EXHIBIT A New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, speaks while Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin listens during a news conference in front of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora in June. On the easels are mug shots of escaped murderers and jailhouse artists, David Sweat, left, and Richard Matt. The Associated Press

Art to Die For

Jailhouse artists create pictures for an exit-bition

By Rowling Dord

 

The artist lay doubled over on terrain thick with underbrush, in a wooded area that sloped down toward a two-lane country road. He was dressed in a hooded nylon windbreaker, camouflaged cargo pants and old work boots. At his side was a hunter-style backpack, the kind he might have used to carry paints, and a small pocket flask. He had been drinking, so much so that he was nearly drunk. It might have been his 49th birthday that he was celebrating – it had occurred the day before – but the party had come to an abrupt and dramatic end. Bits of skull and brain tissue hung in a ropey mass from his cranium as the dirt below slowly darkened with blood. The artist had been shot through the back of the head and was very much dead.

So ended the life of painter Richard Matt. It was a dramatic and violent departure, but one not without similarities to exits of other noted artists. Van Gogh eventually died of a gunshot wound he himself inflicted out under the open skies of Auvers-sur-Oise. Jackson Pollock famously died in a spectacular nocturnal car crash while too drunk to negotiate a curve en route to his Long Island studio. Andy Warhol, shot through the gut at point-blank range, was declared clinically dead at the hospital, only to survive and die two decades later, partially from the effects of his wounds.

Of course, Richard Matt was also different from these artists. For much of his life, he was unknown. His output was limited, due in large part to his circumstances. He sold only one painting during his career, and never exhibited or had a show. He was not unlike the vast majority of unheralded artists who spend their careers in virtual anonymity. But he also differed from them in one important way. As a repeat criminal offender and a twice-convicted killer, Richard Matt created his art while serving a 25-years-to-life sentence in a maximum security prison.

Unusual payment

For three weeks last June, a drama played itself out in a remote region of upstate New York, near the Canadian border. Two convicted murderers, Richard Matt and his friend, David Sweat, both inmates of Clinton Correctional Facility in the small village of Dannemora, made an unprecedented escape one night, crawling through a steam pipe, popping open a manhole cover and disappearing into the surrounding woods. Nearly 1,300 law enforcement officers combed hundreds of acres of farmland and forest for the better part of a month, seeking to recapture the two fugitives.

I first heard about this story, as did nearly everyone else, on the morning of June 6. We all followed developments on the news over the next days and weeks, first as local officials and law enforcement agencies provided updates, and then as the state’s Department of Corrections and the governor himself weighed in. Citizens were cautioned to remain indoors, summer camps delayed opening day and hunters were asked to keep an eye on their remote cabins for suspicious activity. Details of the convicts’ carefully-planned breakout caught the imagination of readers and viewers across the nation, inspiring breathless comparisons to the 1994 prison movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.”

We soon learned that several prison employees were complicit in the escape. They provided tools, materials, logistical support and even sexual favors to Matt and Sweat as the pair labored over many months to cut their way through walls and pipes in the prison’s complex heating and cooling system.

I suppose it wasn’t surprising that employees could be corrupted by inmates for personal gain. But it was what the prisoners offered the workers in exchange for their assistance that really caught my attention. A correctional officer and a prison instructor, both longtime members of Clinton Correctional’s staff, put their livelihoods and freedom at risk for payment of an unusual sort. It wasn’t money or power they were after. What they really wanted were a few of the inmates’ paintings and drawings.

It’s not uncommon for prisoners to pass the time by making art, and both the Clinton Correctional inmates devoted part of their day to creating images. Richard Matt was by far the better artist of the two. He was regarded as the institution’s most talented portrait artist, usually working from photos to create likenesses of celebrities and politicians, as well as of staff members and their relatives. “He was the best in the system that anyone could recall,” said John Mulligan, a former Clinton inmate and close friend of Matt, when interviewed by The New York Times. Matt’s skill earned him special status and the tacit privileges that flowed from it.

Read the rest of this story in the Winter 2015 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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