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May 21, 2022

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Prisoner unbarred through art

Inmate won't be released from prison until 2019, but painting has shown him a different kind of freedom

The Columbian
3 Photos
Inmate artist Kirk Charlton adds depth to his mural by adding relief using drywall mug to build up areas on the mural and painting subjects over them.
Inmate artist Kirk Charlton adds depth to his mural by adding relief using drywall mug to build up areas on the mural and painting subjects over them. Photo Gallery

An inmate at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution is slowly beautifying his surroundings, one mural at a time.

Artist Kirk Charlton uses prison walls for canvases. One of the inmate’s creations, a smorgasbord of American pop culture and iconic historical figures, graces a cinder block wall near a steel-gated sally port that leads to the prison lobby and ultimately to the outside, a place Charlton won’t see until his release in 2019.

His mural of Americana transforms the 23-foot slab of wall into an explosion of images. In one grouping, Benjamin Franklin mingles with Betsy Ross, Cesar Chavez, Batman, the Statue of Liberty, the Welcome to Las Vegas sign and a smiley face. Another unlikely assemblage features Babe Ruth, Louis Armstrong, Sacagawea, Big Bird, the Golden Gate Bridge and the rock group Kiss. Elvis shares space with Mark Twain, Darth Vader, Kermit the Frog and dozens of other images.

“I wanted this to blast you as you go by,” Charlton says. “I don’t do nature scenes with deer sipping water from streams.”

Indeed not, though the 52-year-old Hawaiian is currently transforming the prison visitation area into a harbor scene that features a dock, a Mazatlan sunset and an aquarium full of fish and crustaceans. At the top of a wooden stairway, a painting of the prison ghost, a little girl rumored to have roamed the institution since the days the prison was a state mental institution, peeks out from around a corner.

The artist loves trompe l’oeil, a French term that means “trick of the eye,” a way of using optical illusions to create depth in paintings. Charlton’s stairways appear three-dimensional, a chair sitting in front of the harbor scene seems real and a train busts out of the Americana mural, chunks of cinder block blasting from the scene.

Charlton will have spent 20 years total behind bars by the time he is released. His downslide began after experimenting with marijuana at age 12 or 13 during a time of emotional struggle. He eventually moved on to harder drugs.

“Drugs became an elixir, a remedy for anything that felt bad,” he said.

‘Balanced and positive’

Most recently, the former pawn shop manager was convicted of robbery for illegally repossessing a car. He was high at the time. His incarceration has given him plenty of time to ruminate on the past and come up with a plan to pull himself out of his self-made pit.

“I’ve been able to make a spiritually based transformation here,” he said. “I’ve been able to deal with things like guilt and self-hatred. I know it’s finally over.”

Art has given him mental stimulation and a way to express feelings, Charlton said. He called the recent closure of the prison art department a blow for the inmates.

“The therapeutic value of art is endless,” he said. “Art plays a major role in keeping a human being balanced and positive. You are not out in the yard talking about crime or sitting on your bunk.”

EOCI spokesman Ron Miles said cutting the art program was a byproduct of a tight budget and a small recreation staff. He said prison officials are looking for a way to reinstate the program, possibly with volunteer leaders.

“Philosophically, we agree with Mr. Charlton,” Miles said. “Art is cathartic. We’re looking for the right solution.”

Charlton said he feels fortunate to have permission to paint prison walls. As the artist looks ahead to leaving prison in five years, he dreams of doing art therapy in such places as prisons and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers. In the meantime, he will paint wherever and whenever he gets the chance.

“I’m always looking for canvases,” Charlton said. “They’re all over the place.”

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