Activist artist Chris Wilson promotes awareness of solitary confinement with paintings

Illustrating life after a life sentence


Wilson made that painting more than two years ago, when an attorney 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 these letters and I thought about all the horrible experiences that I had in solitary confinement.

“I didn’t want to make a morbid painting,” he continued.

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

“Almost all of us thought about something positive that got us through solitary confinement,” he said. “So I started to describe these feelings through colors of blues and pink and yellow. I put some gold in there, and some black. I researched the meanings and symbolisms behind all the colors. And I put that on the canvas.”

Wilson said that one goal of the show is to confront people with issues currently unraveling in the criminal justice system. “I want people to be outraged by the practice of solitary confinement in America,” he said.

The show’s curator, New York Academy of Art Vice President Gregory Thornbury, supported that aim.

“This is an art show with a purpose,” Thornbury said. “Theres something in Chris’ biography that speaks to an incredible’s injustice that is currently happening in the American prison system, and it needs to end.”

He added, “Art is a way of forcing people to confront that in a way that both elevates the spirit but also challenges the soul.”

Some of the money from sales of the paintings — as well as from special rolling edition papers made by House of Puff and featuring Wilson’s art imprinted on the box — will go directly to Solitary Watch, a national nonprofit watchdog group. Through original reporting, the organization aims to educate the public, law enforcement, policymakers and others on the use and conditions of solitary confinement in prisons across the United States.

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

Life before prison

Life has changed drastically for Wilson, whose exhibition opening night coincided with the 10th anniversary of his release from prison. His storied past begins in Washington, DC, where he was born. He lived with his grandmother during the week, but spent weekends with his mom 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 occurred often in the area where he was raised. Though his home was supposed to be a refuge 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 mom,” Wilson said. “He got arrested and lost his job. But he came home and started stalking our family.”

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

“Not long after this, two people came after me one night, threatened me and said they had been following me, watching my family,” he recalled. “And then one guy tried to jump on me and I ended up firing my weapon, and I took a person’s life.”

In 1996, at 17 years old, Wilson was charged to life in prison. He remembers his first moments in prison — the chaos, the screaming, the strip search — as being the most humiliating time of his life.

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

Having been extremely depressed his first few years in prison, Wilson said he experienced solitary confinement multiple times with his longest stint lasting 117 days. The smallest infractions like having too much toilet paper, extra pencils, or staring at a correctional officer could land anyone in the small room with no windows 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, it is actually science behind it, of what solitary confinement does to your brain. It’s just… it’s torture.”

In the Mandela Rules, a guide meant 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 US, including New York Citystill use the practice to punish incarcerated people.

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