HOLDING STRONG : Kevin Greene’s Art Behind Bars

by | May 26, 2010 | ART


The road to Lunenburg Correctional Center is a ribbon of pavement pulled through trees that crowd the shoulders and open suddenly into hillside farmlands, dilapidated barnyards, the great American South lounging on the sloping grass of counties with no memory of urban progress. There is no hint of cosmopolitan consciousness in the easy accent of cattle and rural decay.

We pull onto a gravel road that edges itself through a well-manicured field, and the vernacular of the landscape shifts with abrupt and awe-inspiring completeness. In the glorious sunlight of a pre-spring morning, spires of shimmering and vicious barbed-wire rise toward the unblemished blue of a country sky. Pristine guard towers like belfries lumber over the fences and fences that screen the bright orange and blue of prisoners playing basketball from contact with the forests, the hidden creeks behind the tree line, fallen leaves, the unseen sanctuaries of nature, and people like us.

This is not a beautiful landscape.


The road to Lunenburg Correctional Center is a ribbon of pavement pulled through trees that crowd the shoulders and open suddenly into hillside farmlands, dilapidated barnyards, the great American South lounging on the sloping grass of counties with no memory of urban progress. There is no hint of cosmopolitan consciousness in the easy accent of cattle and rural decay.

We pull onto a gravel road that edges itself through a well-manicured field, and the vernacular of the landscape shifts with abrupt and awe-inspiring completeness. In the glorious sunlight of a pre-spring morning, spires of shimmering and vicious barbed-wire rise toward the unblemished blue of a country sky. Pristine guard towers like belfries lumber over the fences and fences that screen the bright orange and blue of prisoners playing basketball from contact with the forests, the hidden creeks behind the tree line, fallen leaves, the unseen sanctuaries of nature, and people like us.

This is not a beautiful landscape.

We are led by a prison guard through a series of automatic gates and into a large, empty visitation room lined with soda machines and cafeteria tables.

Looking at the art created within the regulated breeze and unforgiving constructs of this place, it’s either hard to remember where you are, or impossible to forget.

Kevin Greene is an inmate, a denizen of the cold concrete and sharp wires of our prison system. He paints landscapes, mountains and unblocked air, illuminated waterfalls and silhouetted fauna. On flat pieces of canvas he makes windows in the cement.

He paints himself free.

Greene started painting in 2005, five years into his 26 year sentence for possession of narcotics with intent to distribute, assault by mob, and statutory burglary.

Assault by mob is a charge where someone assaulted somebody, and I was with them, so I get charged for what they done, as well as the statutory burglary, they gave me a charge being that someone took something from someone, and if I was in the vicinity, or I was with these guys, or they said I was with ‘em, then I get the charge as well. Now the possession of drugs is something that I had on me, and I pled guilty to it, but the other two charges, I didn’t plead guilty because I didn’t actually commit the crime.

When you first meet Greene, the immediate impression is of a diminutive man. At 45, his eyes creased and weary with the weight of something I am incapable of understanding, a fixed expression of defeat, his face is a series of hopeless lines in the harsh fluorescent fixtures of his captive residence.

When he begins to speak about art his features lift, his voice is imbued with a profound sense of enlightenment, his droopy eyes more reminiscent of some meditative serenity than the downtrodden countenance of the shackled imagination.

Each morning when I wake up, I gotta find something to do. And when I set the canvas up, I like to set up a blank piece of canvas, and most of the time I have no idea what I’m going to paint, all I know is it’s gonna be a landscape, or a still-life picture, and the majority of the time I just sit there and I take the paint and I just start painting on the canvas, and as the visions, I just see it as it come along, and then the paint itself, it makes grooves and shapes, and I might see the shape of something, and I’ll say, “Okay, that looks like a rock.” So I’ll make it look like a rock. I like to paint free. I feel more relaxed.

Art had been a latent interest for Greene, one that he was inspired to pursue seriously by a photograph of his daughter Kashona’s painting of the Cotton Club that she created at ten years-old. It was at this point that he began in earnest to seek out a fellow inmate to tutor him in the arts.

I said to myself, “Man, I got to find somebody to show me. Kashona can do it and I can’t even do it. I got to find somebody now.”

