A nation-wide manhunt for the prisoner escapees from Dannemora Correctional Facilitycame to an end over the weekend, as the pair were both shot on separate occasions. The one escapee, David Sweat, remains in critical condition, the other, Richard W. Matt, a convicted murderer, died last Friday due to three gunshots to his head. Besides being a skilled escapee, Matt was also regarded as a skilled painter. In an article from the New York Times, Matt was described by a fellow prisoner, John Mulligan;
He was “the best in the system that anyone could recall.”
Portraits of loved ones, images of celebrities and political figures, were often bartered by Matt with guards and inmates in return for favors. So much so, that Matt was able to strike a deal with Gene Palmer, a security guard, who was such a fan of Matt’s art, he traded art supplies and helped smuggle in tools for the prisoner’s escape.
Matt’s work includes actresses Angelina Jolie and Julie Roberts. He also dabbled in drawings of Hillary Clinton and a young Barack Obama, depicting him with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the background. Oprah also got Matt’s attention. Matt wrote on the signature line of the portrait.
“She changed so many lives. Thank you, Oprah.”
Creepy as all this is, prison art, particularly of notorious convicts such as Charles Mansonand John Wayne Gacy, have a “niche” collector base. This art is found in local galleries, on eBay, and some controversial websites including the horribly titled murderauction.com and serialkillersink.net.
Before you get even further creeped out consider some are rehabilitated through art. John Waters, who used to speak at prisons, once said to a group of inmates about the power of art;
“My films are my crimes.”
Very glib and funny, but also probably somewhat true. For many art is an outlet for their darker side. A former prisoner, Anthony Papa, was serving 15 years to life in a prison in Ossining, N.Y. when he was taught how to paint. He told The New York Times;
Art is “a very powerful rehabilitating tool…not only for the prisoner, but for the institution.”
After his release, Papa has gone on to some success as a painter, making works about social justice and selling them for four figures. New York art dealer Andrew Edlin, who owns and runs the Outsider Art Fair, predicts Matt’s art will not become more valuable because of its quality, but rather the notoriety surrounding its story.
“Their [collectors’] reasons would be purely mercenary. I think, to me, this is sort of a pop-oddity culture story rather than an art world story.”
Don’t forget, the worst mass murderer in history, Adolf Hitler was an artist too. If only he and Richard Matt had stuck to painting... and George W. Bush too, as far as I'm concerned as crappy as he is as an artist, he was a worse president.