FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Artist Who Helped Me Paint My Way to Freedom

Internationally renowned artist Mike Kelley was found dead in his home on Tuesday at the age of 57. The LA Times reported that his death was an apparent suicide but could not be confirmed until an autopsy is completed. Kelly was known as a gifted artist and musician, a founding member of the Detroit proto-punk band Destroy All Monsters.

Kelley was born in Detroit on Oct. 27, 1954, to what he described as a working-class Catholic family which influenced his art. Eventually he landed in LA where he helped it become a great international capital of contemporary art.

A fact that is not well known is that Kelley also paved my way to freedom, rescuing me from a 15 to Life sentence for a non-violent drug crime I was serving at Sing Sing prison when he chose my painting to be displayed in a retrospect of his career at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I outlined this in my book 15 to Life: How I Painted my way to Freedom.

SEPTEMBER 10, 1993 was a day that would permanently alter the course of my life. It was on that day that the prison administration received a letter from Elizabeth Sussman, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Sussman contacted Sing Sing to see if there was a convict-artist who could participate in an upcoming Whitney exhibit titled Catholic Tastes. She wrote:

“I am the curator for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s upcoming Mike Kelley exhibition. Kelley has made a significant contribution to the performance and conceptual art of the past fifteen years, and we are very enthusiastic about mounting his first retrospective. One of the works in the exhibition, Pay for Your Pleasure, requires the appearance of a work of art by a convict. The piece has been shown in Chicago, Los Angeles, Berlin, London, Switzerland, and France with the cooperation of local authorities. I am writing to ask if your institution sponsors an art program and what are the possibilities for the loan of an artwork to the Mike Kelley exhibition. The show will be held at the Whitney Museum from November 4, 1993 through February 20, 1994. Thank you very much for any assistance you can offer.

Best regards, Elisabeth Sussman, Curator.”

The request was channeled to Sing Sing’s Supervisor of Special Subjects, Dennis Manwaring. Dennis had worked at the prison for over twenty years and oversaw the art program I was teaching at Sing Sing. One night he stopped by my class with her letter. When I read the letter, I knew that participating in the show was the break I had been waiting for. As I re-read the lines, they blurred into a single word: FREEDOM. I told Dennis that I wanted to participate in the exhibit and gave him a set of slides of my paintings that I’d smuggled into the prison several years before.

A week passed and I hadn’t heard anything from Dennis. I was impatient because I knew how the system worked. Anything that involved the administration, even a simple decision or task, would take weeks to address or end up disappearing in the sea of red tape. The chain of command and zillions of rules and regulations created total confusion. Several days later, I ran into Baldy, Dennis’ inmate clerk. I asked him what was going on with the show.

There’s not going to be a show for you, Tony,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“You better go see Dennis.”

I immediately requested a pass to Dennis’ office. The door was open, he was busy doing paperwork at his desk. I popped my head in.

“Hey Dennis, you got a minute?”

“Have a seat, Tony,” he said, not looking up. Several minutes passed. Finally, he raised his head. His face looked weary. “We’re not going to participate, Tony. I’m sorry.”

That was Dennis–short and sweet and to the point. So short, in fact, that I felt like I’d been socked in the gut. I needed this break. It was the only one I had left. I had exhausted all my legal remedies and was stuck with a 15 -to-life sentence for passing an envelope of four ounces of coke for the sum of five hundred bucks. I was sentenced under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the toughest drug laws in the nation. Some prison employees don’t even give you a chance to argue, but Dennis was different. He had a soft side. I decided to work it.

“Dennis,” I pleaded, “what are you saying? I looked in his eyes and tried to understand what was going through his head.

“I refuse to let any of my prisoners become exploited,” he said.

I asked him to explain what he meant. He went on to say that he had received “a startling letter” from the Whitney that convinced him that barring my participation was the right thing to do. I asked to see the letter. He hesitated, but finally gave in. He handed me a folder containing two letters written by Elisabeth Sussman.

“Dear Dennis:

Thank you so much for your willingness to cooperate with the Whitney Museum. What I did not make clear this morning is that the piece of art by a prisoner that is appropriate for Mike Kelley’s work must be made by a prisoner who is a murderer. I hope that one of the people you identified this morning fits that description. If you have any questions, please call me. In the meantime, I am enclosing a loan form, which functions to identify the artwork and to serve as a contract. If you could possibly send this back to us at once, we can then go ahead and make arrangements to pick up the work in the next week or two. Best wishes and thanks again.”

I turned the page and scanned the second letter that was sent to Dennis, which was sent in response to a letter he’d written her stating that he wouldn’t allow me to participate. It was dated October 12, 1993.

“Dear Mr. Manwaring: I regret having presented the matter of your inmate’s inclusion in Mike Kelley’s Pay for Your Pleasure piece without providing a context for the admittedly jarring stipulation that the inmate would be serving time for homicide. Kelley’s work consists of a pantheon of images of great men from Western history accompanied by quotes celebrating artistic genius. At times the text seems to exempt artists from the civil constraints of law and common ethics, and Kelley’s incorporation of a work of art by a convict emphasizes this idea by taking an extreme position. As part of Pay for Your Pleasure, visitors to the exhibit will be requested to make a donation to crime victims.

