Prison artist faces disciplinary hearing
SAN FRANCISCO - A convicted killer who sold postcard-sized paintings he created with dye from M&Ms and brushes fashioned from his hair broke prison rules by running an unauthorized business out of his cell, officials said.
While Donny Johnson hasn't profited from his art ? all the money is being used to start a program for children of inmates ? prison officials said he was wrongfully engaged in a business without the warden's permission.
Johnson, 46, has been locked up since 1980 for second-degree murder in a drug-related killing. In 1989, he was convicted of assaulting one guard and slashing the throat of another. He's now serving life without parole in the most secure unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, about 10 miles south of the Oregon border.
The details of possible disciplinary action were unclear. A hearing on the matter will be held in the next few weeks, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
His lawyer, Charles Carbone, disputed that Johnson violated the rules.
"There's a very large question mark over the legality and morality of what the department has done to punish an inmate for trying to better himself and better his community," he said.
Johnson lives in an 8-by-12-foot concrete cell. Meals are pushed through a slot in the door. He talks to the occasional visitor on a telephone through thick Plexiglas, but that's his only interaction with anyone.
To alleviate boredom and loneliness, Johnson turned to art and got the attention of Stephen Kurtz, a semiretired psychoanalyst who runs the nonprofit Pelican Bay Prison Project and became a pen-pal with Johnson four years ago.
When Johnson starting sending paintings to him in Mexico about a year ago, Kurtz said he and his wife, an artist, were stunned.
"We looked at these things and said, 'These are damn good,'" Kurtz said from his San Miguel de Allende home. When he learned how Johnson created his tiny abstract works, he was even more impressed.
Because he's not allowed to have any art materials in his cell, Johnson orders "supplies" from the prison commissary. Once a month, he buys 10 packs of M&Ms at 60 cents each. He then puts a few candies in small plastic jelly containers, adds water and soaks the candies. Johnson's "paint" is left behind. His brush is made of plastic wrap, foil and strands of his own hair. He then layers blank postcards with vibrant colors, shapes and spirals.
Renowned abstract artist Kenneth Noland saw Johnson's work in a New York Times article last month and was impressed, according to his studio manager, Sterling Robinson.
"Ken has always encouraged painters young and old who have talent," Robinson said. "Not only does this guy have talent, but he's done wondrous things with what he's got."
Kurtz organized a showing in Mexico last month. Nearly 500 people packed into a gallery where a giant bowl of M&Ms greeted them at the entrance. Twenty paintings have sold at $500 apiece, Kurtz said.
Johnson's mother had no idea her son had any artistic talent.
"He just found an outlet for his energy," Helen Grimes, a Hayward nurse, said. "He says, 'When I paint I leave the room. ... You just go into your own space and time.' It really helps him survive."
Prison Disciplines Inmate Who Paints With M&M's
By ADAM LIPTAK
A prison artist in California who uses the dye from M&M's for paint has been disciplined for what a prison official yesterday called "unauthorized business dealings" in the sale of his paintings. The prison has also barred the prisoner, Donny Johnson, from sending his paintings through the mail.
Mr. Johnson's work has been on display for the last several weeks at a gallery in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Twenty of his paintings have been sold, for $500 each.
Mr. Johnson had donated the paintings to the Pelican Bay Prison Project, a charity which says it will honor Mr. Johnson's wish that it use the proceeds from the show to help the children of prisoners.
According to a "serious rules violation report" issued by the prison last month, Mr. Johnson ran afoul of a corrections department regulation that prohibits engaging in a business or profession without the warden's permission. The regulation defines a business as "any revenue-generating or profit-making activity."
Francisco Jacquez, the chief deputy warden at Pelican Bay State Prison, in Crescent City, Calif., said the violation could extend Mr. Johnson's sentence or restrict his privileges. "There are some consequences, and that's what we use to maintain discipline in prison," Mr. Jacquez said, declining to be more specific.
Stephen A. Kurtz, a founder and director of the charity, said the discipline was unwarranted. "He wasn't doing business," Mr. Kurtz said of Mr. Johnson. "He was simply making a donation. He didn't make a penny off this."
The discipline was prompted by a front-page article about Mr. Johnson in The New York Times last month, according to the violation report. Pamela B. Hooley, a deputy attorney general, sent a copy of the article to prison officials on the day it appeared, the report said.
Mr. Johnson, who is 46, is serving three life sentences. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1980 for a drug-related killing, drawing a sentence of 15 years to life. In 1989, he was convicted of slashing the throat of one guard and assaulting another. Those crimes resulted in two additional sentences of nine years to life.
He has been in solitary confinement in a small concrete cell for almost two decades. He paints with a brush he created with plastic wrap, foil and his own hair. He makes paint by leaching the colors from M&M's in little plastic containers that once held packets of grape jelly. His canvases are postcards.
It is not clear whether the prison will stop Mr. Johnson from creating paintings. In a recent postcard to his mother, Mr. Johnson wrote that prison officials have stopped him from mailing his art to his family, friends and supporters.
A lawyer for Mr. Johnson, Charles Carbone, said he was considering bringing a legal challenge.
The United States and California Supreme Courts have struck down laws that would have prohibited people convicted of crimes from profiting from them. But courts have been reluctant to interfere with prison administration, even where First Amendment issues are involved. In June, for instance, the United States Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania prison policy that denied access to newspapers and magazines to some inmates.
Behind Bars, He Turns M&Ms Into an Art Form
CRESCENT CITY, Calif., July 16 The morning after the opening of a show of his recent work, the artist was in his studio, a concrete cell in the Pelican Bay State Prison, where he is serving three life terms in solitary confinement for murder and for slashing a prison guards throat. He was checking his supplies, taking inventory.
His paintbrush, made of plastic wrap, foil and strands of his own hair, lay on the lower bunk. So did his paints, leached from M&Ms and sitting in little white plastic containers that once held packets of grape jelly. Next to them was a stack of the blank postcards that are his canvases.
On Friday night, more than 500 people had jammed into a
gallery in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to assess 25 of Donny Johnsons
small, intense works. There was sangria, as well as big bowls of M&Ms.
By evenings end, six of the postcard paintings had sold, for $500
each. . .