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Justice, art, and murder in toilet paper sculptures

November 26, 2006

justicePondering the nature of justice is one of the best ways to spend an empty moment, methinks. Whether or not I have any legitimately “empty” moments available to me aside, I find myself questioning right and wrong a great deal, especially when it comes to the issues of crime and punishment. What do we do with people who kill other people? – That’s my big question.

I love my mom and dad more than almost anyone else. Sometimes I wonder what I would do if one of them died (don’t we all?) – because I know it’s going to happen some day. How would their or any other loved one’s death be different for me if they died at the hands of someone else? I’m not sure, but I know my emotional reaction would be markedly different if someone shot and killed them rather than if they died from disease or natural causes.

What would I want to happen to the person that killed one of my parents? I’m not exactly sure, but I had a pretty strong response to hearing about a man named Marvin Francis. This guy killed someone’s father, a tired grocer who was on his way home from work in Hopkinsville, Kentucky (my dad is a grocer from Hopkinsville) in 1986. Marvin France was later sentenced to prison without parole for 25 years for shooting Sheldon Dixon, Sr . In prison he became an artist and has recently gained international recognition for his admittedly amazing artwork. From the Louisville newspaper:

His studio is cell A-10 in Kentucky’s maximum security prison, and his medium is dissolved toilet paper. He buys Charmin from “the outside,” he says, because “the stuff in here is a little rough.”Before Marvin Francis was sentenced in 1986 to life without parole for 25 years for murdering a Hopkinsville grocer during a robbery, he had never picked up a paintbrush or set foot inside a museum. “Art had never entered my life,” he said.

Now, his disturbing sculptures of life behind bars fetch prices of as much as $3,000 each.

And competing with 55 other self-taught artists from around the world, Francis, 46, recently won first place in a juried competition for sculptors sponsored by Gallery 24 in Berlin, Europe’s leading gallery for undiscovered artists. Shows will follow in Paris and New York, where his work already is part of the American Folk Art Museum’s collection.

“You can’t help but be blown away by the world he creates with the contents of a wastepaper basket,” said sculptor Bob Morgan, owner of Lexington’s Gallery Soleil, which sponsored a one-man show by Francis in 2004. “That alone would make him worthy of note.”

marvin francisOk. I have big issues with prisons and incarceration in general. I don’t support the death penalty, and I think that using prisoners for slave labor is wrong and hurts everyone. I don’t believe in torture. These are things I know. But what I don’t know is what I think about people like Marvin Francis, who just as easily could have killed my dad twenty years ago.

I’m pretty sure that no matter how liberal or even radical my ideas about crime and justice may seem, I would be really uncomfortable with the murderer of my father becoming a famous artist. But, what would I rather have? Why am I so uncomfortable with his art? Because it is personal for me in that he’s a fellow guy from Hopkinsville who killed someone who reminds me of my dad. What does that tell me? That we should depersonalize things that bring up emotions? Or that we should personalize everything?

marvin francis artOne thing do I know is that any money made from this guy’s art needs to go back to the community. Anything else seems criminal, no matter what. I suppose that otherwise he can make all the TP art he wants. I want to know where this money is going. I also want to know if the dead guy is black – does that matter? Would the reception of this art be any different if Francis was black and the dead dad was white?

I just don’t know about this situation. I guess the jury is still out. What do you think about it?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2006 2:35 pm

    even having lived in an “eye for an eye” culture all these years, i don’t believe he should be punished any more than he is. 20 years is a very long time. it’s a long time to be punished within the penal system as well as by your own mind. yeah, i know he killed someone and it’s terribly wrong, but he’s serving out his time. it’s good he has something to fall back on once he gets out rather than just murdering some other poor grocer so he can go back to prison.

    i don’t think he should have to pay back into the community either – he’s apparently serving his sentence. anything above and beyond that isn’t justice, it’s just vengeful. as a society we already get too much delight in punishing others for mistakes – large and small.

    i know you don’t think hardened criminals ever really become rehabilitated – i still think they have that ability, as do we all. there’s humanity in there somewhere, our system just doesn’t get to it.

