Murrysville artist Bolick's exhibit gives 'visual voice' to wrongly convicted men

By Chris Foreman, TRIBUNE-REVIEW

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

 

For years, they were confined, ordered to await death by the state's needle or God's hand.

 

One man was incarcerated for 18 years for a rape and beating. DNA later proved his brother committed the crimes.

Another survived seven execution dates. He was finally acquitted in 2003 of the murder of a New Orleans hotel executive after the lead prosecutor confessed on his deathbed that he withheld crucial blood evidence in the case.

During the past year, Daniel Bolick, once a death penalty advocate, listened to their accounts of wrongful convictions, crushed lives and struggles to return to society after they were finally cleared of crimes prosecutors could no longer insist they committed.

Their stories inspired "Resurrected," Bolick's first solo art exhibition, on display through Sept. 6 at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg. An artist's talk will be held 7 p.m. Thursday in the museum.

Bolick's acrylic-and-latex paintings feature the faces of 10 men whose isolation from the outside world, he said, was exacerbated by authorities' reluctance to give them what they have wanted most - an apology.

"All the men are damaged in some way, and they would be the first to tell you," said Bolick of Murrysville. "You'd like to think they live happily ever after, but they don't."

After 34 years as an art teacher for Pittsburgh Public Schools, Bolick wanted to be involved in something that would have a social impact. He contacted the Innocence Project in New York and the Innocence Institute of Point Park University to learn about wrongful convictions and to find men whom he could paint.

He met all of them in person and took photographs of them to serve as the basis of his paintings and sketches.

Only one of the 10 profiled in the exhibition, Drew Whitley, is from Western Pennsylvania. Whitley was freed after 16 years behind bars when DNA evidence cleared him of a 1988 murder in Allegheny County.

Others from this region were reluctant to be included, leading Bolick to Louisiana, where nine men, freed with help from Innocence Project New Orleans, agreed to let him paint their portraits.

John Thompson, acquitted of killing the hotel executive, went on to create an organization, Resurrection After Exoneration, that helps former prisoners transition back into society. He and other wrongfully convicted men describe their lives in a performance called "Voices of Innocence."

Thompson stressed the difficulty in finding a job, housing and health care after being freed.

Pennsylvania is one of 23 states that doesn't have statutes for compensating the wrongfully convicted, according to the Innocence Project in New York.

When Thompson left the Louisiana lockup, the state returned some of his possessions and gave him $10 for bus fare.

"I think Dan was giving me another way of expressing that, but in a different way. And his work is remarkable," said Thompson, who was incarcerated for 18 years. "It's a great one-two punch."

The museum's curator, Barbara Jones, said Bolick's art gives a "visual voice" to the issue.

"You need to sometimes bring things to the public's attention, and art often does that," she said.