From prison to Palm Springs: How artist’s work landed here is tale of triumph, forgiveness
By Cat Makino
Beaten up in a race-related gang riot in Florence Penitentiary in Colorado. The reason? Who sits where in the dining hall. In Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, rumors and suspicion that he was an undercover agent spread among the other prisoners because he had drawn a picture that had been seen by a reporter and featured on the cover of the local paper.
Fulton Leroy Washington (“Mr. Wash”) learned the lessons about making art in prison the hard way after being convicted and sentenced to life without parole in the late 1990s for a non-violent drug-related crime of which he maintains he is innocent.
In prison, Mr. Wash learned to draw and paint in oils and acrylics, and discovered he had talent. He painted portraits of other prisoners, sometimes including their families, in idyllic landscapes, wearing civilian clothes. These photorealistic portraits also incorporated teardrops encapsulating miniature paintings within the paintings that show fears or anxieties they shared with Mr. Wash.
“When I first entered the system, the first thing I noticed was that everyone was afraid of something,” Mr. Wash says. “While I painted, people would talk to me about what they were afraid of – being raped, extorted, beat up by a gang, and some of the inmates were afraid of the prison guards, and some of the prison guards were afraid of the inmates.”
He adds, “They opened up to me because I painted a picture of myself with tears in my eyes standing next to my wife and youngest child. When the inmates saw it they said, ‘I never thought a tough guy like you would cry about anything,’ then they started admitting that they cried too, but for different reasons.”
For much of his life he was plagued by a similar nightmare. “Someone had a knife, cut me up into little pieces,” he says. “I always woke up sweating. Then one day in prison, an inmate with a knife in his hand, stood in front of me. I looked him in the eye, and told him to give me the knife. He backed up when I came closer to take it. Then I never had the dream again.”
Word of his artistic skills spread among his inmates and their families and others about his paintings. Then after he had been incarcerated for 21 years, his sentence was commuted in 2016 by President Obama. Amazingly, Mr. Wash says he’s not bitter or angry about what has happened to him. His faith, as well as his ability to educate inmates through art classes — all while giving them good sense counseling — saw him through his time in prison.
“I believe we are just passing through the human experience. We are all spirits of God,” Mr. Wash says. “Take a glass that is half full of water. Some people see a glass half empty and others see it half full.”
His paintings have been exhibited at many museums and galleries, including UCLA’s Hammer Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the HVW8 Art and Design Gallery at LA, The New York Whitney Museum at New York, and will be at the Palm Springs Museum of Art from April 22 through July 3. At the Made in LA 2020 biennial, his “teardrop” series was awarded the prestigious Mohn Award for Public Recognition, after a vote cast by the general public.
“He’s one of the most authentic artists that I have ever worked with,” says Adam Lerner, executive director of the Palm Springs museum. “He makes parts of hands that come from his heart. That’s because he wasn’t touched while in prison. He comes from tragedy, but managed to turn it around into something beautiful.”
“He is one the kindest and gentlest men I know,” Lerner adds, describing Mr. Wash’s paintings as “figurative painting with a surrealist influence.”
Mr. Wash currently lives in Compton. He was born in Louisiana, and raised in Watts with his eight siblings. But following the riots his step-father moved the family to Gardena. Wash has always been good at creating and won many prizes at school, including awards for making a self-sustained motor generator, a metal jewelry box, a skateboard, and much more.
He credits a strong mother for his success, saying she was his biggest inspiration and influence.
“She always told me, there’s no such word as can’t,” he says. “She only went up to third grade, got married at 13 years old. Later on she got her GED and was my classmate in eighth and ninth grade.”
PSP SPEEDS UP SECURITY: The Palm Springs International Airport (PSP) added a new way to get through security faster, just in time for festival season on Thursday. The CLEAR TSA Checkpoint allows travelers to verify their identity with their eyes instead of a driver’s license. Visitors can sign up near the checkpoint or start the process online. CLEAR can also be used at more than 50 other airports, stadiums, and venues. More improvements are coming to the airport in updated IT systems, renovated restrooms, and new carpeting in the concourses. Officials are also working on expanding parking and baggage claim and increasing restaurant offerings. This change comes on the heels of significant passenger growth since last summer. Three new airlines started service at PSP this season, and 16 new air services, a mix of new routes and competitive service on existing routes, were also launched. “We see areas that we need to improve,” said Harry Barrett, interim executive director of aviation. “Our facility wasn’t designed to handle the level of passengers we have today, and we know this will return next tourist season. So, we’re working with our partners now to make improvements where we can ahead of next season.”
ELECTION VOLUNTEERS NEEDED: The Riverside County Registrar of Voters needs to fill about 900 temporary positions for the June 7 Primary Election. The job duties include counting ballots, proofing ballot material, answering the phone, and customer service. Apply online here or contact TAP at [email protected].
? Weekend events
- Free Covid Testing is available today at the Palm Springs Convention Center from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
- The 23rd Waring International Piano Competition continues this weekend in Palm Desert. It concludes Monday.
- Well in the Desert distributes food every Saturday at 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. at 181 N. Indian Canyon Dr.
- The Palm Springs Community Partnership on Homelessness hosts its monthly cleanup at 8 a.m. Saturday. The group is meeting at the parking lot behind IHOP on South Indian Canyon.
- The Tahquitz Creek Yacht Club meets to clean up the creek bed on Saturday at 8 a.m. near the pedestrian footbridge at South Camino Real and South Riverside Drive.
- The Palm Springs Certified Farmers’ Market takes place at 2300 E. Baristo Rd. from 8:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.
- A free Easter egg hunt and pancake breakfast is planned for Saturday at Ruth Hardy Park, starting at 9 a.m. Later that day, the annual Desert Highland Gateway Estates Easter egg hunt takes place at Desert Highland Park, starting at 2 p.m.
- The Palm Springs Sunshine Sisters are doing some silent disco dancing Saturday night and holding an April birthday bash on Sunday.
- Alohana, a celebration of Tiki culture, takes place at the Palm Springs Cultural Center on Sunday, starting at 10 a.m.