by Jhenna El-Sawaf
Marcus Pettiford was around two years old when his mother, Anita, handed him a pencil and piece of paper. He settled in to draw a portrait of his favorite toy, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. When he showed his mom the final result, she was stunned: “It scared me! I was like ‘this child can DRAW’! It was amazing.”
At 34, Marcus can hardly remember the pivotal Ninja Turtle drawing, though he does recall his natural instinct towards art. He describes seeing art in the world around him, patterns displayed in the floors of his classrooms or cracks in the sidewalk. “Even today, I could look at the wall, different sections of the wall, and see a picture. It used to be distracting; now that I’m grown I still have it but it doesn’t happen as much.”
Marcus continued drawing through his childhood, everything from toys to animals, but always, according to his mom, being “especially drawn to people.” In middle school he attended an arts school for a short time, and drew his first self portrait.
Growing up, though, Marcus says he wasn’t able to envision a future for himself as an artist. “As a child, art was always my natural inclination, something I could do, but I never really took being an artist seriously, because every time I learned about artists, they were always dead. I thought that you had to die in order to become a successful artist,” he laughs.
Still, Marcus never really stopped drawing, especially during his incarceration. “I’ve been locked up a little bit over 14 years now… [at first] I would draw something or do some art once in a while, but within the last six years I really became passionate about my artwork again, and started pursuing different avenues to get my art out there and express myself.”
During a particularly rough patch when Marcus put down his pencil, his mother, Anita, wasn’t having it: “I was like ‘Marcus you’ve gotta get back into it, it’s something that you do very well and it’s a God given gift, ’And he was like ‘I know, Mom.’ And I said, “No, but the world needs to see this…’ I kept pushing him.” Marcus laughs appreciatively now at her insistence he continue his art, “she is definitely my biggest fan, she encouraged me a lot.”
Art has brought Anita and her son even closer together she says, as well as the rest of the family. He sends her his work as often as possible, and once created a piece of Anita’s grandmother Mary who lived to be 101, and her granddaughter Karen. The warmth and care in the piece reflects the strong bond Marcus feels lucky to have with his family.
While incarcerated, Marcus also found new meaning in his work. Art was no longer art for art’s sake, but for an explicit purpose: “As an artist, I feel like it is my responsibility to speak for those of us that are marginalized and disenfranchised, and to humanize us. It’s telling my story, you know, it’s my expression, it’s my vehicle, it’s my voice.” Witnessing and being subjected to the injustices of the criminal justice system, which he says operates like a “well-oiled machine,” Marcus began to realize the power of art in changing people’s perceptions of incarceration, and of the people it affects.
He created his latest self-portrait from memory, his mother tells me, astounded by the way he has captured his likeness without access to a mirror on the inside. “It made me cry. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘you drew yourself that perfect?’
Marcus says the portrait was less about merely documenting himself, and more about juxtaposing “my position of how I feel about my circumstances against the way the world would see me.” He doesn’t have the tattoos featured in his portrait, but they stand-in for both the way he feels under the system, and the way the system (and those who buy into it) view him. “I wanted to use those words to go against each other, my perception and how I feel, the shame and everything, and the world’s perception of where I’m at,” he explains.
Beyond expressing his own experiences and struggles internal and external, Marcus also seeks to highlight the humanity of those on his “side” of the prison system.
To me it’s certain guys in here that just embody what’s wrong with the criminal justice system, and how the system is broken. The focus on rehabilitation has really become secondary, if even that. You have guys in here who’ve been locked up a few years longer than I’ve even been on this earth, and I just turned 34 years old, man. It’s a lot.
The mental illness aspect of everything… a lot of guys don’t actually need to be in prison, they need other kinds of help. You just kind of suffer through, and I want to bring a light to that suffering and also bring a light to the humanity that is on this side.
He was inspired by a friend on the inside to create “1977,” a portrait of the man who has been incarcerated since that year. “ I just felt like this is a man who’s been locked up over forty years, and he’s been silenced, his voice has been taken away from him, and I just kept thinking about how there’s so many contributions a man could make in 43 years of life. What could he have done in life? What could his voice, or his deeds have contributed to the world for 43 years?”
Marcus connects the story of his friend to the inhumane history of incarceration in the U.S. The subject wears a black and white striped shirt recalling the chain gang.
Marcus says he is more fortunate than many of the people he has met during his incarceration, which drives him to tell their stories in his art, too. “I’m blessed that I will be home, and I have a second chance and a life on the other side, but there’s so many guys in here that will be forgotten, man. Their stories won’t be told. Even just coming from an environment, and with what’s going on in the world, I would just like to express and give us a voice.”
Most recently, Marcus created “Floyd,” a piece inspired by the murder of George Floyd and victims of police violence.
“It’s a rope wrapped around the hands, but it’s not really wrapped around it. To me, with George Floyd and with other people who were victims of police shootings, it’s kind of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” So if your hands are tied behind your back, you can get the same outcome as if they weren’t.”
Both Marcus and his mother tell me that Marcus has been excited to continue creating art that will move people and, Marcus says “can bring about not just a conversation, but a response” to injustice.
Marcus has received recognition for his work both on the inside and the outside. His stunning portrait of Malcolm X won him first prize in an art contest just before the start of the pandemic.
Marcus continues to create art, and is also beginning to share more of his writing, which he says began as a personal and private catharsis. He submitted a piece to the JAC blog, where he addresses God. He says, “this particular piece is about just how desperate you can feel when you feel like God is not listening, when you feel like there’s no hope no matter what you do, because all you see around you is negativity. Once in a while, I think we all as people, no matter where we are, have this kind of question mark in your head like “why?” …if there is [a God], why are things so messed up?”
At the moment, Marcus still has hope that his creative voice will help to create change, “hopefully there will be some prevention, so I can stop telling these stories, or the next guy can stop telling these stories, because the population in prisons, or the population of gun violence victims, or the population of ‘offenders’ is reduced. I know I’ll be dead and gone by the time that happens but I pray, I hope.”
Until then, though, Marcus is determined to tell his story and the stories of those he knows and loves through his art. “I don’t have any children so this [art] is my baby, you know, this is what I care about, this is what I love.”