Fulton Leroy Washington Was a Prison Painter. Now He’s an Art-World Star.

Fulton Leroy Washington Was a Prison Painter. Now He’s an Art-World Star.

Fulton Leroy Washington Was a Prison Painter. Now He’s an Art-World Star.

The 66-year-old wants to use Black art to transform Compton.

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Fulton Leroy Washington, 66, is one of the most intriguing artists in Los Angeles. Many of his paintings, such as Mr. Rene # MAN POWER or Mondaine’s Market, depict people in federal prison. His work brings to life the communities, families, and loved ones that incarcerated individuals leave behind, while also depicting the despair and fears that people grapple with as result of their imprisonment. Those who want to understand the Black experience—and how that experience has been so fundamentally skewed by mass incarceration—can learn from Washington’s story and artwork.

Some of Washington’s signature paintings are currently on display at UCLA’s Hammer Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At the Made in LA 2020 biennial, his teardrop series was awarded the prestigious Mohn Award for Public Recognition, which is voted on by the general public. Washington is currently designing a creative artwork featuring Vanessa Bryant, the wife of the late NBA legend Kobe Bryant and hip-hop artist Drake has commissioned artwork from Washington.

In the late 1990s, Washington took up painting while serving a life sentence for nonviolent drug-related offenses that he says he did not commit. Prior to his imprisonment, he was a welder and owned a construction business. During his more than 21 years in various federal prisons, Washington created hundreds of pieces of art, including the painting Emancipation Proclamation. He says his legal team shared a photograph of the painting with White House counsel Neil Eggleston, prompting the Obama administration to review his case and ultimately grant him clemency in 2016.

Through high-profile exhibitions and his prize-winning work, many within both the art world and criminal justice reform movement have been inspired by Washington’s unlikely release from prison, his immense artistic talent, and the way he uses his art to tell stories of American incarceration. Washington is also working to open an art studio with a community classroom for the public in Compton, Calif.

I co-led the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission’s National Day of Learning this past June, which featured Washington’s Targeted Insurrection, a painting that connects the 1921 race massacre and the 2021 Capitol insurrection with systemic police violence against communities of color. In interviewing Washington for the conference and spending time with him at his Compton studio, I gained deeper insights into what drives him and his work.

—Karlos K. Hill

Karlos K. Hill: Many people, I’m sure, don’t know the full story of how you became a nationally and internationally acclaimed artist and an exemplar of Black excellence in the art world. I want to offer you the opportunity to tell as much of that story as you feel like sharing.

Fulton Washington: The thing that I reflect on, that I have realized in life, is that time is your most valuable asset. It’s more valuable than money, than cars, than homes, than property. Time is the only thing in this physical life that you can’t get back. So my journey, even as a child, was not to waste time.

And during those years of incarceration, I didn’t waste my time. I didn’t want to come home at close to 50 years old and be pouring concrete and on my knees spreading mud. The art became something I knew I could do in prison to help support the legal fight, to help share the stories of the inmates—of the fear that I’d seen inside them—and to try to put families back together using art as a way of communication. That’s how the whole art thing started. My message that I want y’all to pinpoint inside your minds and your hearts is: Don’t waste time.

KH:I heard that you began to paint to help your fellow inmates communicate—to convey the pain, the suffering, the fear that they felt in prison with you. And I also know that you became an art teacher while in prison. Can you tell us about some of the paintings you produced as you were teaching other inmates how to express themselves through art?

FW: Let’s go back just a little bit. One day in court, my attorney Karen Smith asked me to draw a sketch [of a former coworker who could support my whereabouts]. I drew a very rough sketch and turned it in, with no idea that she was going to make copies of it and go looking for this person. A group of interns from Southwestern Law School were passing it out in the community, going from house to house, and some kids were following them around, begging for whatever it was they were giving away. The interns reluctantly gave them one of the sketches to stop them from following. But then they heard one of the kids say, “Hey, that’s Jerry!” When they went back and asked to talk to that kid, he took them right to Jerry’s house. They [Jerry and the other workers from the construction site] then told the court the same thing I had been telling them for a whole year. I had an emotional breakdown right in the courtroom. I started to cry and couldn’t stop. I promised God that I would continue to practice that craft and freely share it, the same way I had freely shared that piece of paper. So that’s how I became an artist and art teacher. I was a vocational instructor before prison, so I did have that skill in reaching people with different ways of learning. But that’s how it all started.

In my very first painting, for some reason—I have no idea, but God does—I painted slaves dead in the bottom of a ship. This was in the summer of ’97, after the movie Amistad came out, and one of the inmates had brought me a picture and showed it to me. I could emotionally feel it all inside of me. I took that tiny black-and-white piece of paper and put it in my wallet. I carried it around for almost a year. I finally got a seat to paint, and that was the first thing I attempted. I titled that painting ‘Y’ US S.

