Published: July 9, 2019
“Without art, there’s no way I would be out of prison,” Valentino Dixon said to me over our first phone call. The 49-year-old man was exonerated in 2018 after serving 27 years in prison for the wrongful conviction of the 1991 murder of Torriano “Torry” Jackson. In 2010, 21 years into his sentence, Dixon was asked by his warden to create a piece of golf course art. That first commission led to another from other inmates, and before he knew it, Dixon was churning out serene images of golf courses each and every day. Golf Digest ran a piece in 2012, the Golf Channel picked it up shortly thereafter, and this publicity gave Dixon the visibility that was necessary to connect with new attorneys at Georgetown, which led to the discovery of new evidence and his exoneration. Since his release, the artist/exoneree/criminal justice reform advocate has not stopped running. Antiques and The Arts Weekly caught up with Dixon, the man whose art quite literally freed him.
When did you start making golf course art?
I started designing golf courses in 2010 when the warden at Attica prison asked me to draw the 12th hole at Augusta.
What drove you to start drawing?
Survival drove me to drawing, trying to keep my sanity – drawing gave me hope, inspiration, perspective. Prison is designed to break the spirit or save the soul.
Can you describe the intensity of that drive?
I drew for up to ten hours every day for ten years, never taking a day off. I want to be one of the best artists in the world, so I pushed the limits and left prison with over 900 drawings ranging in size from 7-by-9, 16-by-20, 20-by-30 and 60-by-90 inches. My goal is to make the drawing always look like a painting. To get that effect, I have to layer so many colors on top of each other.
What role did your art play in your exoneration?
Art opened up the door for publicity, which drew attention to my case, opening up doors for new attorneys, new investigations.
Why did you focus on golf courses and not a different subject?
I’ve drawn everything from A to Z: portraits, animals, landscapes, abstract, then the Golf Art took over the last eight years of my incarceration.
Had you ever played golf before you started drawing the images?
Never golfed until I was released in 2018. I’m a black guy from the ghetto, golf was a foreign sport. I have golfed twice since then; I’m no good at it.
Did playing it give you the same feeling that drawing the scenes gave you?
Playing is peaceful, tranquil – like fishing, my favorite sport. Drawing, of course, is all of those things.
Do you still find time to draw?
I still draw up to ten hours a day whenever I’m not traveling and speaking or sharing my story.
You’ve been pretty busy since your release; tell us some of the highlights so far.
Meeting Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. Having Tom Watson give me a golf lesson. Meeting Michael Strahan. Speaking to the NBA rookies. Going to England, New Zealand and Mexico.
You’re starting a YouTube channel; tell me about it.
My YouTube channel will be called “Come Draw And Talk With Me.” I will teach people how to draw something each episode and talk to my followers, answering questions they ask of me. Nothing is off limits.
And you’ve started a nonprofit as well?
My nonprofit, the Art Of Freedom, focuses on sentencing reform, which I believe is the most important issue of prison reform, which is why we have 2.5 million people in prison. The sentencing guidelines are too harsh, excessive and violate our constitution. The nonprofit focuses on wrongful convictions and making humanity better.
You’ve had a few exhibitions now, and your art is starting to make its way into collections. How has your reception been in the art community?
I had a successful show in New York; however, the biggest collectors of my art have been overseas – Australia and England. The American golfer and art community have overlooked my style, the process, the conditions in a 6-by-8 cell. The collectors that get it have told me there’s not another artist living that can draw a golf course like I can. That’s enough for me.
Any upcoming exhibitions?
Yes, several. An October 10 opening at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State. One in the fall at the Drawing Center in New York and an exhibition in Dubai is in the works.[Ed. note, Valentino Dixon’s work can be viewed on his website, www.valentinodixon.com. The website for his nonprofit, The Art of Freedom, is forthcoming at www.artoffreedomfoundation.org.]
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