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An Artist Embraces the Magic Symbols that Helped Send Him to Death Row

At Day for Night festival, Damien Echols invited visitors to engage with the occult symbols that helped lead to his wrongful murder conviction.

Damien Echols, “Crimson Lotus” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

HOUSTON — Damien Echols remembers discovering the symbols of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn when he was around 10 or 12 years old. The ritual magic of the 19th-century organization, which counted W. B. Yeats and Tarot card artist Pamela Colman Smith among its members, harmonized with his growing interest in the esoteric. At last weekend’s Day for Night art and music festival in Houston, a selection of those symbols lit up in sequence on three walls, while a sacred circle rotated in the center. The space was accessible, drawing visitors to gather at the circle’s edges or pose with the angular forms, or sigils, as Echols called them in an accompanying narration.

One of the sigils in “Crimson Lotus”

However, it was exactly their occult associations that made Echols an outsider in West Memphis, Arkansas. Echols was fatefully singled out with two other teenagers when three young boys were brutally murdered. “This is something they used to send me to death row,” Echols told Hyperallergic of the visuals in his installation “Crimson Lotus.” “Magic is just as rich as any other spiritual belief,” he said.

Echols is one of the “West Memphis Three,” who were wrongfully convicted of the murders in 1994; the prosecution asserted that the killing had been a Satanic ritual. The men were finally released in 2011. A series of film documentaries called Paradise Lost highlighted the injustices of their case, although in the end the three accepted an “Alford plea,” a compromise in which they could legally claim innocence while still entering guilty pleas.

Damien Echols at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016

It’s particularly interesting, then, that Echols chose to so visibly evoke in his art the magic imagery that helped get him convicted. Yet it’s also what mentally saved him when he was serving time. “Always when I was in prison, my art and my spiritual practice were really entwined,” he said. He briefly appeared amid the frenetic festival to discuss his work with the crowd. “When I first create them, they are squiggly lines — that’s it,” he explained of the sigils. “But they are batteries. The more you put into them, the more they are.”

Soft-spoken, slender, and dressed in black, with blue-tinted sunglasses over his eyes that are still sensitive from a decade of solitary confinement, Echols paced slowly around the illuminated sacred circle. He led festival-goers through the meditative practice he had used to concentrate his hope on a release while in prison.

Damien Echols, “Crimson Lotus” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016

“We have this idea that sacred spaces are somehow ordained by other people,” he said. This was the first festival he’d ever attended, but added that there seemed to be “no better place on Earth to have a temple” than in a music festival where people are already coming together with positive energy.

Most of Echols’s art has been illustration — the easiest medium for working in prison — and this was his first large-scale, multimedia creation. It was a new experience, he said, especially since he’s spent the past five free years just “learning how to use a cellphone.” At the end of the ritual he conducted with the Day for Night attendees, he said it was “something I’ll remember for the rest of my life” — a life which once seemed destined to end in execution. And even if the installation was only a two-day intervention in Houston, it will indeed stay with him in a different form.

“I get a piece of every work tattooed on my body,” he said of his art. “Every morning when I look in the mirror, I’m going to be reminded of that piece.” The “Crimson Lotus” sigils included one for the chrysalis of transformation, another for the compassionate archangel Tzaphkiel, and yet another for life after death. It cycled with the rest from darkness into light.

Damien Echols, “Crimson Lotus” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
Damien Echols at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
Damien Echols, “Crimson Lotus” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
Damien Echols, “Crimson Lotus” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
Damien Echols, “Crimson Lotus” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
Damien Echols, “Crimson Lotus” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016

Damien Echols’s “Crimson Lotus” was part of Day for Night, which took place on December 17–18 at the former Barbara Jordan Post Office (701 Franklin Street, Houston, Texas).

Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses and accommodations in Houston were paid for by Day for Night.

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