How do you define a life?
Yesterday evening I visited several art spaces that were opened as part of Nashville’s monthly exhibition evening. The city is a magnet for creatives types now, mostly in music, but in other genres as well.
One show got me to thinking. Here are some photos of what I saw.
The images were rendered in acrylic on pieces of cardboard, sometimes the insides of cereal boxes. They were sweet, naive and, to my eye, charming — the sort of thing you might hang on a wall in a small child’s room.
In fact, the artist only began painting in 2014. Previously he had devoted himself to reading literature and philosophy, and writing stories, longhand, in a broad, almost loopy script.
The show was a memorial for the artist, Gary Bradford Cone, a prisoner who died in April after spending more than half his life on death row following a two-day rampage in 1980.
The exhibit featured other works of art created in Cone’s memory by his death row friends and a memorial book of his writings and his art.
As a young man, Cone served four years in the military, including a tour in Vietnam, where he earned a bronze star. After mustering out, he earned an honors degree at the University of Arkansas. A very high LSAT score gained him admission to law school.
But he was a troubled person. After his 1972 college graduation, he was convicted for three armed robberies that year and the year before. He was in prison until late 1979.
On August 9 the following year, Cone robbed a Memphis jewelry store at gunpoint and fled in his car. He fired at police who were pursuing him, injuring an officer and a civilian. The next day he broke into the home of an elderly couple, bludgeoned them to death and ransacked their house. Then he shaved his beard, got a haircut and boarded a plane to Florida, where he stayed with a friend.
At the murder trial, Cone admitted what he had done, but his defense team asserted mitigating circumstances — post traumatic stress and methamphetamine addiction traced to his time in Vietnam — to no avail. Cone was sentenced to death and spent the rest of his life on death row.
While confined, Cone worked as the prison librarian. According to Robin Paris and Tom Williams, college art professors who knew him and arranged the exhibit I saw, “reading books as well as writing offered him a way to ‘escape’ the life of a prisoner.”
His taste in reading was broad, including literature, history, philosophy and critical theory. A long list of his favorite writers included Homer, W.B. Yeats and contemporary criminal writer Richard Price.
Again, from Paris and Williams, “He also wrote essays and short stories, and many of these betray his belief that art and literature represent alternatives to the tyranny of prison life and the machinations of courtrooms and legislatures.”
I imagine the relatives of the people Cone beat to death have a hard time seeing him as anything but a cold-blooded killer, which is understandable.
But when I look at the paintings pictured above, I see a gentle sensibility. When I read some of what Cone wrote, I saw a mind engaged with larger issues.
Paris and Williams say this: “More than 30 years on death row. . . allowed him to become a different person than the one he’d been at the time of his arrest.”
People can do terrible things, but unless you dismiss utterly the concepts of free will and grace, you have to believe that people can change for the better.
I have met several people who have taught writing classes in prisons, who have been prison chaplains and who have taught basic education classes in prisons. They are not naive optimists, but they believe that it is possible for people to change.
I do too.