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Artist, social justice activist Fulton Leroy Washington presents to community about art, personal journey, activism

Vivianne Arnold
Artist and activist Fulton Leroy Washington speaks with sophomores Skylar Roberts, Serenity Jones, Selah Johnson and Alexa Grant. Washington stayed after his presentation Feb. 2 to answer students’ individual questions and speak with many about their artistic journeys. 

According to the Innocence Project, experts estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of incarcerated people in the United States prison system are innocent. For over two decades, Fulton Leroy Washington was one of them. 

Washington was wrongfully convicted for a nonviolent drug offense in 1997 and sentenced to life in prison. He began painting portraits of his fellow inmates in prison and was granted clemency by President Barack Obama in 2016, which ended his sentence. Since then, he has continued to paint and tell his story and has begun providing aid for others who have been wrongfully imprisoned by building his Art by Wash studio and community center. The building will provide housing and art classes for people recently released from prison. 

Members of the Eastern Star Gallery Board and Archer’s Advanced Study Studio Art class Piper Porter (’24) and Maddie Lundberg (’24) moderated a Q&A with Washington for Archer’s upper school during FLX Block Friday, Feb. 2. His presentation was a part of Archer’s ongoing Art and Activism Month. Washington’s work was previously exhibited in the Eastern Star Gallery in October for his “INCAPTIVITY” show.

Before the Q&A, Washington led a presentation explaining the meaning behind several of his paintings. He also spoke about his work with criminal justice system reform and how he is working to provide housing for those freed from wrongful imprisonment. During the Q&A, Washington answered questions about his experiences being wrongfully incarcerated for 21 years, how those experiences prompted him to create his art and how he has used art to create social change since then.

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“I never tried to dabble with oil paints or anything until one day, my attorney asked me to try to draw [a witness], and I drew a rough sketch. She found them, and they came to court and said, you know, this man was here with us,” Washington said. “That’s the moment that the art became serious in my life. That was the moment that I cried, and I told God that I will continue to do it and continue to share.” 

Washington discussed the struggles he faced while painting in prison and his artistic journey up until today. Sophomore Skylar Roberts shared that despite not usually feeling a connection to visual art, she felt impacted by Washington’s presentation.

“It was really interesting to see, you know, his vision behind the meaning behind all of his paintings, and once he explained it, I could really see all of his ideas represented,” Roberts said. “And I thought that was really cool because, normally, I think also my disconnect from art comes from lack of people explaining it to me.”

Washington has been collaborating with Archer’s Advanced Studio Art class for several weeks on a painting of the school, which also features all of the students in the class. He hopes to showcase it in a gallery when it is finished. Visual arts teacher Hannah Kremin said working with Washington has been an amazing experience for the students. 

“He kind of went around to every student in my class and said, ‘What do you want to paint? What do you want to see in a collaboration?'” Kremin said. “And so every student got to voice something that they maybe were excited about seeing in a painting. Every student also voiced something that they were nervous about, never having tried before.”

Kremin encouraged all students to attend Washington’s first solo show, which will take place Feb. 16 at the Jeffery Ditch Gallery

As Washington’s presentation came to a close, he emphasized the importance of creating art for yourself and not only for what others want. Washington said for art to be meaningful, it has to be true.

“My advice to any artists who want to use art,” Washington said, “whether that art be song, writing, poetry, dance or in physical painting: Let it have a message.”

This story was originally published on The Oracle on February 5, 2024.