Kerfuffle at Damien Echols’ Exhibit

A friend was in the know about a Damien Echols art show featuring work that he had done in prison. There was a ticketed opening reception with some of the funds going to the Dharma Friends Prison Outreach Project, and a group of us planned to go together, buying our tickets around Thanksgiving last year. Before the opening, I heard from somebody who had previewed the artwork that it wasn’t exceptional, not like the memoir Life After Death. So I wasn’t expecting much—just your typical art reception with an appearance from Damien Echols and maybe a few other celebs who supported his cause.

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Our group decided to grab a few drinks beforehand at the dive bar Nancy’s on Lispenard, not wanting to be the first to arrive at the party. When I’ve gone to art openings before in Chelsea, they’re always free, and each gallery will give out some sort of free booze. It’s usually beer (sometimes in teeny-tiny bottles that are cute but only contain two or three swallows), but once I went to one where shots of bourbon were given out. I had to be coached through that one, not being a regular bourbon drinker. If you’re really strapped for cash in NYC and want to go out, you keep an eye out for an evening with multiple art openings, and then you cruise the galleries and drink for free that night.

Luckily, I didn’t have to rely on that and could afford my drinks at Nancy’s, along with some fries. We tramped out of the bar and headed to the reception/opening at Sacred Tattoo an hour after it officially started. A narrow staircase led to the gallery, and our group of six ascended but was held up at the door because nobody was manning it and the security guard wouldn’t let us in. We patiently stood in the stairwell as the line built up behind us, but then a man in a shiny leather coat jumped it along with his girlfriend, saying, “I’m on the list.”

My sister’s boyfriend Ed is the nicest guy. When we’ve been out and about, I’ve seen him give up his seat on the subway for people who need it more and swipe people through the turnstiles with his MetCard when  they don’t have enough for fare. For some reason, though, he got mad at the line jumper and told him, “We’re all on the list,” since we had all paid for tickets. As we waited for the ticket person to appear, Ed got into it with the line jumper, who was really being an ass, saying things like, “Do you want to take this outside?” and “Don’t touch me,” when Ed shadowed him like a basketball player. The security guard had to keep them separated as tempers escalated.

The fight-or-flight response kicked up in me right away, and my initial response is almost always to flee. Whenever people are rude or cut in line, I am almost always passive—at most, passive-aggressive. I think the worst I’ve ever done is let loose a snide “Well, he must be a very important person” when somebody cut in front of me. I stayed, though, at the reception, and the line jumper was let into the gallery ahead of us. When the ticket person finally appeared, he said that the line jumper (or as we called him for the rest of the night, Mr. Shiny Coat) worked there or something. A friend of ours backed up Ed, saying, “He was being pompous.”

The security guard joked, “Oh, is that the first pompous person you’ve run into in New York?”

We had a good laugh over that, and with the tension somewhat deflated entered the gallery.

There was nothing to be in a rush about. The bartender was in no danger of running out of wine, and most of the artwork had already been sold, it appeared, before the exhibit even opened, though there were notes beneath many saying that limited edition prints were also available.

The title of the exhibit is “Moving Forward; Looking Back,” and the placard available said that all of the artwork was done by Damien Echols in prison using whatever materials he could get his hands on. The art all had titles displayed, but I would have liked a detailed list of the materials used for each. I’ve always found that fascinating at museums and other galleries when unusual materials are called out—say, mustard or soy sauce or mercurochrome. I could tell that notebook backs had been used for some of the art boards, but what would have been even more interesting is knowing what brand, how much they cost in prison, the magazines mined for collage images, etc. There was one work that opened as a book (it was apparently used during meditation), but only the part that served as its open pages was displayed to full advantage. What I found more interesting, though, were the images painted on its cover, which were impossible to view in full because of the way the work was presented.

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I think the best part of the exhibit/reception was people watching. We tried to keep our distance from Mr. Shiny Coat, but I was always conscious of where he and his girlfriend were in the gallery. At one point he expounded for a group of what looked to be three or four art students, but I couldn’t hear what he was talking about. There was a woman who looked like a real-life version of Natasha Fatale from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and she was very drunk. (The bartender gave healthy pours.) She ran into a display case nearly toppling it and propositioned my sister while she waited on line for the bathroom. Damien Echols came out later to make a statement and there was something involving a champagne toast that I couldn’t quite hear. I felt badly for him—at the moment fame looked really sucky. He seemed very uncomfortable at the front of the gallery surrounded by a huge mass of people with iPhones held aloft, snapping pictures.

