A painting by Richard Phillips (all images courtesy of the artist’s lawyer, Gabi Silver)

There are all kinds of paths toward becoming an artist, but relatively few have been as rooted in personal sanity and survival as that of 73-year-old Michigan resident Richard Phillips. As reported by Ed White of the Associated Press, Phillips was released from prison in 2017 following 45 years of wrongful imprisonment, after being cleared of the 1971 homicide for which he had been convicted decades before. Phillips’ exoneration was due to evidence unearthed in an investigation by University of Michigan law students and the Wayne County prosecutor’s office, making him the longest-serving inmate of the United States penal system to win exoneration.

Over his four decades in prison, Phillips turned to art to occupy his heart and mind, painting watercolors in his cell with supplies purchased by selling handmade greeting cards to other inmates. Some 50 of his 400-plus creations went on display on Friday, January 18, during a solo opening at an art gallery inside Level One Bank in Ferndale, MI. Sale of the works is intended to help Phillips support himself, as the projected $2 million for which he is eligible under a Michigan law that compensates the wrongly convicted has been thus far tied up in bureaucratic foot-dragging and administrative conflicts of interest.

Three paintings by Richard Phillips

Phillips is reportedly reluctant to sell the works, which he produced via a monastic painting routine conducted during mornings when he had time alone in his cell. His subjects include recognizable and abstracted figurative subjects, particularly musicians, sometimes based off of photographic references and newspaper images.

“These are like my children,” Phillips, a former auto-worker, said during a tour with The Associated Press. “But I don’t have any money. I don’t have a choice. Without this, I’d have a cup on the corner begging for nickels and dimes. I’m too old to get a job.”

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

4 replies on “After 45 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment, an Artist Sells His Paintings to Get By”

  1. Man, what a story.
    Nothing much Great about this slice of America.
    Reminds me of another AA guy locked up unjustly, whose paintings of golf courses successfully stirred interest in his case.
    And where’s any help for this man from the torrents of dollars streaming through the universe of the world’s major art markets – NY, London and beyond – milked by the well known auction houses?
    Sobering.

  2. I certainly hope he gets the $$$ he is due for having his freedom stolen. I often wonder how many people are wrongly incarcerated, probably quite a few !

  3. Is there no end to the pitiless cruelty of the US so-called “justice system”? Can someone set up a Crowdfunding thing to make sure (a) he’s looked after and (b) no scammer turns up to make off with his settlement?

  4. How about the University of Michigan Law School step up and front him living expenses (or some job involving speaking engagements, work with students, etc.) while he awaits restitution? Will he really be able to support himself on the sale of artwork from this show alone, anyway?

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