“So these aren’t the type of defendants, in my opinion, that the mandatory minimums and all that are addressed to, but that unfortunately, is not for me to decide… the guidelines … require that there be life imprisonment imposed.” The subject of those words, a husband and son, has always maintained his innocence regarding drug possession. His court-appointed lawyer, desperate to find a witness, asked if he might be able to draw a composite sketch, and to everyone’s astonishment, he did, but to no avail. Fulton Washington, who goes by the avuncular Mr. Wash, served 21 years in prison, and may have served for life, if not for the persistent devotion of his daughter, Ahneishia, and the compassionate pardon of President Barack Obama. When Juxtapoz founder Robert Williams brought his art and story to our attention, we wasted no time in finding artist, teacher and peacemaker, Mr. Wash.
Gwynned Vitello: The story goes that your mother, who worked for Mattel, would bring home broken toys that you would repair or re-engineer. It sounds like you had a knack for reformation early on!
Mr. Wash: Re-formation! I never looked at it like that, but yes, that could be a true perspective of my past, present and future. For me, the glass is always half full. Instead of focusing or worrying about a problem, what’s wrong, or why it won’t work, I tend to find solutions. As a child, I would fix toys and put puzzles together. I was always taught by my village community to look for the bright side of things, that life deals you both good and bad hands. It’s not the hand you are dealt that determines your reward, but what you do with your hand. So here you have two broken toys. What do you do… throw them away, or use one to fix the other? Oh, you got a toy car and you wanted a toy boat, what to do? Turn the car upside down so it will float! Or make a car-boat. I remember doing both.
Most artists I talk with will say they were interested in art from childhood. Would you say that, or did you have the time or opportunity for that kind of early pursuit?
As a child, my learning and opportunity started at home. I was given coloring books and puzzles and taught to pay attention to differences in things. Should we call that kind of observance an interest in art? I asked and wondered why butterflies had dots, patterns and colors. Why bees’ and flies’ wings were clear. As a child, I saw and understood the symmetrical balance in things and people. I noticed that the slight difference in that balance is what identified one person from another. When I didn’t have words to say what I meant, I would try and draw them. So yes, there was an interest in art, but no practical desire to pursue art as a career. Public schools provided ample experience for arts and crafts as hobbies, but no exposure to art as a career.
How did you arrive at the materials and processes, even the style of painting that you currently use?
Most of my art materials came to me by way of bartering. Inmates would bring me envelopes and paper, and I would supply my limited skills. The materials left over, in most cases, were mine. I actually got my first set of oil paints from an inmate whom I called Ben Franklin. Ben said he used to paint, but didn't like the hobby shop and preferred to draw in graphite. My process of painting is one of repair, and as you say, reformation. I critique my art from a point of view of constructive criticism, always remembering to improve upon what I have. As for style, that is still evolving as I am exposed to different subject matter.
You have a very strong sense of community, of giving back. That must have come from your family?
Yes, you are correct! Both my mom and dad instilled sharing. It didn't stop at home, as I watched them share with the communities where we lived and associated. I can remember that every house where we lived, my mom would open to the public for voting polls, feeding and tending to the elderly, as well as serving the community with her talent for styling hair. As a family, we would pick fruits and vegetables, go fishing and hunting, and then pass part of the bounty to those who had misfortune. In captivity or free, I am bound to live by that same sense of sharing.
How are art classes actually given in prison? Is it hard to find out about them? Do you have to qualify by talent or behavior?
Each prison has its own standard or policy of dealing with art materials and classes. Some have no art classes at all and do not allow art to be publicly displayed in or out of your cell. Others allow art materials to be ordered from approved vendors, or bought through the institution’s commissary. As an example, federal pretrial detention classes were limited to very small groups of four or less, which happened to be seated at the same table. At the US Penitentiary Leavenworth, they allowed art and had a hobby room, but no classes. Inmates would draw and paint in their cells or in the common areas. Everyone learned by watching and practicing on their own, or again, in small groups. I got many lessons looking over the shoulders of inmates like Ben Franklin, Leonard Peltier, Ron Chandler, David Ussery, John, Buddy and the whole Leavenworth crew. It takes from months to years to get a seat in the hobby rooms, but I was blessed to slide in as another inmate (Smiley from Compton) was being transferred to another institution. Once in, and learning at a very fast pace, I felt a sense of compassion for the ones still waiting, and petitioned for a classroom. It was granted, and I was able to teach all that I knew. There was never any qualification.
Despite what you experienced, you seem to have a reverence for our institutions. How did you maintain that through all those years in prison?
Very good question. Despite where I was born and raised, my mom and dad taught me to respect and believe in our laws, taught me fairness, and that the truth would always prevail. I never committed the crime that I was charged, convicted, and punished for, so I always believed that the system worked and I would be released. I realized that the people running the institutions were not the institutions. It was not an institution problem; it was a people problem.
Have you gotten involved in issues like prison reform, or do you prefer that your activism to be in the form of teaching?
No, I have never become involved in trying to reform a prison, though I honestly believe that such reform is definitely needed. I understand that crime is by design, and every crime was written by man. My ongoing efforts are for criminal justice reform. We need to change the mindset of the people writing the laws as policies that bring the citizens into the system and release them into the public.
Do you give lessons primarily to young people? What do you enjoy most about teaching?
No, my lessons are for all ages. I enjoy most teaching a person what to look for and that feeling, when a student gets it, when they see color, shading or perspective.
How did you arrive at your signature teardrop? For all the joy in your paintings of children, your adults appear to have borne a lot of responsibility. How do you paint such expressive eyes?
I arrived at my teardrop paintings one day while in the FCI-Florence Colorado hobby shop. My painting buddy Calvin Treiber, as usual, had his radio on a country station, and a song by Tim McGraw titled “Grown Men Don’t Cry” came on. In the solitude of the words, and while painting, I envisioned my children and wife left behind, vulnerable and unprotected in my absence. For a moment, I could actually see them in various struggles, and I became overwhelmed with grief and began to cry. I could not believe I was actually crying over a song. People were being physically assaulted and sometimes dying as I watched, and I had never shed a tear. I was hiding behind my easel, tears rolling down my face, struggling not to make a sound and become exposed. After I was in control, I shared my experience, only to find that there were many inmates crying—alone—for various reasons. I decided to paint the images that triggered the emotions, and thus, the first teardrop painting, even if rather crude, was created.
Many inmates allow me to look at them unfiltered. In confidence, they tell me unfiltered stories about their family. I paint their eyes and I paint the truth.
Your daughter Ahneishia is a talent in her own right. Her empathy and impassioned use of words are remarkable. How did you maintain a close relationship while you were in prison?
While in captivity, I continued, as best I could, to be a father from afar. I wrote letters, sent cards, shared the progress that I made in learning and encouraged her in her schooling. I tried to keep my presence in her life and in our home with my shared talent, especially art creations featuring her. Still, there was a void that lasted for years. She is bright and if she puts her mind to it, she will do well.
What or whom would be your next dream project?
My dream has always been, without any restraint, ridicule or persecution, to land a commission to paint the President and fix myself in American History. I started painting Obama as President and Michelle as First Lady back in 2007 during the early stages of the campaign.
Follow Mr. Wash on Instagram @mrwashtheartist
This interview was originally published in the Summer 2018 print edition of Juxtapoz