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On our way out the door at the end of the party, the security guard called our group “rabble-rousers,” telling us to stay out of trouble. I’m not really, but it was kind of thrilling to be called that.

Damien Echols’ Life After Death Is a Heartbreaker

I had never heard about Damien Echols and the West Memphis Three before reading the memoir Life After Death. Somehow I completely missed this case in the 1990s when three teenagers were sentenced to life—and in the case of Damien Echols, to death—based on no real evidence to speak of except for a coerced confession. This is the case that started a slew of reactionary stories in the media about cults and satanic worship among teens. This was just not true, though, in the case of the West Memphis Three—Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols—and these guys lost almost twenty years of their lives behind bars, not to mention suffering the unspeakable torture that occurs in jails.

Echols starts his memoir with two definitions of magick, which appear to have been the guiding principles for much of his life. He says, “The first is knowing that I can effect change through my own will; and the other meaning is more experiential—seeing beauty for a moment in the midst of the mundane.” Echols’s view of life was probably his saving grace in jail, and he describes how much of the population there was batshit crazy—if not before they went in, they came to that point after a few years behind bars.

Echols had simple memories of the eighteen years of free life he experienced before he was sentenced to death. He grew up mean poor—not a little poor with family meals of Ramen noodles, but really poor with no running water at times or heat. Despite that, he carried treasured memories—the feel of the different seasons and an appreciation for nature, the meaning of music in his life and what it felt like, and real affection for his friends and family. In jail, he had to ration his memories and only take them out every once in a while so they wouldn’t get used up. Often, he talks about having to deny himself things while in prison, because otherwise there was nothing to break up the monotony. He had to keep experiences from himself so they would remain special.

I’ve never had a clear picture of what jail is like, I don’t think, until reading Life After Death. The idea I had probably came from Stephen King’s novel and novella The Green Mile and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and in those stories, there are saving graces—a mouse that becomes a pet, decent guards who look out for their prisoners no matter what they’ve done, and adequate access to books. Echols’s experiences in jail have destroyed whatever notions I might have held, and I believe he could school Stephen King (who Echols learned the art of writing from) in giving a more realistic portrayal of what life is like behind bars.

Echols is taken off his antidepressant cold turkey once he’s on death row because there’s no point in fixing a guy who’s going to die anyway. When he’s beaten by guards and his teeth sustain nerve damage, he’s given the option of having them pulled out and replaced by dentures because fixing them is too much trouble for a guy who’s supposed to die anyway. Echols is never allowed outside to see the sky. He’s in his cell most of the time, and when he’s allowed to walk, he must be shackled and can then pace back and forth in something akin to a grain silo.

The list goes on and on, but what seems most cruel is when the author is suddenly slapped with something he did not realize he had lost. With startling comparisons, Echols writes, “God, I miss the sound of cicadas singing. I used to sit on my front porch and listen to those invisible hordes all screaming in the trees like green lunacy. The only place I hear them now is on television. I’ve seen live newscasts where I could hear them screeching in the background. When I realized what it was I was hearing I nearly fell to my knees, sobbing and screaming a denial to everything I’ve lost, everything that’s been stolen from me. It’s a powerful sound—the sound home would make if it weren’t a silent eternity from me.”

Damien Echols.

 

What scares me the most about this story is that it ever happened at all. After reading Life After Death, I became obsessed with the case and watched the documentaries that brought the West Memphis Three to the public eye—Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost: Revelations, and Paradise Lost: Purgatory. The footage taken of West Memphis during 1993 makes the town look like a doppelgänger to the one where I attended high school; it’s eerie how similar the landscapes are. The teenagers put on trial for a supposed satanic ritual murder of three children could have been the friends I hung out with in high school with their long hair, Metallica T-shirts, and taste for horror movies and literature. And it just seems crazy and impossible how these trappings of youthful rebellion, heavy metal/goth style, could be twisted into a case about cult ritualistic murder.

 

All three were convicted of the crime based on the flimsiest of evidence and served seventeen years before somebody finally overruled the original trial judge, David Burnett, who shut down all of their appeals, and the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed to allow new evidence that could set them free. Thank God, those materials still existed. With the amount of bungling that happened in this case, I would have expected for the evidence to have been destroyed or “accidentally” thrown away. But it didn’t, and during those seventeen years in jail, Echols taught himself how to write so he could give us this dark jewel. I’ve gobbled up everything I can read and watch about the case and now just have to wait for the Peter Jackson-produced documentary West of Memphis to come out at Christmas to put a cap on this. Echols is a powerful writer, and I’m curious to see what he puts out next now that the West Memphis case is over. I’m hoping for a horror story—a fictional horror story.