Visual Arts

Rich Copley: Prison inmate puts his time to artistic use

Deep in the Heart of the Brain, papier mâché and acrylic paint.
Deep in the Heart of the Brain, papier mâché and acrylic paint.

Institute 193 director Chase Martin marvels at the intricacy of Marvin Francis' work.

One sculpture features a small light at the top. Taking the cap off the top reveals delicate wiring, a spare bulb and a handwritten note from Francis with instructions for changing the bulb, ending with the word, "Enjoy." The removable dowel that allows access to the light is even designated by a small red dot.

"The level of detail is amazing," Martin says, reassembling the sculpture.

Francis has time to sweat the details because he is doing time: a life prison sentence for the murder of Hopkinsville grocer Selddon Dixon Sr. in 1986. Francis came up for parole last year, but the request was denied. That denial is depicted in another piece in Institute 193's exhibit Marvin Francis: Contemplating Time.

At the center of all of the pieces is Francis' own form of papier-maché, which he created using prison-issue toilet paper and a glue made from mashed ramen noodles. Those materials are used to make the primary figures in the works, usually a bald, unshaven character called "Busta Head."

"It's this recurring, everyman character that shows up in all his pieces," Martin says.

Another recurring theme is clocks, sometimes in what looks like an homage to Salvador Dalí's famous Persistence of Memory.

"Clocks really are popping up everywhere," Martin said. "They're forming parts of the cage; the floor on this one; there's one melting out of his hand there. They're really just everywhere.

"What we were really interested in with this work was how he deals with time and how for him, he experiences time in a totally different way than you and I think about time. But he's also dealing with issues everyone deals with, because time is the one constant in everyone's life. But for him, it's kind of a fraught thing. He's also dealing with other issues like fear of death, and he's just using this lens of prison imagery to get that across, which we think is really fascinating."

Francis never encountered any sort of art program until he began serving his sentence at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville. An art-appreciation teacher encouraged him to create something, and the floodgates of creativity were opened. In 1993, University of Kentucky law professor Roberta Harding discovered Francis' work while trying to assemble a show about incarcerated artists. In 2004, Lexington artist Bob Morgan organized the first solo show of Francis' work at Galerie Soleil, which has since closed.

"I see a lot of prison art, and it usually tends toward craft — little violins made from burned matchsticks," Morgan told the Herald-Leader before that show. "Seldom do you see someone like Marvin, who allows you to go inside his subconscious and addresses prison issues."

In addition to Galerie Soleil, Francis' work has been exhibited in numerous group shows and solo shows at Louisville's 21c Museum Hotel and Gallery 24 in Berlin, a leading European gallery for undiscovered artists.

One thing that strikes Martin about Francis' work is its volume and detail, all created in an environment with few distractions.

"It's almost spiritual," Martin says. "He's by himself, in his cell, and it's this intense focus. You know, I can't open my laptop without seven different windows open, and someone's G-chatting me and the phone is pinging off the hook, and he doesn't have any of that distraction. Beyond the daily routine of life in prison, this is it for him."

Francis is now at the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in West Liberty, and Martin said it's hard to say, should he ever be granted parole, how that might affect his work.

That is the fact the viewer cannot get away from: Francis is in prison for murder. He killed a husband and father whose family has had to deal with the loss ever since.

The pieces in the Institute 193 are for sale, and Francis' works have sold for as much as $3,000. Martin says the money goes to pay for expenses of transporting the art, having it photographed and paying Harding to represent it; other proceeds have gone to charities, particularly ones that benefit abused children, because Francis says he was the product of an abusive home.

The exhibit opened March 8, and Martin says he hasn't had anyone object to Institute 193 showing the work. But he does say that most viewers are curious about the artist's circumstances.

"He killed a guy," Martin says matter-of-factly. "We're not trying to make some political, 'this artwork redeems this artist' or anything like that. We want it to be about the work and the ideas he's addressing in the work."