By Leslie Lakes
Nearly eleven years ago, a friend told me about a special art auction that was being held by the Fortune Society in New York. What made this auction unique was that all the works were by incarcerated individuals – men and women serving sentences in prisons throughout the United States. The artwork could be seen either on an online auction site, or at a live exhibition on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Approximately 250 pieces of original artwork in various media and sizes were available for sale via a bidding process for a period of five days.
I was living in New Jersey at the time and, as an artist myself, was intrigued. As I found out, the Fortune Society began in 1967 when David Rothenberg produced a play — Fortune in Men’s Eyes, about the harsh realities of living in prison – that mesmerized the audience and generated public discussion. Rothenberg went on to found the Fortune Society to support successful reentry of prisoners into society and alternatives to incarceration.
I perused the artwork in the auction and was amazed at the depth of sensitivity, skill, creativity, and ingenuity. The artists often relied on such minimal “art supplies” as hand-made paintbrushes fashioned from human hair, pigments made from dyes in M&M and Skittle candies, “oil paints” made from mixing peanut butter with candy dyes, and “washes” made from coffee and tea.
I was so blown away that I asked the Fortune Society to provide me with the names and contact information of some of the incarcerated artists. That is what started, back in January 2006, my longtime and regular correspondence with artist Keith Harward. To date, I have over 250 letters from Keith, along with a slew of small (approximately 5×7 inch) charming drawings of… birds.
Birds galore. Birds of all kinds. What can I say? Keith loves birds!
Keith developed his connection to birds as a child in Greensboro, North Carolina, from backyard feeders and field guides. But before his incarceration, he’d never been an artist. As he phrases it, the only things he’d painted were “cars, houses and ‘the town.’ ”
Then in 1982, as a 27-year-old U.S. Navy sailor, he was charged with murdering a man and raping his wife. The killer was in fact another sailor on Keith’s ship. But Keith was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.
In prison, he developed his painting and drawing skills with the help of other inmates and through correspondence with two “pen pal” artists, including myself. Unable to draw in the field, he modeled his work on images in greeting cards, photos from magazines such as Birds & Blooms, and images sent by his correspondents.
Keith served 33 years for a crime he did not commit. Finally, The Innocence Project took up his case and through new DNA testing was able to conclusively prove that he was innocent of that crime. The DNA evidence pointed to another sailor from Keith’s ship, who by then had died.
On April 7, 2016, Keith was released and exonerated with a writ of innocence granted by the Supreme Court of Virginia based on the new biological evidence.
Keith is an amazing person. Even while he was being unjustly deprived of the best years of his life, he always maintained a sense of humor and a positive upbeat spirit. He cheers me up when I’m down. Now imagine that!
At age 60, Keith is now free and back in his home state of North Carolina but has a long, difficult road ahead of him navigating a world that has changed drastically since he was first sent to prison. He never had a chance to build a career or family and so has no viable source of income. His parents are deceased. They never got to see their son released from prison as a free man. The entire thing is tragic.
To help him, I’m spreading the word about his bird artwork — limited-edition giclee prints of Keith’s bird drawings. Proceeds from the sale of these prints will go directly to help Keith get back on his feet financially.
These 17 images may be seen and purchased through the web site of Prison Arts Touching Hearts. Each giclee measures 8×10 inches and is printed on archival premium, cold-pressed, 100% cotton paper with no optical brightness. They are shipped in a protective transparent sleeve and cardboard mailing envelope, and come with a Certificate of Authenticity hand-signed by Keith. Cost of each print is $75 plus $4.95 shipping and handling within the continental U.S.
Feel free to contact me at Prisonartstouchinghearts@gmail.com with questions, comments, or to place an order. And if you’re wondering… the very first drawing that I bought and received from Keith is the American Goldfinch amongst the clover and thorn thistles.
Leslie Lakes is a writer, artist, lyricist, and Founder/Director of P.A.T.H. – Prison Arts Touching Hearts, a nonprofit organization. She lives in Mill Valley with her husband and two cats.