Almost as soon as he entered prison for a mandatory life sentence on drugs charges in 1997, Fulton “Mr. Wash” Washington got to work. He didn’t know whether or not he’d ever have an opportunity to join society again as a free man, but he’d once heard that “the only way to predict the future is to create it,” and he took that as a catalyst not to bide his time.
Mostly a self-taught artist, Mr. Wash asked for permission and a space to paint in prison. It didn’t take him long to understand that he needed to share his gift and expertise with others, telling them, “You can go out on the prison yard and do whatever it is you do there, or you can come in here and paint and I’ll help you.” He taught them to express themselves creatively, to tell their stories with the oil paints and canvases he secured from the prison staff.
In 2016, President Obama granted Mr. Wash clemency, which “allowed me another opportunity to continue supporting my family, and it gives me a second chance to show them who their father is.” He has eight children and twenty-three grandchildren.
And he has not stopped painting. Mr. Wash now lives in Compton, California, where he paints up to sixteen hours a day. The Atlantic Monthly magazine featured one of his paintings on its November 2022 cover. His work has been showcased at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and galleries throughout the country. He has received numerous awards and commissions.
“The biggest misconception about inmates is that people think they’re different than society. They are society.”
Many of Mr. Wash’s paintings from his time in prison portray the men he knew there, their inner lives, and the lives they led before being sentenced. Among the many goals he has for his work going forward is making sure that those on the inside are not forgotten. Washington knows that painting allowed him hope while incarcerated and drew attention to his case. In a sense, he says, he was “painting himself free.” Mr. Wash wants the same for those still serving time. “It’s about telling someone else’s story with my art.”
What he is today, represented in the accomplished, deeply motivated, and meaningful paintings he has created, is someone impelled to help the community understand who the prison population represents. “The biggest misconception about inmates is that people think they’re different than society. They are society.” He hopes his art can teach this and other important lessons about people in prison.
The tears falling from subjects’ eyes in some of Washington’s most famous paintings hold within them people and places from the past, not to suggest regret or mourning but as a reminder that one life includes many others. A second chance helps more than the person to whom it’s granted, he explains.
In addition to gifting society with art that inspires and impresses at once, for Mr. Wash, it’s also about providing some generational wealth and a legacy for his family, “so they can start their adult lives off differently than I did.”
Mr. Wash is focused on the present, and the idea that “anything you think you’ve lost, you have an opportunity to get it back.” He knows that time is never recovered, but he’s certain a future can be created when someone is given the opportunity, whether that’s through a paintbrush, a second chance — or both.
Fulton Washington is far from alone; so many people who’ve been granted second chances are making the world a better, safer place. Read their stories here.
Listen to Mr. Wash talk about the way art can have a tremendous impact on a community:
Banner image: Photo of Mr. Wash in his studio, credit: Brittany Lloyd