Death row stint still informs artist Ndume Olatushani's work

A small airport near the Tennessee prison at which Ndume Olatushani was incarcerated meant planes were often flying overhead. For more than 20 years, the one-time death row inmate would look up at those planes, and whether talking with another inmate or simply walking the yard on his own, Olatushani's reaction would always be the same.

“I would always interrupt my thoughts or a conversation and say, ‘There goes my ride back,'” Olatushani said in a phone interview from his Nashville-area home.

Facing the prospect of execution or life behind bars, Olatushani gave little thought to making art. An agreement to have a fellow inmate paint his portrait began to change his perspective.

“Long story short, it didn't look nothing like me. I should have kept my money and the cartons of cigarettes it cost me,” Olatushani said.

Still, it took the added trauma of his mother's death in a car accident to prod Olatushani to start making his own art.

“After my mother was killed, as I was trying to pick myself back up from that, I just began to try to find an outlet, and art was one of the things that did it,” he said.

Progressing quickly through writing paper and pencil, Olatushani eventually tried his hand at pastels and watercolor before settling on acrylics. The arts and crafts program at the prison had its obvious limitations, but Olatushani managed with the available supplies to find his voice.

“Eventually I just settled on people. I felt like it was a way for me to give some expression to the depravation I was feeling and it allowed me to kind of create this space in my head and allowed me some freedom in a 4-foot-by-9-foot cell,” Olatushani said.

Olatushani spent 28 years in one cell or another, 17 of them on death row for murder — a conviction which would eventually be overturned. It's not as though he hadn't done wrong and made some mistakes in his younger years. But he maintained his innocence and, more often than not, a hopeful perspective. The art made a difference.

“It saved my life. The stuff I make is still informed by that experience,” he said, just now old enough at 59 – and free since 2012 – to have spent more time out of prison than in.

“It was always me trying to tell other peoples' stories. I think that artists have a certain responsibility,” Olatushani said. “For me, mostly I paint African-American subjects. I felt like I had a responsibility to paint something with a positive message. There's plenty of negative imagery around African-Americans.

“I like to think that everything I painted has a positive message to it.”

In addition to ongoing post-incarceration involvement with the Children's Defense Fund (through which he is working to bring attention to mass incarceration and cradle-to-prison issues), direct mentoring of disadvantaged and troubled youth and a new commission for a “Stations of the Cross” installation in Washington, D.C. through the United Methodist Church, Olatushani is involved with the traveling “Windows on Death Row,” and will be part of a presentation and exhibition at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum this weekend. The project was conceived by TV journalist Anne-Frederique Widmann and editorial cartoonist Patrick Chappatte in response to what they saw as shortcomings and troubling trends in capital punishment, from trials to sentencing to death row.

“We thought, ‘Let's try to put together a unique exhibition sampling art from inside and outside the prison walls. Let's try to gather artworks from my fellow editorial cartoonists on one side and from death row inmates on the other side — opening a window on the unseen world of incarceration,'” Chappatte said. “We both believe in the power of images. We hope to encourage a discussion through art. It's not a militant act. We think that sometimes, in places where words divide, and fail to help us connect, images can do the job.”

The exhibition features a selection of editorial cartoons addressing the issue as well as art created by inmates.

“What is particular with our project is that we commissioned those drawings and paintings, asking inmates to depict their daily life on the row and their vision of capital punishment. We asked them to be witnesses. It's interesting to see the large scope of their approaches,” Widmann said.

For Olatushani, his approach remains unchanged. He can't undo what happened to him, and it will stay with him forever, but the story isn't about the past.

“I'm good. I don't have any complaints,” he said. “A lot was taken from me, but I'm such a fortunate person. I have so many amazing opportunities to do good work and make a difference in other people's lives.”

Following a recent speaking engagement for a group of Nashville-area educators, Olatushani was approached by a man with an interesting offer.

“He said he was a pilot, and he said, ‘I'm going to take you up and fly a plane over the prison.' So we went up and … we flew over that prison,” he said. “I say this to you because you can't make this stuff up. I'm doing good. I really am.”