Art from Angola Prison

DSCN1013I just returned from a trip to New Orleans – the first time being away from home on Christmas and the first time bar-hopping with my son, but that’s another story.  Because this blog is about outsider art, not intoxicants, I will refrain from telling you about Bourbon Street, and the copious amount of alcohol that is consumed there. Let’s just say it’s a party every day in New Orleans…

Prospect 3: Notes for Now (called “P3”) is an international contemporary art biennial on now at 18 different venues in New Orleans. I attended the exhibit at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which included the work of Basquiat, The Gasperi Collection: Self-taught, Outsider and Visionary Art, and a particularly interesting exhibit about the prisoners in Angola. I am compelled to describe the prison art collection first: Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick: Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex. For those of you who live outside the USA, Angola is the state penitentiary in Louisiana. It is a maximum security institution, housing over 6,000 prisoners and 1,800 staff members. In short, it is a small city unto itself where the last stop on the bus is death row and Louisiana’s execution chamber. (The United States is the only developed country that retains this abhorrent practice.)

The Calhoun and McCormick collection focuses on the lives of Angola’s prisoners and the impact of incarceration on their families. Because this specific exhibit was about art and justice, it was impossible for me to view it wearing anything but my “lawyer hat” and I left the exhibit railing against the absence of justice in far too many cases . The purpose of the images was to “restore humanity to a marginalized population”. It aimed to chronicle the daily life of an African-American within the prison system in Louisiana. The problem is this: to chronicle the lives of African-American prisoners is to normalize it and that, in itself, is an injustice. While roughly 12 – 13% of the American population is African-American, they make up 40% of the male prison inmates in jail or prison in the USA. Forty percent.

There are many innocent people in prison and how they got there is often the result of racial stereotyping and lack of legal representation. And, indeed, the profile on Welmon Sharlhorne was a prime example of how the system does not work. (Artwork pictured at top of page.)

serpentSharlhorne was born in Louisiana in 1952. He was convicted of robbery when he was 14 and went to juvenile detention for 4 years. Upon his release, he worked independently mowing lawns in the affluent areas of New Orleans. He soon got into a dispute with a customer about the amount of money he had earned; he was charged with extortion and assigned a public defender. His lawyer suggested a plea bargain sentence of 3 years. Welmon refused and fired his lawyer. Representing himself in court, he was convicted and sentenced to 22 years  at Angola prison.

Sharlhorne began drawing in prison, believing that his art and God saved him during his long years of incarceration. He obtained envelopes and a pen in order to write to his (non-existent) lawyer and used tongue depressors as a straight edge for his drawings. A clock appears in each of his drawings as a reminder that by taking time to commit any crime, little or big, it is time out of your precious time of freedom.


Herbert Singleton was another artist from Angola prison. His painted wood bas relief (at left) shows the fate of an African-American involved in the justice system. It ends with his execution. The captions says it all: LAWDIHAVEMERCY.
(from the Gordon W. Bailey collection)