Featured Storyteller

FINLAND: Healing Through Art on Death Row

MariaJ
Posted January 5, 2017 from Finland
Photo © Johanna Karttunen

From her home in Helsinki, Maria Jain began a correspondencewith a death row inmate in the US. Now, they've co-created anart exhibit that exploresthe need for justice reform, the potential for personal transformation,and the intricacies of healing.

“For 15 years, Moyo has lived in solitary confinement on death row, in a cell smaller than a parking spot.

"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 of a US prison. I am here to visit with my pen-friend, a man I connected with through an organization that links people on either side of prison walls in order to foster positive connections.

We talk about our lives growing up. The era was the same, the 80’s and the 90’s; the places were very different. I grew up in Finland; he grew up in Texas.

I share about my difficult teenage years when I turned to self-harming. 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 the choices that led 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 others.

I look at the hand holding the receiver on the other side. That hand was once the hand of a youth wielding a gun.

Yet, I’ve come to know these hands in a different context. Through letters crisscrossing 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. My friend 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, in a cell smaller than a parking spot. 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...” he says. “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 itBuddhas 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 potential for transformation.

In his art, Moyo fuses the limited supplies available in the prison commissary with elements he collects from various sources: covers of books, pieces of thread, twigs dropped by birds on the barren recreation yard, mail he has received… 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.”

ANALOG | 2015 Paper collage on a board (the matte black paper is an import from a friend and features a Hafiz poem, the dotted paper was found in Wired magazine at Christmas time, intended to be wrapping paper for some gift featured in the magazine), screws, a nut and a washer 

SinceBuddhas on Death Rowlaunched 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.”

Comments 16

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WorldCare
Jan 06, 2017
Jan 06, 2017

Hi MariaJ, I'm really glad you wrote this. It is a new concept to me, that this imprisoned person can heal himself and become new by making art. A wonderful concept. And of course YOU are instrumental in encouraging him, or others. Your insight is truly a gift. Thanks for sharing this story.

MariaJ
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Thank you WorldCare for reading with an your open mind & heart and for your encouragement. I send you warm regards.

JulieG
Jan 06, 2017
Jan 06, 2017

Dear MariaJ,

What a beautiful exhibit and thoughtful story you've written.   There are many amazing parts of this piece.  Your willingness to begin this conversation with a death row inmate is one and your vision to connect in person and share this with the world as an exhibit is quite another.  I look forward to reading more from you and discovering what other stories you may witness and take time for that others do not.

Very best wishes for the new year,

Julie

MariaJ
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Dear Julie, thank you! Wishes for a year that brings many stories to inspire, build bridges & give courage.

jacqueline.s
Jan 06, 2017
Jan 06, 2017

Hello MariaJ,

Thank you for this wonderful piece about your experience and sharing conversation with Moyo. Your story demonstrates the beauty that can be created through human connection and collaboration. Art is a powerful tool for not just expression, but for healing and personal growth. Thank you again for your story and I am looking forward to reading more pieces for you.

MariaJ
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Dear Jacqueline, thank you for your note. Indeed, along this journey I've learned afresh how art belongs to us all and comes in many forms. "Find your medicine and use it", as Nahko Bear says. :)

Rahmana Karuna
Jan 07, 2017
Jan 07, 2017

Dearest Mariaj,

your whole project is amazing from start to finish, hopefully not the end though.

my wish is that Time magazine or Newsweek or better will pick up this story. i love reading about improvements in our UNjust criminal/victim turning corporate system. Following Angela Davis since her autobiography who has been working on change in usa for decades. and Assata Shakur, who escaped from high security prison to cuba decades ago.................................thank you thank you thank you!!!!!

MariaJ
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Dear Rahmana, thank you for your message. For your reading list, if you haven't yet, I highly recommend you to look up Shaka Shenghor's book "Writing My Wrongs". Warm regards!

Olutosin
Jan 08, 2017
Jan 08, 2017

Thanks for sharing with us. It's a new concept to me........moved me to tears....wish I can become a friend of inmates in Nigeria too...

MariaJ
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Dear Olutosin, thank you for taking the time to respond. I wish you well for the new year!

LillianVB
Jan 09, 2017
Jan 09, 2017

Dear Mariaj, 

A very powerful story of real times. A humane face of mankind that can only belong to a heart so forgiving - asks for a broader understanding of human rights. I am deeply moved by your ability to connect with an inmate on death row, an act of forgiveness from the outside, in my view, and most astonishingly a great source of healing for both him and also for those who were victims of his actions including the rest of us who hurt with the pain of those who were hurt by his actions. Explicitly expressed in your closing quotation ...

“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.”

A great lesson for us to reflect on our own willingness and openness to forgive which can only come by surrendering to a greater power! 

with Love for you and him from Uganda!

MariaJ
Jan 11, 2017
Jan 11, 2017

Dear Lillian, thank you for your powerful words. Reading your message, I was reminded of what Shaka Senghor writes:

"And that’s the thing about hope... hope knows that people change on a timeline that we can’t predict. We can never know the power that a word of kindness or an act of forgiveness will have on the person who needs it most."

May we all find hope & healing where we need it.

Much gratitude.

Immaculate Amoit
Jan 17, 2017
Jan 17, 2017

Dear Maria,

, Thank you for giving hope and healing where there is seemingly none, in your next letter and call to Moyo pass my love to him...he is a changed man, but in a world where we judge harshly and rarely give second chances the reaction from readers is expected. I love you too for standing with a 'death row convict' you are a courageous amazing woman. Swahili is Kenyas National language, I love the Swahili signature Moyo.

Stay blessed,

In soĺidarity from Kenya

.

MariaJ
Jan 18, 2017
Jan 18, 2017

Dear Immah, thank you for the solidarity and for your words of encouragement. I will certainly convey your greeting.

Wudasie
Jan 23, 2017
Jan 23, 2017

MariaJ, this is very interesting. Keep up the good work!!!!!!

Susana Khabbaz
Jun 07, 2017
Jun 07, 2017

Hello

I love every single line you wrote. It really touched me....Art has no boundaries.

Xoxo

Susana Khabbaz