By Melissa Wang, JAC Intern
Lex started to paint when someone in the art room at the federal prison handed him some watercolor paper, paints, and a brush. From that moment on, art became a small piece of freedom to him, a way to build community with other incarcerated folks, earn some money, and escape for a moment from the confines of his four walls.
Growing up, he practiced a different art form: boxing. His dad taught him how to box when he was four in their backyard gym and then in a boxing ring. They developed it into a gym, and Lex was training others by his young teens. Despite burning out and walking away from boxing at age 18, he still describes himself “as an artist expressing my art forms through boxing,” painting fighters he admires such as Mike Tyson. In 2010, his dad, who had trained him all his life, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Lex became one of his dad’s primary caretakers, and “over the next two years,” he says, “I would see him slowly just pass away and die.” His dad passed in February of 2012. Lex was arrested in March.
It was during his period of incarceration that he both became a drummer and an artist. Ryan Clemente, who Lex calls “the influential artist of my life and my art journey,” saw Lex walk into the art room at the prison and asked him if he wanted to paint. Lex agreed, and the rest is history: “And I started painting in prison.”
Eventually, he began buying more materials, paints, canvases, and brushes. “I realized that this is something that I really enjoyed and really liked,” he says. The guys in the art room were very supportive. Art was a place for him to escape to, noting that painting made him feel free and in his own world. “When you’re in prison, you’re completely stripped…completely oppressed…deprived of a lot of rights,” he describes. Art was a “big relief” in comparison. It was a method of personal and private expression in a space where the right to privacy is so often denied. Art was so much fun he decided that he wanted to be an artist who made paintings and had his own business selling them, building a career in the art world. Lex was able to build a skill that he now plans on using to transition into a new life.
Throughout his sentence, he invested time into painting, improving rapidly as a self-taught artist. He studied magazines, books, and the work of the other guys in the art room in order to master value, mixing paint, composition, and fine arts. His creative process “is God-given.” He’ll get an image or vision, sometimes with real gravity or attraction, writing it down into a notebook. “As I begin to do it,” he says, “a lot of times the end result isn’t what I had initially envisioned, but the intent and initial thought and vision are still there.” He describes his art as “progressive and impulsive,” in a discovery phase that will never end.
His attitude toward art is deeply inspiring. The road of studying and advancing in art is infinite, and he will never stop “learning about myself from my art…as I paint, I’m constantly discovering and learning and gathering ideas.” He says he owes a lot of his energy to God, as the ideal creator. Here are his reflections:
“I believe he’s a painter and an artist as well. Every time I see the sunset, it reminds me of how great an artist God is, because you see every passing moment. The sky color changes, and the light changes, and the shadows change. And I look at it and think man, this is God’s painting in real-time, like nobody could ever come close to that or even recreate it. But we as artists, we try to capture that one beautiful moment and try to paint it, or that one interesting moment to reproduce what we felt or think we saw. And we’re just copying God’s work.”
As Lex developed his art practice, he began also earning money from it. Toward the end of his time in prison, he started getting work; unfortunately, COVID-19 hit right at that moment, putting everything into lockdown. Luckily, he had brought supplies into his room, but it was still a challenge to make art. No new shipments of art supplies were coming in, so he could only draw on paper. Now that he’s out and at a halfway house, he has resumed painting regularly, although the situation at the prison remains the same. The pandemic has also curtailed his plans to have an art show once released.
Lex points to material challenges as a major hindrance while making art in prison. Many incarcerated artists are pencil artists because pencil and paper can be free – but you have to invest your own money to buy other art supplies. The prison Lex was at only allowed him to purchase from the Blick catalog, and to get quality supplies, he had to spend a fair amount of money. They weren’t permitted shipments from people outside, which has further restricted art inside during the pandemic now that the catalog is shut down. In terms of pricing, there were spending limits, meaning he had to balance his supply purchases with snacks, food, clothing, and hygiene items, on top of the thirty percent tax the government takes. “It’s so completely oppressive,” he says. “You see guys that are trying to do the right thing, invest their time and do good and build themselves up. Develop a skill. But yet the system is designed in a way where it’s counter-productive.”
Additionally, “there’s a difference,” he says, between using “the good stuff” and the cheapest supplies, especially for oil painting, which can cost a few hundred dollars to get started on. Lex took on cleaning and ironing jobs while inside so he would have more to spend. There would only be one or two people a year who’d come in and buy the art of the incarcerated artists, meaning funds were limited and artists often had to compete for the attention of the buyers.
Still, it was worth it to invest both time and money into art. He wants to be an example for “others that are coming out of prison or that are in prison,” showing them that their investments too will pay off. Here are his words:
“I let go of drug dealing and started doing art. I’m making positive changes in my life. And I want to be able to be a good example for others that are coming out of prison or that are in prison. They can invest their time. And when they finally do get out of prison, they can transition to become a tattoo artist or a fine artist, painting artwork and stuff like that. If I’m able to be successful, I can be a great example and a great story for others so that they can believe in themselves. So they can know that with hard work, dedication, commitment, a desire not to want to give up, they can pursue their dreams. And there’s people out there that are willing to support and help and do stuff like [this blog] to really help an artist who’s coming out of prison or is in prison transition. You know, especially when you’re a person who doesn’t have money or doesn’t have a lot of support, you don’t know what to do. You don’t know who to ask. You don’t know where to go.
If they know that they have people the JAC, or there’s grant opportunities or those in the community that are willing to give a helping hand, then it lessens the weight of the load that they’re carrying. It gives a person hope. It gives people hope to think that, you know what, maybe I can pursue a career in art, or something that they enjoy doing, and actually succeed and be successful. And they don’t have to go back to that old lifestyle.”
Lex hopes to encourage the people who read this blog not to give up on their dreams and to pursue their passions in life. His advice is to be open to exploring new things and trying things out. Lex’s story and his art practice are reminders of how art in prison can both heal and serve as a viable strategy to rebuild a life. Above all, they demonstrate why we believe so deeply in art’s power for transformation and for creating a path forward.