I think another significant painting was Loving a Convict. It shows a man’s hand holding a woman’s hand with a wedding ring on it. It also shows a string of pearls. That string of pearls had all of my children and grandchildren in it. I wrote a story about how when you incarcerate someone, you’re incarcerating more than that person. When you take the life of a male, female, father, son, daughter, you’re actually taking part of the life of everybody that spirit is connected to. And that’s what Loving a Convict is all about. Even though I was the one serving a life sentence, my family was suffering for an act they didn’t commit. For 21 years, my children missed having a father to help nourish them and grow them into a full adult.

KH:Could you talk about your inspiration and your vision for your recent painting Targeted Insurrection, which juxtaposes scenes from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the January 2021 insurrection at the Capitol with the powerful image of a young Black boy surrounded by bullet holes with tears running down his face? How did this painting come to be?

FW: I give God credit for everything that happens in my life. I was inspired while in Florida with the Families Against Mandatory Minimums [FAMM] organization. I was invited to a summit, and when I was talking to one of the people that I met there, she showed me a picture of her son. His name is Bryson, and she allowed me to use him as a model [for this painting]. The majority of the paintings that I paint are of real people. I don’t make characters up to try to tell a story. I try to tell stories of people who don’t have a voice.

I was spiritually connected to this picture. I had to paint it out of me. While I was in the process of creating this painting of this child, we had the January insurrection. And my spirit and soul were touched to the core. I started thinking about what I was watching on TV, and it reminded me of my own life, because in 1965 I was living in the Nickerson Gardens Project, where the 1965 Watts Riots occurred. So I had these vivid experiences of what I was seeing on TV again.

I started looking into insurrections, and I discovered that in 1965 the newspapers called the Watts Riot an insurrection. And I’m like, “Wait a minute. Ain’t nothing changed.” So then I related what happened in Tulsa. I ran across all the stories on [the race massacre]. I had already heard about it, but I went a little bit deeper. And I realized that what was going on at the White House, the change of leadership, would have been a step up for people of color. And [the insurrectionists] were not going to have it. And then I looked backwards in time, and again I said, “Wait a minute.” They burned it down in 1921, and then they turned around and, in a sense, burned it down again.

KH:How do you see the race massacre and the January insurrection as connected to the number of Black youth in this country being killed by police?

FW: I realized at that point that the kids are the target. You can’t let them grow up. You have to get them in prison or kill them while they’re young, because if they get to be grownups, they maybe get too powerful. And something came over me. It’s like the Black kids and the people of color are targets. That’s why I put bullet holes all over. They didn’t hit him, right? But I tried to explain that story, that “Look, in all these years, nothing has changed.”

KH: Your art is not just about making something beautiful. It’s also about bringing value to the community. Could you talk a bit about your efforts to build your own studio? I remember in earlier conversations you told me how much space you had in prison for your art and for teaching classes. On the outside, though, you didn’t have as much space or the same kind of setup that you had at the beginning of that journey. And could you share some of your current projects with us? I know your painting sessions can be long, lasting six or seven hours, or even the whole day.

FW: I’m currently working on another piece on Kobe [Bryant] entitled Beating Hearts. While Kobe is the subject matter, the story in this one is the lives of the other people who also died in the helicopter crash, since it seems that the media have not given them the voice that they deserve. My emotions and my spirit are leaning toward all those unheard voices. They were not celebrities. They were just regular people moving through life, and their voices have been shunned by the media. The media picked Kobe and Gianna [Kobe Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter]. They’re very significant—they both are gonna be in the painting—but I really wanted to shed a little light on the other lives. Those were also spirits of God. They got snuffed out early.

When I was incarcerated, I was able to convince the very first prison to give me a classroom. And with that, the people who could not get a seat in the art room had a new space to go to, and I began to share. I had a full classroom. The prison was pretty big; there were 4,000 people there.

The next prison I went to, I again was given a classroom. They assigned me as the instructor, and I had space to work on paintings. Finally, when I was shipped back to California and went to the Lompoc Prison, I was pretty much given control, in a sense, over the hobby shop area. I had space there to build these enormous paintings, which are now housed at the Lompoc Veterans’ Memorial Building. I helped to refurbish that building with my art.

In my current situation, I’m living in a senior citizens’ apartment, a small one bedroom. We only have this living room/dining room area, so every time I need to work on a project, I have to rearrange the whole house. The picture behind me is five feet tall. And I need to work on more than one at a time because I paint in oil and it takes time to dry before adding additional layers of paint. Sometimes you have to wait days before you can put the second layer on. So we’re trying to raise the funds for a studio where I can be expressive, continue to teach, and bring the people in the community in. I don’t want a lease, though. I want to create generational wealth for my family by purchasing the property and creating a cornerstone in the community that could go on and support my family after my life is gone, way past me.

I’ve been carrying a chart with me since I was 20 years old, either physically in my hand or in my mind. It shows that if you live to be 100 years old, that’s only 36,500 days. I’m getting close to 70 years old now, so my time is running out. It’s time to get a studio established and get things going. You can look at this chart, and if you’ve lived for 40 years, you’ve lived about 14,000 days and you have about 21,000 left. That’s why I say time is so valuable. I’m constantly aware that you don’t get days back. So what you do with your days and what you do with the 24 hours of each day, that’s your own choice. Your life will be whatever you spend your time working toward.

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