Activist artist Chris Wilson raises awareness of solitary confinement with paintings


Illustrating life after a life sentence

Wilson made this painting more than two years ago, when a lawyer friend asked him to create a work as part of a larger project he was working on. “We had collected a bunch of letters from people, men, women and children who were currently in solitary confinement, or had been in solitary confinement,” he said. “And I struggled at first, because I read those letters and thought about all the horrible experiences I had in solitary confinement.

“I didn’t want to do a morbid painting,” he continues.

Going through the letters, Wilson recognized that the common theme was that most people yearned to see the outside world again. That’s when he had the idea to do “Positive Delusions”.

“Almost all of us thought of something positive that got us through solitary confinement,” he said. “So I started describing these feelings through colors of blue, pink and yellow. I put gold and black in it. I researched the meanings and symbolisms behind all the colors. And I put this on the canvas.

Wilson said one of the show’s goals was to confront people with the issues currently facing the criminal justice system. “I want people to be outraged by the practice of solitary confinement in America,” he said.

The curator of the exhibition, Vice President of the New York Academy of Art Gregory Thornbury, supported this goal.

“It’s an art show with a purpose,” Thornbury said. “There is something about Chris’s biography that speaks to an incredible injustice that is happening in the American prison system right now, and that needs to stop.”

He added, “Art is a way to force people to face this in a way that both uplifts the spirit but also challenges the soul.”

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the paintings — as well as special edition rolling papers made by House of Puff that feature Wilson’s art printed on the box — will go directly to Solitary Watch, a national watchdog group in non-profit. Through original reporting, the organization aims to educate the public, law enforcement, policy makers and others about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in prisons across the United States.

“We wanted to partner with them to showcase the work they’ve been doing for a long time,” Wilson said. “That’s the other thing that really excites me is being able to partner with amazing organizations that are doing meaningful work and putting some art behind that to help amplify it.”

Life before prison

Life has changed dramatically for Wilson, whose opening night of the exhibit coincided with the 10th anniversary of his release from prison. His historical background begins in Washington, DC, where he was born. He lived with his grandmother during the week, but spent the weekends with his mother and other siblings in Maryland.

In his book, “The Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose,” Wilson said shootings often happened in the area where he grew up. Although his home was meant to be a haven from outside violence, it was usually the opposite: his mother was in an abusive relationship with a DC police officer, he said.

“One night he attacked us and sexually assaulted my mother,” Wilson said. “He was arrested and lost his job. But he came home and started stalking our family.

This, coupled with the death of a cousin who was shot, led Wilson to carry a gun for his own protection, he said.

“Soon after, two people came after me one night, threatened me and said they were following me, watching my family,” he recalled. “And then a guy tried to jump on me and I ended up shooting my gun, and I took a person’s life.”

In 1996, at age 17, Wilson was sentenced to life in prison. He remembers his first moments in prison – the chaos, the screaming, the strip search – as the most humiliating moments of his life.

“I kept telling myself that this is where I’m going to spend the rest of my life,” he said. “It was awful for me.”

Having been extremely depressed during his first years in prison, Wilson said he had lived in solitary confinement several times, his longest stay being 117 days. The smallest infractions like having too much toilet paper, extra pencils or staring at a correctional officer could land anyone in the tiny, windowless room for days at a time, he said.

“Minimum human contact. You start to forget what time it is,” he said. “And when you go crazy, that’s actually the science behind it, of what solitary confinement does to your brain. It’s just… it’s torture.

In the Mandela Rules, a guide to protect the rights of those imprisoned, the United Nations designates solitary confinement that lasts more than 15 days as a form of torture. Yet prisons across the United States, including New York, still use the practice to punish those incarcerated.


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