  2. November 27, 2006 11:12 pm

    I suppose the question then is, by expressing himself through art, and profiting from it, is he really serving his time? When he gets out, he’ll have the opportunity to profit from his work. Until then, it feels wrong to me that he is building himself a career and a nice nest egg at the taxpayer’s expense. It’s an interesting dilemma.

  3. November 28, 2006 9:50 pm

    Are murderers being locked up for rehabilitation or punishment? Can it be both at once? I do not favour the death penalty, but I don’t think this guy should ever be free. Not a matter of punishment, just not willing to take the chance that his criminally poor judgement might result in another death. That being said, if we are planning on releasing someone, then they should be as rehabilitated as possible, right? Then it logically follows that his artistic endeavours be allowed within reason. I don’t really like it and I take a dim view of people who would buy his work, but whatever floats their boat. 🙂


  4. Will Von Wizzlepig permalink
    December 4, 2006 7:38 pm

    I completely agree with your quandary, that is, I feel the same way.

    I guess, though, we all get peeved when people we don’t like profit when we think they deserve a good kick in the groin instead.

    The system we’re born into says that guy is paying his debt to society by being locked up for 25 years. I don’t agree with the system of penalties, they don’t seem to be doing much good or changing people, but it does appear that in a system where the criminal has taken good away in one place, he is actually more than replacing it in others by both being in prison AND making art which at least some people want.

    Even after rationalizing it, it does still suck, though.

  5. Will Von Wizzlepig permalink
    December 4, 2006 7:41 pm

    ah. not really ‘more than’ replacing it- he’s giving back more than he is being forced to by actually becoming a productive artist as well as being imprisoned.

    Yeah, that rationalization is quite a stretch.

  6. December 14, 2006 10:28 am

    I was accepted to this exhibition in Berlin. After weeks of struggling to find a way to ship my artwork for under a thousand dollars I gave up. Yesterday I got an email announcement from Gallery 24 listing the winners.
    I am not sure either how I feel about all this. I guess I have even less money than someone in prison as he could afford to ship his work and I could not. But I wonder if he isn’t being exploited in this instance. The announcement featured only one image, a stunning assemblage piece which seems to be done by a different artist. So, if Gallery 24 is so enamored of his work to the extent that they awarded him their highest accolade, then why did they not include an image of said work? It is customary to picture the winning entry. Is Gallery 24 telling us visually that the image pictured is the true winner? It’s incongruous to feature a runner-up in a press release about the winning entries. It is not often done.
    Entries to submit artwork to this festival cost about $50 apiece. Gallery calls with fees are known as *fundraisers*. If you can get zillions of people to apply to your show you can collect zillions in paypal monies. What better way to call attention to your gallery than ride the free publicity train of controversy and debate? And then, has he been rehabilitated? Or used as free publicity? When he gets out will he have a false notion of being able to continue to make a living from his art? The art world is harsh and fickle and quickly tires of typecast work. Then what? Has he been set up to fail? And if he fails, what options will he have left? Meanwhile Gallery 24 will perhaps have profited by their gasp-inducing decision to award him the first prize but will that trick work twice?

  7. the ler permalink
    January 9, 2007 4:03 pm

    My father served several years in prison for an extremely heinous violent crime. When I eventually made contact with him many years after his release, I found him to be the most functional, stable, emotionally well-adjusted, and thoughtful member of my family — actually, of anyone I know. I was quite surprised. I don’t for a moment think that the penal system does much in the way of rehabilitation — but I have at least this piece of anecdotal evidence that for some people, at least, criminal behavior and consequent incarceration can be followed by becoming a valuable and deserving member of society. Does that information resolve the issue you raise with the murderer/artist? No. But it causes me to think that it is at least possible that he is no longer the same creature that he was, and perhaps should be allowed to do the best he can with what is left of his life. Tough call, though.

