How an artist’s lost prison painting found its way to a museum | Business

LOS ANGELES – Fulton Leroy Washington knows the rules for making art in jail all too well, those strict rules for inmates who work in the well-guarded hobby shop: no sharp-edged tools, no oils with chemicals that could be used for tattoos and no canvases larger than the locker so that the works are not stolen or destroyed at night.

Washington getting past Mr. Wash spent more than 20 years behind bars on three non-violent drug offenses that he did not commit. During those two dark decades in various correctional facilities, Mr. Wash painted photorealistic portraits of other inmates – up to 75 works per year, taking into account his other drawings and tattoo designs – and gained media attention in the process.

The story of the Los Angeles-born man is well known in the art world: he was arrested in 1996, convicted in 1997 and sentenced to life imprisonment for past non-violent drug offenses. President Obama commuted his sentence in 2016. Mr Wash now lives in Compton, where he paints, works to prove his innocence, and campaigns for criminal justice reform for others. He has a clothing line, Wash Wear, and was the subject of a 2019 Webby Award-winning short documentary about his life.

Less known is the story behind one of his paintings, “Mondaine’s Market”.

The work hangs in the Hammer Museum in Westwood as part of the “Made in LA” biennial. But it almost didn’t make it there. Mr. Wash lost track of the painting while imprisoned, recreated it for the Biennale last year, and found the original in Kansas City, Missouri, in May. Both versions can be seen in the exhibition, which this year also takes place at the Huntington Library, the Art Museum and the Botanical Garden in San Marino.

“It’s been a trip, that’s for sure,” said Mr. Wash on a visit to his apartment, a small bedroom with canvases still drying, coffee cans filled with brushes, and stained pallets on almost every surface.

Hammer curators Lauren Mackler and Myriam Ben Salah approached Mr. Wash for the first time in 2019 to be included in the exhibition. They had seen a picture of Mondaine’s Market online and requested the portrait for the show. It shows John L. Mondaine, a fellow inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence, Colorado, whom Mr. Wash painted more than 15 years ago.

In the work, Mondaine’s enlarged, disembodied head hovers in a cloudy sky next to his grandson’s head. Downstairs is the Beas Kansas City grocery store owned by Mondaine. Mr. Wash – a building contractor and welder who taught himself to paint in prison – received photos of Mondaine’s family and copied tiny details of the location and magazine images into the piece, such as B. Store signage, license plates, and a bus LED target screen. He even painted the inside of the store – shelves, stacked goods, and a register – and then painted over it, tinting the windows of the building so that the inside was barely visible.

He and Mondaine designed the work together, said Mr. Wash, in the prison’s hobby shop (painting in your own cell was forbidden at the time) and talked for hours about pictures, proportions, and placement. It took Mr. Wash two years to complete the work in 2005.

“He wanted a painting that describes his legacy,” said Mr. Wash of Mondaine. “He came to me and said he wanted a picture of the shop. He thought he was likely to die in prison and he wanted to be in the sky with his family, surrounded by clouds.”

Mackler and Ben Salah believed that the painting was a collection of Mr. Wash’s work, depicting inmates in real and imaginary landscapes outside the prison walls, where – at least on canvas – they could connect with loved ones and assert their identity . The curators were also impressed with the level of detail of the work.

“He’s a really skilled painter with a unique sense of composition,” said Mackler. “But the level of detail in this particular painting that personifies and animates the characters and architecture was really exciting. There are worlds within worlds in the Mondaine painting.”

But there was a problem: Mr. Wash, now 66, had long ago lost track of Mondaine’s Market – along with Mondaine himself, which was released in 2005. The painting had been sent to Mondaine’s family while Mondaine was still behind bars. (Inmates were not allowed to work in the hobby shop for more than 90 days, Mr. Wash said.) But Mr. Wash had never had direct contact with Mondaine’s family because of an unofficial rule: Do not associate with other inmates’ families.

“You could be stabbed and killed for that,” said Mr. Wash. “If something happens to your house, your family, I don’t want to be blamed.”

All business related to his paintings – sourcing the photos Mr. Wash worked on, paying for portraits, shipping finished works – was done by one of Mr. Wash’s eight children, a family friend, his lawyer, or the Help Us Help organization Wash , founded by his followers around 2013 to aid his legal defense. The organization also supports other people who claim to have been wrongly convicted.

