Internationally renowned artist Mike Kelley was found dead in his home on Tuesday at the age of 57. The L.A. Times reported that his death was an apparent suicide, but the cause could not be confirmed until an autopsy is completed. Kelley was known as a gifted artist and musician, a founding member of the Detroit proto-punk band Destroy All Monsters.
Kelley was born in Detroit on Oct. 27, 1954, to what he described as a working-class Catholic family, a background that strongly influenced his art. Eventually, the artist landed in L.A., and helped to develop that city as an international capital of contemporary art.
A fact that is not well-known — Kelley also paved my way to freedom, rescuing me from a 15-to-life sentence for a non-violent drug crime I was serving at Sing Sing prison when he chose my painting to be displayed in a retrospective of his career at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I outlined this chain of events in my book 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom.
September 10, 1993 was a day that would permanently alter the course of my life. It was on that day that the prison administration received a letter from Elisabeth Sussman, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Sussman had contacted Sing Sing to see if there was a convict-artist who could participate in an upcoming Whitney exhibit titled "Catholic Tastes." She wrote:
I am the curator for the Whitney Museum of American Art's upcoming Mike Kelley exhibition. Kelley has made a significant contribution to the performance and conceptual art of the past fifteen years, and we are very enthusiastic about mounting his first retrospective. One of the works in the exhibition, "Pay for Your Pleasure," requires the appearance of a work of art by a convict. The piece has been shown in Chicago, Los Angeles, Berlin, London, Switzerland, and France with the cooperation of local authorities. I am writing to ask if your institution sponsors an art program and what are the possibilities for the loan of an artwork to the Mike Kelley exhibition. The show will be held at the Whitney Museum from November 4, 1993 through February 20, 1994. Thank you very much for any assistance you can offer.
Best regards, Elisabeth Sussman, Curator.
The request was channeled to Sing Sing's supervisor of special subjects, Dennis Manwaring. Dennis had worked at the prison for over 20 years, and oversaw the art program I was teaching at Sing Sing. One night he stopped by my class with her letter. When I read the letter, I knew that participating in the show was the break I had been waiting for. As I re-read the lines, they blurred together into a single word: FREEDOM. I told Dennis that I wanted to participate in the exhibit and gave him a set of slides of my paintings that I'd smuggled into the prison several years before.
A week passed and I hadn't heard anything from Dennis. I was impatient because I knew how the system worked. Anything that involved the administration, even a simple decision or task, would take weeks to address or end up disappearing in the sea of red tape. The chain of command and zillions of rules and regulations created total confusion. Several days later, I ran into Baldy, Dennis's inmate clerk. I asked him what was going on with the show. "There's not going to be a show for you, Tony," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"You better go see Dennis."
I immediately requested a pass to Dennis's office. The door was open, he was busy doing paperwork at his desk. I popped my head in. "Hey Dennis, you got a minute?"
"Have a seat, Tony," he said, not looking up. Several minutes passed. Finally, he raised his head. His face looked weary. "We're not going to participate, Tony. I'm sorry."
That was Dennis — short, sweet, and to the point. So short, in fact, that I felt like I'd been socked in the gut. I needed this break. It was the only one I had left. I had exhausted all my legal remedies and was stuck with a 15-to-life sentence for passing an envelope of four ounces of coke for the sum of five hundred bucks. I was sentenced under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the toughest drug laws in the nation. Some prison employees don't even give you a chance to argue, but Dennis was different. He had a soft side. I decided to work it.
"Dennis," I pleaded, "what are you saying?" I looked in his eyes and tried to understand what was going through his head.
"I refuse to let any of my prisoners become exploited," he said.
I asked him to explain what he meant. He went on to say that he had received "a startling letter" from the Whitney that convinced him that barring my participation was the right thing to do. I asked to see the letter. He hesitated, but finally gave in. He handed me a folder containing two letters written by Elisabeth Sussman.
Thank you so much for your willingness to cooperate with the Whitney Museum. What I did not make clear this morning is that the piece of art by a prisoner that is appropriate for Mike Kelley's work must be made by a prisoner who is a murderer. I hope that one of the people you identified this morning fits that description. If you have any questions, please call me. In the meantime, I am enclosing a loan form, which functions to identify the artwork and to serve as a contract. If you could possibly send this back to us at once, we can then go ahead and make arrangements to pick up the work in the next week or two. Best wishes and thanks again.
I turned the page and scanned the second letter that was sent to Dennis, which was sent in response to a letter he'd written her stating that he wouldn't allow me to participate. It was dated October 12, 1993.