When I wanted to learn how to draw, a guy named Richard Boush, he’s my favorite artist, started showing me, and this one here is the first one that I drew, the very first picture that I drew. And I was real excited about it, and I kept drawin’ ‘em, and kept drawin’ ‘em, and kept drawin’ ‘em, and once I got here, to Lunenburg, they allow us to use paint. So I started out using pastels, I would use soft pastels, and I liked that, then I started using oil pastels, then I started using watercolor paint, then acrylic paint, and now I use the water-soluble oil paint, which I like the best, because it stays wet for me, and I actually just started playing with it, and just watchin’ TV and watchin’ other painters. There’s a guy named Warren Sheldon who helped me out, a guy named Jerry Baker who helped me out. There’s a lot of artists here that, they help me, you know, I watch them, I do my own work, but I’m sayin’ as far as me watchin’ other artists do things, I really learn a lot from Bob Ross, the painter. I watch him every Saturday at two o’clock. Now they got another painter come on after him called David Dunlap, and he’s a landscape painter, he’s a great painter.

Greene holds up a photograph, bearing the hallmark fashion and faded contrasts typical of those shot in the Eighties, and points to a grinning and youthful face holding a beer bottle.

And see I was the type, since I was young I had big dreams. I used to rap in a rap group, and that’s me down here. I was in a group called The Home Boys. We used to do shows with The Fat Boys, and the Boogie Boys. Here’s a photo with me, that’s me there, there’s Run, there’s DMC, LL Cool J.

Greene is a painter of vision, but one who allows his imagery to emerge by the ritualized process of applying paint to canvas. His inspiration to act upon his innate capacity as an artist no longer emanates from rap world ambition, but rather a solid dedication to his family, and an understanding of the divine nature of existence.

The first day I got incarcerated I was really thinking about my children, and I said, I have 26 years with none suspended, and I need to try to make a way to take in my daughter, she wasn’t but seven years old when I got incarcerated, and my son was sixteen. And I really wanted to find a way that I could do something for them and my family, and send them things, and stuff like that. And I said, what I see is art. The only way I see it is art. And that’s why I was striving and striving to learn to draw and paint. But then after I started doing it, I just fell in love with it. And now there’s other reasons I want to. But the initial reason, I was thinkin’ about my family. And once I started, I just can’t stop. I mean, I can’t. If I don’t paint for like three or four days, I won’t feel right. I just have to paint. It keeps me going. I just love doing it.

Every painting, before I touch that canvas, I say, “God, direct my hand”. And I’ll say I don’t know what I’m doing. I tell a lot of people that. They come around and say, “Do you know what you’re doing?” And I say, “Actually, I don’t. I’m just trying it.” And whatever I see in my vision, I just try to create it, and if I can see it, I’m gonna make this brush do what I want it to do.

What defines Greene’s art most completely is a sense of liberation. The echo that resides in the brushstrokes is one of utopian idealness. His warm and saturating use of color, demonstrable grasp of scale, and dreamlike renderings are remarkable for someone who started painting so late in life and has only been at it for five years. His passionate devotion comes through brilliantly, but perhaps the greatest merit lies for him in the process, and for his fellow inmates in the transcendental psychological and emotional effects of simply looking at his work.

I just like to portray the message that I see in the landscape. The vision, the creativity, and the beauty of the earth. That this is what God created. Without this here, this earth, all these landscapes, we wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t have nowhere to stay. And we need water, that’s why I like drawin’ water a lot. This right here I called Steps of Water. And the write-up to go with it: The Power Of Water. Our bodies are made up of water. The majority of the earth is made of water. I feel that people see stuff like this, and it relaxes them. I actually have people sometimes come sit in the chair, and they’ll sit there and say “You don’t mind, do you?” and I’ll say “No.” And they’ll sit there and they look, and then when they get up they say, “It just relaxed my mind.” They meditating. They actually told me they look at my painting and meditate. Sometimes I didn’t know if they was joking, or they was serious, but then I look at the person doing it, and they is serious. And they’ll come out and they’ll be quiet and say, “Just let me sit here for a few minutes.” And they’ll sit there and they’ll look at it, and just stare at it, and they say it relaxes their mind.

As Greene has become an avenue of momentary mental freedom for his fellow inmates, the Whitley Gallery in Richmond is quickly becoming a medium for Greene to exhibit to the outside world, to inmates of other prisons, and a powerful advocacy force for enriching arts programs within the prison system.

Part law firm and part art gallery, the Whitley program is a collaborative effort by defense attorney Angela Whitley, and gallery director and curator Emilia Lanwehr. Whitley’s passions for art and criminal defense culminated in her vision of a mutually supportive, double-faceted institution.

