First published: Winter 2021/22
“When I did my time, I had time to see how art could make me free,” says Welmon Sharlhorne, whose wild imagination took flight inside a Louisiana prison cell. Before his parole in 1996, his artwork was already prized by collectors and had been shown at museums in the US and Europe.
Sharlhorne, Oct 2021, photo: Bill Sasser
“Yes, my art made it out into the world before I did,” Sharlhorne muses, a dapper 69-year-old who spent 22 years in Angola prison, Louisiana’s notorious state penitentiary. Since then he has taken life as an everrolling adventure. In the past year, he has endured Covid lockdown, was part of a museum show at New York’s MoMA PS1, evacuated for Hurricane Ida, and is currently featured in Prospect New Orleans, a citywide international art triennial.
“My art comes from the heart – keep your eyes on the prize and you’ll be recognised,” Sharlhorne declares, wearing a fashionable pair of glasses missing both lenses, one of his personal trademarks. Well known for his raplike asides, his voice is transmitted through an electronic speech aid, a result of throat cancer in 2018. Though he has slowed down in recent years, Sharlhorne abides as one of New Orleans’s few remaining vernacular artists from the outsider art boom of the 1990s.
The Lady Kissed the Beast that Turn Back into the Prince, 2002, biro on manila folder, courtesy: Ogden Museum of Southern Art
Born in 1952 – the fourth of 14 children – he grew up in rural Houma, Louisiana, during an era of harsh segregation. Leaving school without learning to read or write, he was convicted of robbing a grocery store in his early teens and spent several years in juvenile detention. Sharlhorne was 18 years old when he was sentenced to prison for extortion, following a dispute with a homeowner over his pay for mowing a lawn. A journalist in his hometown of Houma has noted records for some later charges, including another conviction for extortion in 1989. For that $10 crime, plus his previous convictions, Sharlhorne got another seven and a half years in prison.
Untitled (Bus), c. 1990s, mixed media on manilla folder, 19 x 12 in. / 47.5 x 28.5 cm, courtesy: Gordon W Bailey Collection
On the site of a former antebellum plantation, the Angola prison complex is still a working farm. Sharlhorne laboured in cotton fields under the watch of armed guards on horseback. During his years in prison, he was beaten, stabbed, and did time in solitary.
He noted other inmates using their art as a currency, to trade for cigarettes and win favours from guards. With no art background, he began drawing with ink pens on manila envelopes which he had requested to write to his non-existent lawyers, and used bottle caps and tongue depressors to trace around.
by BILL SASSER
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #109