"You hurt yourself, but you came out fine. I hurt others, and I ended up here."
The words enter my ear through an old-fashioned receiver. The phone line sounds like a long-distance call. Yet the person speaking is less than an arm’s length away. He sits behind toughened glass, in a cage.
This is the Death Row visiting room in a US prison. I am here to visit with my pen-friend whom I connected with through an organization that links people on either side of prison walls with the mission of fostering positive connections.
We talk about our lives growing up. The era was the same, the 80’s and the 90’s, the places very different. I share about my difficult phase in teenage where I turned to self-harming, and I talk about my process of coming to understand how violence has been woven into my family story and how I’m learning to break free from the cycle of inherited trauma.
My friend listens carefully and relates that where he grew up, troubled youth were not suicidal but homicidal. He reflects on the mindset he was in as a youngster, the events and experiences that shaped his path and choices leading him to his conviction.
He pauses to state that none of what he shares about his struggles is meant to downplay the hurt he has caused to others.
I look at the hand holding the receiver on the other side. That was once the hand of a youth wielding a gun.
Yet, I’ve come to know these hands in a different context. Through letters criss-crossing the Atlantic for over two years, I’ve come to know their script, sharing deep reflections about life. I’ve also come to know the beautiful art they create. He signs his works Moyo, a brush name that means ‘heart’ or ‘spirit’ in Swahili.
For 15 years, Moyo has lived in solitary confinement on Death Row. There, he began a quest for “polishing his soul, cleaning stains from his heart, and opening windows of his mind.”
On his journey of self-discovery and recovery, Moyo found art. And in making art, he found a channel for turning violence and suffering into healing and inner cultivation.
Moyo recounts that in his initial years of prison, he did not think much of his actions: “I was simply mad that I was being taken advantage of by the system because I didn’t have the money to present adequate defense... I now also realize that my actions hurt a lot of people. And I have begun feeling this hurt right along with my own. It’s become my own.”
“I have committed some grave acts and I will never be able to undo them. Yet the very least I can do is to improve myself.”
In one of his letters, Moyo shared with me a wish-list of things that he’d love to do. One of them was to work on creative projects that make use of his life force for the good of more than himself.
I felt called to join hands with Moyo to make this happen --to make visible his inner cultivation amidst a system that denies any transformation and where reconciliation comes on the execution gurney.
Together, we embarked on a journey of co-creating an art exhibition. We titled it Buddhas on Death Row, in the spirit of Moyo’s main body of work – a series of Buddha portraits –and the notion that within all of us, there is a potential for transformation.
In his art, Moyo fuses the limited supplies available in the prison commissary with elements he collects from various sources: old books, pieces of thread, mail he has received, food packaging… By making use of discarded or ignored bits, he conveys a message: “We all have something worthwhile for another, we just have to find it.”
Since Buddhas on Death Row launched in August 2016, it has become a journey with many ripples on both sides of the Atlantic.
The physical exhibition in my hometown, Helsinki, was made possible by the generous offer of agallery space by a law firm. It was a profound experience to hold the space as over 300 visitors engaged with Moyo’s art and narratives. I witnessed them study the works, leaning forward for closer looks and stepping back to zoom out, and carefully reading the back stories of each piece in the exhibition catalogue in their hands. Taped onto the floor, in the middle of the gallery space, was a 1:1 outline of Moyo’s solitary cell. The visitors measured the space with their feet.
Many were present with quiet attention. I remember a man who said few words but whose eyes welled up when he received the gift of the exhibition poster. Others shared thoughtful reflections. Even hugs were exchanged between strangers.
In a letter to Moyo, one visitor used the ancient Greek concept of kairos, meaning the moment in which something significant happens, to describe her experience: “For those who are courageous enough to enter your work with an open heart, they have an opportunity to experience that [kairos].”
Of course, not everyone understood or agreed with the idea of the exhibition. When a local paper featured a story about it, someone denounced me in an online comment as a killer’s girlfriend. Another asked: “Where are the exhibitions for crime victims?”
That is a vital question in a world where so much of crime survivors' pain goes unhealed, and where passive and punitive criminal justice systems are not designed to really require those who have harmed to get in touch with their accountability and to change.
One of the most meaningful reflections came from a person who herself was a victim of a violent crime. She said that Moyo’s work had touched her very deeplyin a positive way, whereas the person who shot her has never expressed remorse.
“Someday he will get out of prison and if he's still angry, what will he do? I don't want him to hurt anyone else. I would rather see his name on a gallery wall along with his beautiful artwork.”