Mark Francis became famous for being an artist in prison, meticulously twisting paper and water into fantastical self-portraits of his soul in chains.
Now, after 28 years in Kentucky prisons, he is free and is trying to recalibrate who he is as a person and an artist.
“It’s a lot harder out here than in there,” Francis, who used to work under the name Marvin Francis, said in a recent interview from his home in Dixon, Tenn. “I had so much time in there, I worked on my art every day. Now I have a house and a car and bills and a dog and I’m trying to work out how I get my art done.”
Francis was raised in Tennessee and Kentucky, often suffering abuse and neglect at the hands of his father, who killed his mother in what was deemed an accident. He joined the Navy and worked as a carpenter until 1986, when he returned to Western Kentucky with an addiction to drugs and alcohol. He and some friends decided to rob a grocery owner, and in a gun fight, the owner was killed. Francis, then 25, was convicted of murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life.
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His work started with a training class at Northpoint Training Center, where he first sculpted a cockatoo out of a paste of wet toilet paper. He quickly advanced using whatever materials he could find, including newspaper, shoe polish, ink from pens, paper clips, emery boards. His papier mâché was made from crushed ramen noodles dissolved in water.
Francis’ work soon became championed by University of Kentucky law professor Roberta Harding and Lexington artist Bob Morgan. A show of his work is on display through Oct. 1 at the Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead State University.
“Mark Francis, without question, produced the best prison art ever made and is amongst the most technically gifted papier mâché sculptors working in the world today,” said Matt Collinsworth, the center’s director.
The current show gave Morgan an idea of how to get some of Francis’ work to Lexington. He arranged for him to be part of Salon Sundays in September, an annual fundraiser for Moveable Feast Lexington, which delivers meals to people with AIDS and HIV.
Salon Sundays feature an interesting house with food and art. On Sept. 18, a collection of Francis’ work will be shown at the Ella F. Williamson House, owned by Fran Taylor and Tom Cheek on West High Street. Musician Lee Bryant will perform, and chef Dan Wu will make the food.
“The way I saw it, Mark is an amazing Kentucky boy at a turning point in his life,” Morgan said.
Now that he is out of prison, Francis’ work has turned to birds. He’s using many of the same techniques, just with better materials. One owl he made features 12,000 paper mâché feathers.
Birds symbolize “knowledge and freedom,” Francis said. “It just kinds of comes together. I use the same tools. The only things that have improved is lighting and better fans to dry my stuff.”
Francis’ work will be part of the middle Salon Sunday.
On Sept. 11, famed Kentucky author Silas House will read along with music from Warren Byrom at the contemporary home of Arthur Shechet and Marilyn Robie. On Sept. 25, musician Lee Carol and Connie Milligan will open their house on Preston Avenue, featuring the work of local artist Lynn Sweet.
If you go
What: Fundraisers for Moveable Feast at architecturally significant homes featuring readings, music, food and art.
When: 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 11, 18 and 25
Sept. 11: Home of Arthur Shechet and Marilyn Robie, 3205 Hobcaw Lane. Silas House, reading; Warren Byrom, music; Kiki Smith, artist. Sold out.
Sept. 18: Ella F. Williamson house of Fran Taylor and Tom Cheek, 722 West High St. Mark Francis, artist; Lee Bryant, music; chef Dan Wu.
Sept. 25: Federal Revival home of Lee Carroll and Connie Milligan, 121 Preston Ave. Lee Carroll, music; Lynn Sweet, artist; chef Cole Arimes.
Tickets: $75 each event or $175 for all three.
Reservations: call 859-252-2867.