About the guest contributors:
W.B. Livingston III (Will) is a musician and visual artist who is in prison in Oklahoma. Will creates originals and prints, and donates pieces to nonprofits for fundraisers. He also does commission work.
Since 2001, A.M. (Adrian) Brune has reported and written hundreds of freelance newspaper, magazine and website articles – from pitch to print – for publications, such as Foreign Affairs, the New Yorker, The Guardian, The Nation, Racquet and other national publications on a variety of topics, including world affairs, social justice, human rights and culture. Brune is currently a UN/International writer for OZY.com, a website magazine, as well as the U.S. correspondent for CapeTalk (South Africa) morning radio. Brune holds a BS in Journalism from Northwestern University and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University in the City of New York.
My entire life, I’ve been a musician, but I’ve always wanted to be an artist. Before coming to prison, I never felt comfortable enough to pursue any sort of endeavor in art. I refused to take the high school classes, although I was interested in the things happening in those rooms. The only time I would attempt any art happened late at night, following a bout of heavy drinking.
In 2010, I was sentenced to fifty years in prison for the death of a man that I caused by drinking and driving. Since music was not an option for the first three years of my forty-year incarceration, I decided to finally pursue painting. After some experimentation, I managed to find a style inside myself and dove in completely. Just as with my music upbringing, I have been self-taught.
I have now been incarcerated for more than eight years and continue to make art in many different media. My family has helped me a great deal by selling my art “on the outside” through galleries, art festivals, various exhibits and the Internet. To our great surprise, people have really responded to the work. I have also spent countless days working on paintings and other projects for charitable causes. These items are usually sold through silent auctions to help organizations such as the Special Olympics, Employment for the Disabled, the Messages Project and the Outsiders House Renovation, to raise operating funds.
Over the last year, I decided to combine both of my passions. I started designing and hand-printing concert posters for the bands I like and follow. These posters are created and produced in the Joseph Harp Correctional Institute – where I live – and are distributed for free to patrons waiting in the ticket lines, or after the show. We normally pass out 25 full-color, signed and numbered prints at each show. It has come to the point at which many people have begun collecting them. We have created posters – and given them away – for more than 50 shows in the past year in Oklahoma, New York, Asheville, North Carolina and Dallas, Texas, with the help of family and volunteers.
I love doing this concert poster project and the charity commissions because it is a way for me to be a part of the world – and to give back to a community and society from which I feel as if I have taken so much. All of this could never replace the person I killed through my negligence, but maybe it’s a way I can do something in his memory.
It was a hot and balmy Tuesday night in Manhattan, and I had just finished my marathon training in Central Park. I had two articles past due and two impending, not to mention story ideas to pitch and regular jobs to which I needed to apply. I am naturally a music lover and when I had more disposable income, would normally be at the Phoenix concert in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. That particular night, however, I was broke and not in the mood. But I had with me a ream of 25 posters shipped from the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington, Oklahoma, from my friend and fellow former addict, William Livingston. So I chugged some water, threw a pack on my back, plugged in my earphones and headed out on bike across the 59th street bridge, through Queens and toward a club called Brooklyn Steel.
I had discovered Will about three years earlier, Christmas 2015, walking through the empty streets of downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, my home, and peeking into the windows of local shops to discover anything kitsch I might want for my East Midtown apartment. I happened upon a painting – I believe of Nirvana – in a shop called “Okie Crow” and was struck not only by the color, but by the execution. It was clearly “Pop” influenced, reminding me a bit of Warhol’s factory, Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns – cynical, yet reverential. The owner of the shop told me the story of Will Livingston, who had been sentenced to 50 years in prison for accidentally killing a man while drunk driving. She did not know that, I, too at the time, was a recovering alcoholic who miraculously escaped Will’s fate, although I had driven drunk more times than I cared to admit. “By the grace of god go I”, which I used to utter every time I saw a homeless person on the streets of New York, took on new meaning that day.
Four months later, I was on a plane back to Tulsa to write about Will for The Guardian. At Joseph Harp, I was struck by his openness, his emotional intelligence, his kindness and his regret for his past actions, despite the austere conditions of the visiting room and the harsh condition of his affairs. Most assuredly, I left that prison yard angry at the punishment that had been meted out by the state of Oklahoma for the affliction many term as a disease, yet penalize as a heinous crime. Under Oklahoma state law, Will does not get parole for good behavior or a reduction in sentence. His offense is a violent crime, his car was his weapon. Under these stipulations, Will serves at least 85 percent of his 50 years, which at age 35, meant he would not walk free until age 70, only to have to serve another decade on probation. I had just experienced the lawlessness of the US justice system.
Will and I kept in touch. When he approached me about his prison project, of course I said yes. Even if I do not have tickets, I go and give away Will’s posters. New Yorkers like most anything for free, but these prints take on a different context: Will reaches out and touches each person with a poster. Recipients are happy to have their photos snapped, which are sent to Will via his mother, Marie, and most of the time, the managers of the various bands pick up two or three or six of the posters to give to the band. That makes me exceptionally happy.
The Phoenix concert on 10 July was no different. I pedaled the back streets to Brooklyn Steel and handed all of Will’s work out in about 20 minutes, even to a close friend of the band who Tweeted about the experience later that night. I sometimes think about the reasons I keep doing this for Will – especially while biking around New York – wondering if I feel social responsibility, a lapsed Catholic sense of penance, a desire to recreate Will for a society that instantly labels him as deviant, or just because I like the guy and believe in his work. I resign myself to all these reasons at various times. In the end, however, while I do not personally adore every piece (that’s rare of me for any artist) I have two original Will Livingston commissions in my Manhattan apartment. I consider them among my prized possessions, both for their composition and the piece of himself that Will gave me with each one.
“Most of the time I am just trying to capture a bit of the essence of the artist/band or just the way they make me feel. Sometimes, I put things together and it just looks cool to me. I think we sometimes forget that art can be fun.” – Will Livingston