I finally realized that I could be a liaison to bring about positive change for people so often marginalized by our society.

I have been frustrated for a very long time after seeing firsthand the struggles of clients trying to make a better life for themselves with such numerous obstacles.

It is my hope that The Whitley Gallery will help individuals while incarcerated to obtain achievement, esteem and self-respect. Ultimately, after incarceration, it is my hope that The Whitley Gallery will serve as a means to continue the positive momentum they have established.

While the gallery hosts the work of inmates such as Greene, it is also rapidly expanding into an educational asset for the incarcerated, providing instruction, materials, and a particularly human kind of support.

The gallery has evolved from a point of sale for individuals to a project for art instruction inside the facilities and exhibits in courthouses. The original concept of assisting individuals to sell their artwork has also evolved into applying proceeds toward court fines and costs, and restitution for victims. This evolution has expanded the gallery’s role into sharing the literal responsibility for paying their debts to society. Originally, our goal was to help those incarcerated to gain self-esteem and to realize they are someone, not just a number; that will always be our goal. We continue to explore possible ways to achieve this goal and hope that our in house art instruction will become state or maybe even nation-wide.

Greene discovered the Whitley Gallery in a newspaper article, of which he holds a clipping laminated with tape that he keeps in a manila envelope along with the first drawing he made in prison.

Just like that first picture, it’s always going to mean something to me. I tell a lot of people here about it, and the program. You don’t find many people on the street that are actually trying to help people in prison. Some people, they got this stereotype about anybody in prison is guilty, anybody is wrong, and they have some people in here that deserve to be here. They have some people in here that deserve to be in here for a long time. And they have some in here, they got more time than they do deserve. They have some in here that is just straight innocent, period. Wrong identity. Things like that happen in life, sometimes it happens to people. But you find people like this that are really trying to help you, and not rip you off, cause there’s a lot of people out there like that, that take advantage of people that’s incarcerated, I really appreciate it. I told her I appreciate the program, and I’m sure a lot of others do as well.

Greene falls into the category of inmates serving more time than deserved. His court-appointed lawyer took it upon himself to concede guilt directly to the jury, a course of action that was never discussed with Greene. While he admits that his incarceration was not completely unjust, he does believe the length of his sentence, and the inexcusable ineptitude of the lawyer that allowed for it, are wholly inequitable.

Despite this, he maintains an indomitably optimistic perspective on his life, and between the efforts of the Whitley Gallery and Warden Reunion (who Greene refers to as a “very, very, very good warden” and thanks tremendously), his creative abilities are being nurtured rather than stifled.

Why would you give me 21 years, with none suspended, for something that he did, cause I was there? I mean, I’m not saying I should be completely exonerated from it, but I feel it’s too much time. I wouldn’t have given anybody that much time for that. It’s just unfair. But I am not going to let the wrong discourage me, or have me have hatred towards life, or hatred towards people. I’m going to continue to believe in God, and believe this is what it is that he wanted me to do. Maybe he wanted me to come here to show me that I could paint. Because when I was on the street, I believe I would have never knew that I could even try to do this, because I wouldn’t try. Now I’ve found something that I love to do. It means a lot to me. It really does. And I believe, in my heart, right now I have twelve years left, but I believe in my heart, before the 12 years is up, that I’ll be out of here. Some kind of way. Now I may be wrong, but that’s what I believe. And I believe God, that he know my heart, and he know I’m right, and he know what’s wrong.

Making art might not be the only aspect of Greene’s destiny revealed to him by his incarceration. He’s become something of an art instructor, joining the distinctly prison phenomenon of a reciprocal artistic lineage, a rare source of inspiration and self-respect for his fellow inmates. And he seems to be a natural teacher, enabling his students to work independently, training them without physically altering their work.

See, I be tryin’ to help the other inmates as well, to inspire them to do somethin’ that they can do. Cause a lot of them, they look at me and they can’t believe I just started doing it on my own. And I tell them that they can do it too. I try to get them to do something constructive, you know, to pass the time. I like landscapes because I’m incarcerated, but it reminds me that there’s a place I wish I could be right now. And just the beauty of nature itself, and God’s creation.

For Greene it always comes back to faith, faith in himself and those around him, faith in humanity and God to rectify the unjust situation in which has found himself, and faith in faith itself, that by transforming painting into prayer and appreciating what blessings he sees as bestowed upon him, that he will be set free.