However, Mr. Wash’s art associations typically did not keep sales records and could not track inmates who frequently moved within the prison system or their families. The commissions were just too numerous. Mr. Wash’s talent earned him respect in prison, where he also gave art classes, and he said he had a waiting list of up to two years for new portraits.

Mr. Wash searched for the hammer painting for more than four months. The delivery address was no longer valid and the phone numbers were out of date. Mondaine, now 70, wasn’t on social media. Mutual friends did not show up.

The Hammer curators suggested that Mr. Wash paint a replica of the work from memory, using the only photo Mr. Wash had of the painting.

“But are you trying to paint such a complex picture from a photo?” Said Mr. Wash. “The details were super small. At first I said, ‘No.’ Two or three times. Then finally, ‘OK, I’ll try.’ “

Recreating work as a free man was an entirely different experience, said Mr. Wash. The most noticeable difference was the scaling. No longer limited to working on small canvases that would fit in his prison locker, Mr. Wash went big with the replica and doubled its size on a 4 by 5 foot canvas.

“I had never had the opportunity to paint so big in oils, it was an opportunity,” he said. “But getting a bigger picture required new techniques – the thickness of the paint, the precision of the brushes, how long it took for the paint to dry. I still used the same brushes I used to paint with in prison, however.” it was more difficult. There were new decisions. “

Free time was also an adjustment. In prison, Mr. Wash was only allowed to paint for two hours, so he was forced to work quickly and efficiently. When he made the replica last spring during the COVID-19 era shutdown, he only had free time. He crouched in his living room – “Children can’t come over, grandchildren can’t come over, no one can visit them” – and painted for 12 to 16 hours until his body ached.

“With unlimited time to paint, your calculations will be different. It may take longer,” he said. “Which is better? I still find out.”

Some details of the original painting, particularly the signage on buildings, were too small to be seen clearly in the photo of the work. Mr. Wash scanned the picture into his computer and enlarged it, but the details were still blurry. So he improvised, which led to tiny differences between the two works. A version of the Beas market advertises hamburgers, phone cards, and money orders. the other, pizza, lottery tickets, and check cashing. The goal of the bus in each work is different.

While he was painting, Mr. Wash kept looking for Mondaine and the original painting. Eventually, through a number of joint collaborators, Mr. Wash found Mondaine in Kansas City and lived with his wife and son. He was 73 and blind.

The painting was hanging over the couch in the living room. “They loved it,” said Mr. Wash.

So much so that when Mr. Wash showed up on her doorstep weeks later to retrieve the work for the exhibition, as they’d agreed over the phone, Mondaine had a change of heart.

“But I told him, ‘Hey man, it’s me, Mr. Wash, you can trust me.'”

When the painting arrived at Mr. Wash’s apartment days later, he placed it next to the replica, which was still drying. It was the only time he saw the works together before they were shipped to separate museums. Seeing the works side by side, almost identical, brought a sense of achievement but also felt strangely melancholy, he said.

“It made me wonder. Are the energies of paintings the same in terms of detail, depth, and time?”

The original Mondaine’s Market hangs prominently on the hammer, and the replica can be seen in the Huntington’s. The Biennale deals with topics such as duality and reflections, so that the mirrored works, which are 40 km apart, have additional resonance. (The galleries of the museums are closed, but the exhibition is installed and parts of it can be viewed online.)

The hammer also features paintings from Mr. Wash’s teardrop series. Every portrait – of public figures like Obama and Michael Jackson as well as fellow inmates in prison – shows heavy tears rolling down the test subjects’ cheeks. Tiny figures and narrative vignettes appear in the tears.

On February 11th, The Hammer will host a free virtual discussion between Mr. Wash and the performance’s assistant curator, Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, covering, among other things, the artist’s experiences, his painting process and criminal justice reform.

Mr. Wash will also feature paintings in the Shattered Glass group show, which opens March 20 at the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Los Angeles.

He was so excited about creating the larger replica for Made in LA that he painted a giant work for the show, a 4 by 5 foot commemorative portrait of Kobe Bryant shedding basketball tears – especially poignant for the one year anniversary of the death of the Athletes this week.

“Finally seeing what it feels like to paint a bigger size, the difficulty in it, that was the greatest achievement, something that has always been withheld from me,” he said.

The mirrored “Mondaine’s Market” works represent an amalgamation of past and present for Mr. Wash, he said, as well as a chance to bend another rule:

“You get a second shot on a couple of things,” he said. “This was one of them. A chance to do things differently. That’s positive. I feel so blessed.”

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