  8. a little insight permalink
    May 17, 2007 7:25 am

    I just had a few comments to make here since I have a litte insight into this matter. I formally worked at the penitentiary where Marvin is held. I knew him while I was employed there. I worked the floor he lives on and he worked for me as a janitor, painter, and maintaince man. Marvin’s work is very extradinary to say the lest. I have watched some of them take shape and was amazed at the skill of it all. Marvin never denied his crime (murder) when I worked with him. He was a murderer and would tell you so. He knows that he made a mistake and is now paying for it. Marvin was however the best woker in the cell house if not in the institution. He did much work to fix things up. Marvin was never violent during my carreer there. He never even raised his voice to the officers. I never worried when Marvin was out of his cell and on the floor with me when he was working. I never felt that he was a threat to my safety.
    In my opinionn is Marvin rehabilitaed? In a way yes I think he is. I do not belive he is violent anymore. Do I think he will fair well when he does get relaesed? I’m not sure. The prisons do not equipt people to survive on their own when they are realeaed. Imagine being in a box for 25 years then thrown back out to society. I’m not saying that he doesn’t deserve his punishment beacuse he does! I’m just saying think about what has chnged in 25 years. Would anyone know how to function properly in today’s society that hasn’t been in it for 25 years?
    As for the money part? I feel that Marvin’s money is his own. If he was oreder to pay resitituion then whomever would get the money but his punishment was 25 to life not monitary. It is not for us to impose more sentance than the court when he is already serving his time and doing his punishment.

  9. Roberta permalink
    April 19, 2008 3:28 pm

    I have a family member who was a murder victim and I work with Marvin and have for over 12 years. I can ONLY hope that the person who killed her is trying to do something positive with his life and not just waste away in prison and become institutionalized.

    Marvin did a terrible thing. He knows that and we all know that. However, he is at least making some effort to give back, it is called restorative justice, though he didn’t know that this is what he is doing:)

    Just for the record he DONATES the overwhelming majority of whatever he makes to organizations that help children who are being sexually or physically abused. His entire objective is to STOP the cycle of violence, that he got caught up in that resulted in him taking the life of another human being. Something he is very ashamed about having done. But he figures that one thing he can do now is to try to help others; specifically children who were abused like he was. He has donated to art therapy programs at child abuse treatment agencies. One little girl at one of them was wheelchair bound–I’m not sure why-and they were having a hard time reaching her. She wanted to do scrapbooking and they called me to see if Marvin would donate the funds. He did. They said she just blossomed and that were then able to give her the theraphy she needed because she became responsive. He also sponsors kids at Christmas. Has a fund so that if kids need school supplies during the school year they won’t have to without. He donated a piece to a fundraiser for the Kentucky Habitat for Humanity.

    He is far from a saint, but I would hate to think what would have happened to the children if he hadn’t been there to help them. I always think of the little girl in the wheelchair and I know that he was critical to her recovery. That is one less person likely to feel rage during their life and to suffer too many of the adverse consequences of being sexually abused. Perhaps now the rest of her life can be relatively happy. I am grateful that Marvin was able to assist in her recovery. This is all he wants to do: help people, specifically children who have been abused and those who are poor.

  10. jimmy permalink
    May 9, 2010 9:17 pm

    I just want to say that Marvin Francis is a very talented artist and that it is really none of anybody’s business on where all the money goes from his work. But most of it goes to foundations to help children. Yes he keeps a portion for himself but nothing compared to what all other artists keep for themselves. And there are many inmates in a lot of different places who are building beautiful peices of art and majority of those inmates do not use if for their own benifit but rather to help others out. They benifit from it just simply by having something to pass their time while they are incarcerated. And if everybody had has much time on their hands as these individuals then there would be a lot more artists in the world. Because most don’t even discover that they have these talents until they have been lock up for a while.

  11. Connie Sue permalink
    June 12, 2011 9:57 am

    Any money that is made by the artist is donated to Child Abuse programs.

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