In the meantime, he has found a way to take what control of his life he can, seeking out the soft light of spiritual emancipation in the harshness of a prison existence where nothing seems to radiate.

Actually, I believe it’s a gift from God, in that he actually gave me this talent, and if I use it wisely, and use it while I’m in here, it frees me. And even though I’m incarcerated, and it may be hard to believe, what I say about this, is when I’m painting, I actually feel free. Because my mind is here, and I’m focused on this, and I’m not focused on nothing around me. I don’t care if there was bars all around me, I wouldn’t even know they were there, cause I’m just focusing on tryin’ to paint something the whole time I’m there. And the time goes by so fast, actually there’s not enough time in the day.

Generally painting from 7:30 AM till 9:00 PM, breaking only for count time and meals, Greene has shaped a routine that allows for him to be physically still while losing himself in the fantastic landscapes and allegorical renderings of his brush. One such allegorical painting of a tree is entitled Old and Strong, and has a revealing quality of self-portraiture, accented by the grandeur of a modest dream felt deeply. He removes a pair of glasses from a case in his pocket and gently lifts a piece of wide-ruled paper.

I didn’t actually plan on writing a poem, it’s just that when I wrote the comment about the painting, I just came up with a poem, cause I used to write rhymes and poetry, basically they’re the same. I’ll read it to you. Let me put my glasses on.

Trees grow to be old and strong
For us to see
That is the correct way for us to live
And us to be.
Who wouldn’t want to live
To be old as a tree,
Standing tall and strong,
Old and bold,
Strong enough to withstand
the summer heat
And winter cold.
I would love to be strong as a tree
A thousand years old.

Suddenly I realize that Greene has taught me something. Not the artistic technique he imparts to his students, or the self-respect and serenity with which he so calmly speaks, but something of human nature.

We don’t desire happiness. Not really. We think we do, but happiness is definitively fleeting, a feeling of elation that elevates you above the sadness and trudging mundane patterns of emotion that flow just beneath the cognitive plates of our reality. We don’t want contentment, either. We are creatures of passion, of reckless indulgence. We thrive on screaming exhilaration, the boundless and terrifying ecstasy of the unknown and risk and all the fast swooping sensations that dive off into the indefinite. Contentment is too smooth. We grow bored. What we really, truly want as a country, society, maybe even species, is freedom.

We want the freedom to be fortified by the experience of all emotions, to explore the canyons of despair and feel out blindly the jagged walls of sorrow, to find our way back out and stand at the edge of euphoric landscapes. We want the freedom to hurt and be hurt, of bewilderment and clarity. We want to be free from undesirable obligations, of financial worry. From bad relationships, from loneliness, from bad habits and stagnation. We want to be liberated from our own faults, expectations, from lurid regret. We want and need the freedom to move and create and love and loathe, to make terrific mistakes, construct awesome failures, to see and hear and feel all of the ugliness and breathless beauty. It is the true human condition and its ideal state, it is the medium by which we can flirt with our own potential. It’s written in our songs, our books, on forearms and walls.

For Greene, art is both an exercise in freedom and the means by which he might physically attain it. As a teacher, he refuses to be a prisoner to the image of the solitary and antisocial artist hunched in solipsistic concentration over his canvas. As an artist, he refuses to be a prisoner to the inhuman atmosphere into which he has been thrust. And as he grows old and strong making a legacy for his children with oil paint and the uniformed hours he serves, as he waits out his sentence in an institution that inherently rejects the sanctity of life, the ineffable holiness of each moment, and the tragic transience of human existence, he has painted himself into the ever-present life force that pulsates universally. His vision and resilient spirit do not require escorts to enter or a bureaucracy to leave, and he has become actively and palpably connected to humanity despite the walls that separate him from his family and the rest of the world. For all the solitude, he has not grown lonesome.

This [landscape] is a vision where I feel like I’m free, like a place you can just go and be alone, and never feel lonely. That’s like a beautiful landscape.

Kevin Greene would like to thank The Whitley Gallery, Larry Traylor, Kimberly Runion, D.L. Graham, J.D. Labriola, B. Dempsey, Ms. Sprague, Sgt. Pennington, Lt. Cawthorn, E. Jones, Gracilia Tracy, Eva L. Cummings, Darlene Williams, Betty Atkins, Michael Cummings, Maurice Thomas, and Andrea Watson for their support.

Whitley Gallery. 29 N. 17th St. Richmond, VA 23219 in Shockoe Bottom.

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me

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