Artist Spotlight: Harold Johnson

For many, art is a pastime: for Harold Johnson, art literally helps him pass the time. In the midst of “prison drama,” he writes, art is where he finds his “serenity.” He puts on his music, begins to draw, and the rest falls away. 

Harold identifies as “Kiowa, Comanche, Delaware, and Seminole” and is enrolled officially as Comanche. He picked up an interest for art from his dad, an artist known as Whitewolf, “which is mom, my grandmother, who is a descendant of Comanche chief, ‘Chief Whitewolfe.’” Growing up in New Mexico, he’d watch his dad, brother, and other artists create “something out of nothing,” whether it was written work or visual art. In prison, he got some art supplies and began his journey as an artist himself.

Harold used to draw cartoon characters or flowers on cards and envelopes, along with small pictures for friends and family. “I honed my skills to be an artist.” He is inspired by other artists he sees on T.V., in prison, and by his own self expression. Although he draws inspiration from many places, he also recognizes his own ability to inspire others to be better themselves. “Even though a person is locked away,” he writes, “[they] don’t have to lock [their] mind, ideas, or creative talents away…they can still shine way past these barriers.” 

He writes about the many barriers and events in his life that have shaped the person he is today. In his own words: 

Growing up I experimented with drugs and alcohol at an early age and was getting into trouble in my teen years and lived the party and street life in Albuquerque, N.M. I moved to Oklahoma City in 1991 and worked odd jobs. Did a lot of partying in OKC, Oklahoma. One night in 1994 I was in a drunken stupor and was attacked by a friend, he died from multiple gun shots. I was arrested for 1st degree murder. 

I’ve been locked up since the day of my arrest in August of 1994 at the age of 24. I’m now 51 years old. I went to trial and was rushed through the judicial process, I wasn’t allowed just one continuance so I could find another lawyer who would fight for me and to get everything prepared correctly before trial. I had no competency evaluation done, needed witnesses contacted, specialist, etc…, I had to sit there and watch my freedom slip away through the grinding machine called corrupt justice. I know for a fact if I had proper preparation before trial that the outcome would have been different. There’s a lot of messed up details about the trial. One example: When jury selection was done and the judge was starting to talk, I stood up and interrupted the process and said, “I can’t believe you all are going forward with this! I’m not ready! I’m not prepared!” 

I was yanked out of the courtroom and taken to the judge’s chambers with both counsel, the judge, court reporter and sheriff’s officer. I was pretty much told we’re having a trial with or without you no matter what! I was taken in the small hallway by the sheriff who was by me all through the trial, he sat me down in a chair, looked around, started to choke with his hand gripped on my throat, and told me, “You need to shut the fuck up!” as he continued to choke me. 

I told him in a constricted raspy voice, “Go ahead and choke me out!” He finally let me go. He grabbed me by the arm and escorted me back into the courtroom through the front door…He was squeezing my arm hard, the closer I got to my table, I yanked my arm out of his grip. He sat right behind me or beside me the rest of the trial. So when I tried to speak up for myself, I was silenced from the get go! Also with a lawyer, D.A., a judge, and possibly a jury who did not like me. I was convicted and sentenced to life without parole, basically a slow death sentence behind bars. It has been a long rough journey and I have been through a lot and have seen some crazy things.


In my criminal case, I’ve been denied access to my entire police report/files of the interviews that happened the night of the death of my friend…The state put a block on allowing the jury to see this information because they said it would hurt their case! I found out in about 2006 or 2007 of what this D.A. said about the deceased guy’s record. 

The Oklahoma City Police Department, District Attorney’s Office, District Court, the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigations (O.S.B.I.), Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, Court of Criminal Appeals have all denied me access to these files. OKC PD did allow 1 little report of the case which was 2 pages, all of my friend’s information like address, D.O.B., and also my information was all blacked out with a marker! The jury selection process which is part of my trial was all destroyed in 2004. Oklahoma State law clearly states that no part of my trial is to be destroyed for 50 years after my last court filings. There are many things to my case, but these issues are what bothers me the most. It is like I have been silenced and that the law has failed me in the judicial system. Does anyone in the United States or the world know how I can get access to the entire police reports, statements, and criminal records for my case? 

In prison, Harold suffered further abuse from prison guards. And in the midst of abuse and injustice, art became a form of solace. Art is a way to escape from daily reality. He draws when everyone else is asleep and it’s quiet, sitting at his desk, losing himself in his art and relaxing music. Despite what he calls a slow death sentence behind bars, he continues to push forward and keep his head up – this attitude is what speaks to his “spirit and life.” Hope is what keeps him going. 

To create his incredible stippling work, Harold uses black ballpoint pen or archival ink. For pieces that aren’t his signature black and white look, he’ll use colored ballpoint ink, colored pencils, and colored markers, working on layers and blending. As for graphite art, he uses a wide range of pencils, up to 9B, and occasionally will work with pastels or charcoal. Harold has won a multitude of first, second, and third place awards in numerous art shows, and has received Best of Show, Honorable Mentions, and other art prizes at the Comanche Nation Fair. Most recently, he won a prize for a charcoal drawing of an elder. Harold is now learning to use acrylics.

His favorite subjects are animals, people, landscapes, and designs. Apart from being a talented artist, he is also a gifted writer. His short stories “Count is Clear,” “Hope,” “Face of a Child,” and “Heartbeat” were published in Prisoner Express.

Harold’s realm of creativity is broad: “it is awesome to create something out of nothing whether it’s a blank canvas or drawing paper, or a blank page of writing paper. I’ve always been drawn to cool-looking or beautiful art, poems, or stories.”

Here is his work, “Part of the day.” 

If you want to see more of Harold’s work, here is his portfolio.

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