PAINTINGS ARE POWERFUL. They influence generations of artists (Picasso’s “Guernica”), encourage pilgrimages to museums (Amy Sherald’s portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama), and garner millions of dollars at auction (“Past Times” by Kerry James Marshall). Inspired by Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln” (1864), artist Fulton Leroy Washington made a powerful painting that would portend his freedom.

Compton, Calif.-based Washington, who goes by Mr. Wash, spent two decades in prison and was released in 2016. Earlier this year, when the Hammer Museum announced the 30 artists selected to participate in Made in L.A. 2020, he was on the list.

 


FULTON LEROY WASHINGTON (aka Mr. Wash), “Emancipation Proclamation,” 2014 (oil on canvas). | © Fulton Leroy Washington (aka Mr. Wash), Courtesy the artist

 

His unusual path to the biennial began in 1997, when he was convicted of three nonviolent drug offenses he says he did not commit. Based on his prior convictions and mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, the artist received life in prison.

While he was incarcerated, Washington started sketching and eventually painting, which transformed his prison experience. Painting gave him an outlet for expressing himself and something to focus on that he could control. His skills and talent proved to be exceptional and he pursued art with abandon. He has said he made 50 to 75 paintings a year and stopped counting after he surpassed 900.

“I would paint pictures for other inmates telling their stories and what’s going on inside of their homes, so it became an avenue that built bridges between a reality and the fictitious world of incarceration,” Washington says in “Mr. Wash,” a short documentary from journalist Marisa Aveling and filmmaker Sean Mattison (see below). “It became a bridge that built relationships between a father and a daughter, a father and a son, or a husband and a wife.”

The artist became a positive change agent for others. He took art courses while he was incarcerated and later taught painting and drawing classes to other prisoners and was a mentor and father figure. Many of the men he instructed left prison and found work as artists. Over the years, he maintained a positive outlook about the possibility of his own freedom, despite his life sentence.

“I would paint pictures for other inmates telling their stories and what’s going on inside of their homes, so it became an avenue that built bridges between a reality and the fictitious world of incarceration.”
— Fulton Leroy Washington (aka Mr. Wash)


“Mr. Wash” is a short documentary about the life and work of artist Fulton Leroy Washington (b. 1954) who served two decades in prison. Candid, heartwarming and uplifting, the film shares his journey as an artist, path to freedom, and the experiences of his family during his absence. | Video by WeTransfer

 

In 2013, the artist began working with an attorney through the Clemency Project 2014 to gain his release. Ahneishia Washington, one of his daughters, wrote a letter to President Obama on behalf of her father in 2015.

“To the attention of the President of the United States of America Mr. Barack Obama, My father Fulton Leroy Washington has been incarcerated with a life sentence and physically removed from my home since I was aged 2. It is through your representation that many African American families are able to find a sense of hope and comfort to the brokenness we live as normal in our own households.” she wrote.

“To bring this hope closer to my own restored reality, I write this letter in support of the clemency, and ultimately freedom, of my father from his incarceration. Having become a published self-taught artist and teacher of the arts facing a life sentence makes this man not only a mastermind of power and unlimited capacity of giftedness, it also makes him an American hero.”

Washington walked out of prison on May 5, 2016, after President Obama commuted his sentence, granting him clemency. It’s an outcome the artist imagined and believes he painted into existence, when he interpreted Carpenter’s best known painting.

“‘Emancipation Proclamation’ (2014) is the very last picture I created and painted in federal custody. I had an opportunity through visions to prophesize my own release from prison as I pled to the president for mercy. ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ was an inspiration by God that led me to the original Emancipation Proclamation that featured Abraham Lincoln dividing the territories for the slaves,” Washington said in the film.

“I painted into the picture Obama in the place that Abraham Lincoln was. I took out the generals and replaced them Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. The painting ended up going to Neil Eggleston, which was the White House counselor at the time and he shared it, and we believe that Obama saw it as well, and soon after that I was granted a commutation of my sentence.”

“‘Emancipation Proclamation’ (2014) is the very last picture I created and painted in federal custody. I had an opportunity through visions to prophesize my own release from prison as I pled to the president for mercy.” — Fulton Leroy Washington (aka Mr. Wash)


FULTON LEROY WASHINGTON (aka MR. WASH), “Mr. Rene #MAN POWER,” 2011 (oil on stretched canvas, 24 x 20 inches / 61 x 50.8 cm). | © Fulton Leroy Washington (aka Mr. Wash), Courtesy the artist

 

Since he gained his freedom, Washington has been making up for lost time with his family and his work. He is a practicing artist, a criminal justice reform advocate, and continues to work on his case to prove his innocence.

Made in L.A. ordinarily opens during the summer, but due to COVID-19, it was delayed until September. This year’s event is organized by Myriam Ben Salah and Lauren Mackler, with Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi. Introducing Washington’s work, the biennial curators said:

    His first subjects were his fellow inmates: he created elaborate photorealistic portraits of his cohort, often setting them in idyllic landscapes, dressed in civilian clothing and free. Other portraits depicted the inmates’ psychological fissures, including large tears drawn on their faces; some portraits were adorned with paintings within the paintings of fears or anxieties the subjects had shared with their portraitist. Washington took commissions and sometimes extended his repertoire by painting the news.

Billboards promoting the biennial have begun to appear around Los Angeles. Several feature Washington’s work. Earlier today, the artist posted pictures of himself in front of them on Instagram. He thanked the Made in L.A. curators by name and said: “Kudos to the @hammer_museum and @thehuntingtonlibrary for putting my artwork up on billboards all over LA. I want everyone to show their gratitude by attending the event. Come celebrate with me we going somewhere.” CT

 

Made in L.A. 2020: A Version will be on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and The Huntington in San Marion, from early September 2020-Jan. 3, 2021

 

FIND MORE about art Fulton Leroy Washington (aka Mr. Wash) on his website

 

READ MORE about Fulton Leroy Washington at Nation of Second Chances, a storytelling series about the people granted clemency by President Obama

READ MORE about Fulton Leroy Washington in a lengthy article published in the Santa Barbara Independent

LEARN MORE about Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)

 


March 29, 2020: At the beginning of the COVID-19 quarantine, Fulton Leroy Washington talked about how the experience of being incarcerated helped him to adjust to staying home during the pandemic. He recommends establishing a routine and taking advantage of the opportunity by being productive. | Video by PBS

 

BOOKSHELF
Made in L.A. 2020: A Version was published to accompany this year’s forthcoming biennial. Also consider “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” a power volume recently published by Nicole R. Fleetwood.

 

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