tech and gender politics. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.