You should be informed that the description of Pay for your Pleasure in the checklist at the back of the exhibition catalogue does specify a work of art by a person convicted of homicide, though not necessarily by name. I appreciate your reluctance to identify the crime committed by the inmate whose slides you sent us (they’re very good!). Please reconsider the matter and let us know if you are willing to proceed with the loan.”

Like Dennis, I was taken aback by the museum’s insistence on having a painting by a convicted murderer, but in the long run, who cared? What mattered was that my art would be shown at one of the most prestigious museums in the world. Hopefully the exhibit would lead to my freedom. “Dennis, you have let me do this!” I said. “It could help me get my freedom back! I know it will!”

Dennis sat up straight in his chair and didn’t say a word. He reached for the phone and called Father Kavanagh, the old priest who’d been at Sing Sing for over thirty years. He was Dennis’ spiritual advisor. Whenever Dennis had a tough call to make, he turned to the Lord and Father Kavanagh. “Father, is it ethical to release the crime of a prisoner to an outside source?” Dennis asked, nodding as he listened to the priest. He hung up and made the sign of the cross. “Well, Father said it was unethical, so I won’t reveal your crime.”

For a split second, I was elated, but then I realized Dennis didn’t say he’d let me participate. “Dennis!” I pleaded, “You have to do this for me. Please! I was practically shouting. Dennis slammed his hand on the desk.

“Are you a murderer?” he yelled. “Did you ever kill anybody?”

I shook my head.

“No? Then are you telling me to lie?” he asked, his voice shaking. “I’m not going to lie, Tony. And that’s that!”

I had to think fast. “Okay,” I said, regaining my composure. “I’m not asking you to lie, Dennis. I’m not asking you to do anything. I’ll write the letter and if anything goes wrong, it’s on me.” Without a word, he lowered his head and went back to his work. I took a pad from his desk and proceeded to write a letter.

“Dear Miss Sussman:

In response to your inquiry about the crime I committed, I am respectfully submitting to you that I am indeed serving time for murder. In fact, I am currently serving two 15-to-life sentences for a double murder. I hope this satisfies your inquiry as to the status of my crime.
Sincerely, Anthony Papa”

I did what I had to do and even threw in an extra murder just in case. A week later, I received a positive response from the Whitney.

“Dear Mr. Papa: Thank you very much for agreeing to lend one of your paintings to the Whitney Museum’s Mike Kelley exhibition. Mr. Kelley has chosen to include 15 Years to Life–Self-Portrait in his piece Pay for Your Pleasure. Thanks again (and congratulations!) Sincerely, Minou Roufail, Curatorial Assistant.”

The following week the Whitney sent a handler to the prison to pick up my self-portrait “15 to Life”. My dream of having a painting exhibited in one of the most prestigious museums in America was coming true.

After the exhibit I read a review by The New York Times’ art critic Roberta Smith who praised my painting as an “ode to art as a mystical, transgressive act that is both frightening and liberating, releasing uncontrollable emotions of all kinds.”

Soon after the exhibit the prison became flooded with interview requests and my case reached the ears of then Governor George Pataki who eventually granted me my freedom through the act of executive clemency in 1997. As told by the NY Times, I literally painted my way to freedom by showing my art at the Whitney.

In 2004 I returned to the Whitney Museum of American Art along with my self-portrait “15 to Life” where I had a book party and art exhibit hosted by Andrew Cuomo (now Governor of New York State). Hundreds of people attended including celebrities such as Charles Grodin and powerful politicians like former Governor Mario Cuomo and Senator David Paterson who later became governor of New York.

The one regret I had was not meeting Mike Kelly in person and thanking him for saving me from the belly of the beast. Without him I would have been stuck in prison for many more years. It’s something I will never forget. So now through these words I say goodbye to Mike Kelley and pay tribute to him. I pray that he rest in peace and his soul finds an eternal happiness in the after-life.

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and manager of media relation for the Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: anthonypapa123@yahoo.com 

More articles by:

Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

September 24, 2018
Jonathan Cook
Hiding in Plain Sight: Why We Cannot See the System Destroying Us
Gary Leupp
All the Good News (Ignored by the Trump-Obsessed Media)
Robert Fisk
I Don’t See How a Palestinian State Can Ever Happen
Barry Brown
Pot as Political Speech
Lara Merling
Puerto Rico’s Colonial Legacy and Its Continuing Economic Troubles
Patrick Cockburn
Iraq’s Prime Ministers Come and Go, But the Stalemate Remains
William Blum
The New Iraq WMD: Russian Interference in US Elections
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Snoopers’ Charter Has Been Dealt a Serious Blow
Joseph Matten
Why Did Global Economic Performance Deteriorate in the 1970s?
Zhivko Illeieff
The Millennial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction
Thomas Hon Wing Polin – Gerry Brown
Xinjiang : The New Great Game
Binoy Kampmark
Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama
Max Wilbert
Blue Angels: the Naked Face of Empire
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail