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Finding Art While Behind Bars

It’s safe to say that Marvin Francis thinks about toilet paper quite a bit differently than the rest of us. Over the phone, I ask which brand he prefers. “I went through Charmin,” he says in his polite Kentucky brogue. “I’ve done Scott. Believe it or not, the best toilet paper I ever found came from Holiday Inn Express. Plain, two-ply, un-quilted, not too heavy.”

Marvin is an internationally acclaimed sculptor famous for shaping toilet paper into prisoners. Each sculpture has intricate features and multiple dimensions. In one piece, you can peer inside a prisoner’s hollowed-out head, and see another prisoner, the size of a toy soldier, perched on a commode. His paper statues require about a hundred hours to complete, sometimes double or triple that number. His men grimace in agony, their mouths gape in rage, their hands clutch their heads.

A recurring bald character with slug-thick eyebrows bears uncanny resemblance to the artist himself. In “Man in a Cage Doing Surreal Time,” the bald convict wears black and white-striped pants and squats, his body bulging out of a birdcage, his knees tucked to his chest, feet pointed inward, toes kissing, hands gripping the bars. His feet are tattooed with cobwebs. His chest, biceps, and shoulders are tattooed with blue clocks.

Barbed Wire, Papier Maché, Wood, Acrylic paint, 19" x 11.75" x 8.5"  Courtesy of the artist and Institute 193

Barbed Wire, Papier Maché, Wood, Acrylic paint, 19″ x 11.75″ x 8.5″
Courtesy of the artist and Institute 193

Imagery of bars and cobwebs and clocks repeat throughout the series, playing into Marvin’s political critique of prison conditions, his bewildered state of mind, and his fraught relationship with time. At the base of his sculptures, he would sign the number of days he had spent in confinement up until that point. During the twenty-eight years, nine months, and seventeen days that he lived behind bars, the world saw the dawn of the Internet, email, Facebook, GPS, and cell phones that fit inside pants pockets. Until he took a class in 2012, Marvin had never touched a computer. “I had walked by one,” he clarifies.

Marvin started his prison sentence on January 17, 1986. He was twenty-five years old, a divorced Navy vet, a Detroit-born, Kentucky-bred high school dropout who had never encountered an artist’s paintbrush. He was sentenced to twenty-five years without parole—the length of his minimum stint was equal to the life he had already lived.

At North Point Training Facility in Kentucky, Marvin enrolled in an art history course. The assignment was to make art out of found materials. Marvin found a roll of toilet paper. Using shoe polish to hold the paper together, he formed a white cockatoo, a bird with feathers that splay along the neck like fingers. Ink pen colored the eye. Both he and his teacher were astonished at how well the bird had turned out. “I don’t know if she knows the impact she had on my life,” he says, because after that, he poured every waking moment into his art. He lived art.

There was a ban on glue, so he boiled oatmeal, cooked it down, and made paste. Same trick with ramen noodles. He also mashed rice. The highlight of being transferred to the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville was that Marvin could finally avail himself of Elmer’s.

Deep in the Heart of the Brain 2009 Image 2

Deep in the Heart of the Brain, Papier Maché and Acrylic Paint, 17.5″ x 10″ x 7″
Courtesy of the artist and Institute 193

Aside from that single art class, Marvin had zero outside influence. The one time he drew as a child, his father scolded him for “that sissy shit.” In prison, he had very few books with images to model for his sculptures. At one point, he couldn’t even find a picture of a horse. In Kentucky.

Many art supplies were forbidden, so he improvised, rigging up a sculpture knife by removing the hair from a paintbrush and flattening the tip. He used plastic spoons, mirrors, paper clips, needles. He built two- or three-foot cartoons of Bart Simpson, Homer Simpson, approximations of Tasmanian Devils, and teddy bears in prison getups. Gifts that inmates could send home. He charged a “couple packs of cigarettes.”

Ellyn Boone, a representative of the Lexington Art League, visited the prison seeking entries for an art show. Marvin submitted sculptures of a Native American sitting on a horse and a University of Kentucky Wildcat. Boone introduced him to U.K. law professor Roberta Harding, who signed on as his agent. He credits Professor Harding for starting and sustaining his career and acting as his mouthpiece in the outside world.

For his first sculpture of a prisoner, Marvin used dowel rods to craft a birdcage. The man inside “sits like a bird.” Similar vignettes measure approximately ten inches across and thirteen inches high. Men in cages depict his innermost reflections on his crime. “My whole incarceration, I questioned how I was capable of committing my crime. At what point did it become all right for me to do things that were so wrong?” In a piece called “The Acorn,” the bald man sits inside an open acorn shell with its top removed. A wire cage fences him in. A clock hangs on the wall of the cage. A tombstone with no dates lies at his feet. The man grasps his head, his brows furrowed in anguish.

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The Acorn by Marvin Francis

Art became a passageway into the emotions surrounding a personal tragedy that Marvin had never addressed before. When he was seven years old, his father killed his mother. He sculpted the bald man with a keyhole in his face and a three-dimensional tattoo on his right arm, featuring a tiny pistol with bloody fingerprints, signifying his father’s gun. “He said it was an accident, but I knew it was different,” says Marvin. His father was never charged. “I wanted to let him know that I ain’t forgot it.”

After twenty-five years of incarceration, Marvin had an opportunity for parole that was unexpectedly denied. He sculpted a new bald prisoner, standing up, arms outstretched, palms open, looking at the ceiling, as if to ask the universe why. A second head protrudes from the figure’s unzipped chest, his tongue stuck out, the word RAGE penned on his creased forehead in red paint. “Parole Denied” is etched in the shoulders.

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In 1986, Marvin had returned to Kentucky in the depths of drug and alcohol addiction, though he never excuses his actions on any basis. Flanked by two other men—and accounts vary, but Marvin maintains that his accomplices numbered two—he headed over to the home of a local grocer named Seldon Dixon Sr. with the intention of tying him up and robbing him. When he walked into the family’s carport, Dixon pulled out a gun and fired. Marvin shot, too. Dixon missed. Marvin hit. He fled to Timmy’s car, while the third man, Ricky, absconded to the backwoods. Dixon’s wife drove him to the hospital, while he bled from gunshot wounds.

Marvin was unaware of the extent of Dixon’s injuries. The next morning, a friend told him Dixon had died. “I was like, oh my gosh, my life is over,” he recalls. Marvin was put on trial for the death penalty. Spared the electric chair, he never appealed his case because he didn’t want to drag the families through another ordeal.

I ask Marvin whether he ever portrayed Dixon in his work. “Every piece I made had something about Mr. Dixon in it,” he tells me. He would write messages to Dixon in the heads of the bald men. “I would write how sorry I was.”

Critics of the artist slam him for profiting from a crime, but Marvin gives away nearly every penny he earns to charities that prevent sexual abuse against children. In the beginning of his career, in the early 1990s, he kept about thirty percent of his income to fund his supplies, but toward the end of his sentence, he donated his pieces to be auctioned for child advocacy organizations. “If I hadn’t done what I done, there would be no art. It was tainted in some way,” he explains. “That’s why I give it away.”

Marvin has never had the chance to attend one of his five solo shows or twenty-one group exhibits. In 2006, he won first place in the International Assemblage Artist Exhibition based in Berlin, Germany. His price tags rose to five thousand dollars. It sickened him when reporters called Dixon’s family and told them about his award. “I’m sure [the Dixons] never wanted to hear my name mentioned again.”

On November 3, 2014, Marvin was released to the free world. “I had eye strain because the colors were so bright.” His sister and brother-in-law had a new cell phone waiting for him on the car seat. Before he went to prison, cellphones “were something Magnum PI had,” he says, referring to a device the size of a cordless landline. I ask Marvin what type of phone he got. “This thing here? This is a 700 dollar phone!” He was astounded when he discovered that he could Google the images he wished to sculpt.

Mark Francis

Marvin Francis in his studio.

The first time I called Marvin, he was five months out of the clink and working on a water wheel in the garden behind a cabin he purchased with his wife in Dickson, Tennessee. “Life picked up the way it was supposed to be since the beginning.” He married his sister’s best friend and gained two stepchildren. He stepped in as the father to his wife Itzel’s eighteen-month-old daughter, whose biological father abandoned them when Itzel was three months pregnant. Marvin’s new family adopted a puppy. To make a living, Marvin welds fulltime as a metal fabricator. “Here I am in this world, and I don’t know what to do with my art.” The price of solitude was prison, where the artistic process could go uninterrupted for hours or, in his case, years. The modern world on the outside is short on that kind of time.

The two sculptures Marvin has constructed since his release are gifts for local communities. His parole officer requested a piece in honor of a victim. He was also appointed to build the likeness of the late Kentucky firefighter Tony Grider.

The first sculpture Marvin made in prison was a bird and the last sculpture he made in prison was a bird. Birds symbolize freedom to him. He dreams of continuing to produce the owl series he began before he was released, but he has developed a complex relationship with art.

“I’m not in that crazy world anymore. Now I worry about waking up and making it to work on time, and I don’t even have to worry about that, because I’ve got a cell phone alarm clock.” He said he would give anything to do his artwork for a living, but pangs of guilt remind him that crime led him to art. Normalcy has also set in. “I’m spending all my time doing what people do—fixing up my house, mowing the lawn, spending time with my family and my dog. I don’t have that time to sit back and think.”

So many of the critical pieces about Marvin’s work take a judgmental stance, seeing in the work itself an ethical imperative to condemn his crime before appreciating his craft. After interviewing Marvin for four hours, I don’t believe his intention was to redeem himself in the eyes of the community through his art. He made art because he had to.

Marvin keeps a prison sculpture worth $17,500 in his house. He’s not sure he’ll ever sell it. “It’s the end of my prison art. That feeling don’t exist anymore. If something was bothering me, that art was therapy. It kept me sane for thirty years. I dealt with everything through my art. Now I’m fixing to focus on my bird.”