Dear Mr. Manwaring,
I regret having presented the matter of your inmate's inclusion in Mike Kelley's Pay for Your Pleasure piece without providing a context for the admittedly jarring stipulation that the inmate would be serving time for homicide. Kelley's work consists of a pantheon of images of great men from Western history accompanied by quotes celebrating artistic genius. At times the text seems to exempt artists from the civil constraints of law and common ethics, and Kelley's incorporation of a work of art by a convict emphasizes this idea by taking an extreme position. As part of Pay for Your Pleasure, visitors to the exhibit will be requested to make a donation to crime victims.
You should be informed that the description of Pay for your Pleasure in the checklist at the back of the exhibition catalogue does specify a work of art by a person convicted of homicide, though not necessarily by name. I appreciate your reluctance to identify the crime committed by the inmate whose slides you sent us (they're very good!). Please reconsider the matter and let us know if you are willing to proceed with the loan.
Like Dennis, I was taken aback by the museum's insistence on having a painting by a convicted murderer, but in the long run, who cared? What mattered was that my art would be shown at one of the most prestigious museums in the world. Hopefully the exhibit would lead to my freedom.
"Dennis, you have let me do this!" I said. "It could help me get my freedom back! I know it will!"
Dennis sat up straight in his chair and didn't say a word. He reached for the phone and called Father Kavanagh, the old priest who'd been at Sing Sing for over 30 years. He was Dennis's spiritual advisor. Whenever Dennis had a tough call to make, he turned to the Lord and Father Kavanagh.
"Father, is it ethical to release the crime of a prisoner to an outside source?" Dennis asked, nodding as he listened to the priest. He hung up and made the sign of the cross.
"Well, Father said it was unethical, so I won't reveal your crime."
For a split second, I was elated, but then I realized Dennis didn't say he'd let me participate.
"Dennis!" I pleaded, "You have to do this for me. Please!" I was practically shouting. Dennis slammed his hand on the desk.
"Are you a murderer?" he yelled. "Did you ever kill anybody?" I shook my head. "No? Then are you telling me to lie?" he asked, his voice shaking. "I'm not going to lie, Tony. And that's that!"
I had to think fast. "Okay," I said, regaining my composure. "I'm not asking you to lie, Dennis. I'm not asking you to do anything. I'll write the letter and if anything goes wrong, it's on me."
Without a word, he lowered his head and went back to his work. I took a pad from his desk and proceeded to write a letter.
Dear Miss Sussman,
In response to your inquiry about the crime I committed, I am respectfully submitting to you that I am indeed serving time for murder. In fact, I am currently serving two 15-to-life sentences for a double murder. I hope this satisfies your inquiry as to the status of my crime.
I did what I had to do and even threw in an extra murder just in case. A week later, I received a positive response from the Whitney.
Dear Mr. Papa,
Thank you very much for agreeing to lend one of your paintings to the Whitney Museum's Mike Kelley exhibition. Mr. Kelley has chosen to include "15 Years to Life — Self-Portrait" in his piece Pay for Your Pleasure. Thanks again (and congratulations!)
Minou Roufail, Curatorial Assistant.
The following week the Whitney sent a handler to the prison to pick up my self-portrait "15 to Life." My dream of having a painting exhibited in one of the most prestigious museums in America was coming true.
After the exhibit I read a review by The New York Times' art critic Roberta Smith who praised my painting as an "ode to art as a mystical, transgressive act that is both frightening and liberating, releasing uncontrollable emotions of all kinds."
Soon after the exhibition the prison became flooded with interview requests and my case reached the ears of then Governor George Pataki who eventually granted me my freedom through the act of executive clemency in 1997. As told by the NY Times at the time, I literally painted my way to freedom by showing my art at the Whitney. At that time I also revealed publicly for the first time that I had lied about being a murderer in order to get into the exhibit. The Whitney tried to exploit me, but I wound up exploiting them. I got the show. I got the exposure and I painted my way out of prison.
In 2004 I returned to the Whitney Museum of American Art along with my self-portrait "15 to Life." I had a book party and art exhibit hosted by Andrew Cuomo (now Governor of New York State). Hundreds of people attended, including celebrities such as Charles Grodin and powerful politicians like former governor Mario Cuomo and senator David Paterson, who later became governor of New York.
The one regret I had was not meeting Mike Kelley in person and thanking him for saving me from the belly of the beast. Without him I would have been stuck in prison for many more years. It's something I will never forget. So now, through these words, I say goodbye to Mike Kelley and pay tribute to him. I pray that he rest in peace and that his soul find an eternal happiness in the afterlife.
Anthony Papa is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and communications specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org