Finding purpose in the paint

“Painting literally saved my life,” Olatushani reflected. “It allowed me to create space around me. Through art I found freedom.”

Ndume Olatushani stands for a portrait in front of a few of his pieces of art work, Sept. 12 at Zeel Gallery in Stanley Marketplace. Ndume was wrongly imprisoned for 28 years, 20 of which were spent on death row and the other eight spent in general popula

Ndume Olatushani stands for a portrait in front of a few of his pieces of art work, Sept. 12 at Zeel Gallery in Stanley Marketplace. Ndume was wrongly imprisoned for 28 years, 20 of which were spent on death row and the other eight spent in general population. The pieces that are showing at Zeel were created while he was incarcerated. Portrait by Philip B. Poston

AURORA | The dimensions of the grey, 4-by-9-foot prison cell were closing in on Ndume Olatushani. He would spend 23 hours a day confined to the small space with just himself. The ticking of a clock held no meaning for him — he was somewhere in the haze of death row for a crime he didn’t commit.

While his future appeared bleak, Olatushani commissioned a fellow inmate — also on death row — to paint a portrait of him for his mother. Olatushani dished out a payment of seven cigarettes.

“The portrait didn’t look anything like me,” Olatushani mused. “I remember thinking I could’ve done better and kept my money.”

Prompted by his desire to send his mother a portrait of himself, Olatushani found art — or as he would put it, art found him. But as his story goes, his mother would never get to see the portrait of Olatushani, or any of his art.

“She was killed in a car accident,” Olatushani said, his tone turning dry. “It was really hard to pick myself back up after that.”

With no way of escaping his situation, Olatushani began drawing and eventually painting. The act became a release for him, and while it started as just a way for his mind to escape the confines of his prison cell, it blossomed into something much more for Olatushani.

Olatushani’s art became a message for something much larger than himself — it became his way of creating a discussion around mass incarceration. His work has been displayed across the country, and recently he’s been featured at ZEEL’s New Beginnings gallery.

The road to the brush 

The day was Dec. 7, 1985. Ndume Olatushani, known as Erskine Johnson then, was sentenced to death for the murder of a Memphis grocer. Olatushani was 27 at the time, and had never been to Memphis.

The laundry list of missing facts eluded the all-white jury, and Olatushani would spend the next 28 years in prison with 20 years on death row.

Olatushani’s mother died two years after his sentencing, sending him down a road that would eventually save him.

“Painting literally saved my life,” Olatushani reflected. “It allowed me to create space around me. Through art I found freedom.”

The philosophical Olatushani legally changed his name from Erskine Johnson to Ndume Olatushani in 1995. Ndume is a Swahili word for masculinity, and Olatushani means “unifier.”

While his paintings became his mental outlet, they allowed him to meet Anne-Marie Moyes, who would later play a vital role in his eventual exoneration.

Moyes, who worked for Death Penalty Focus, was organizing an inmate art exhibition when Olatushani reached out to her about his art. The two exchanged letters about a variety of topics.

The two became fast friends and Moyes became convinced that Olatushani was innocent. Moyes went to work sifting through the details of his case. To help with his defense, she enrolled at Vanderbilt Law School, and was awarded the Founder’s Medal — the highest honor for a graduate.

Moyes rallied several skilled lawyers to explore Olatushani’s case. After a slew of petitions and requests, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction in December 2011. Olatushani was released six months later.

Paying it forward

Twenty-eight years after walking into his cell, Olatushani was a free man. It didn’t take long for the eager Olatushani to go to work with his paint brush.

“Being out hasn’t changed my desire for art,” Olatushani explained. “I feel a responsibility as an artist to say something through my art that sometimes can’t be easily discussed.”

Olatushani found an avenue for his passions at the Children’s Defense Fund, where he helps kids find their creative outlet.

“It’s human nature to be creative,” Olatushani explained. “I tell the kids that we’re all artists, we just have to have the proper intervention.”

Olatushani hopes that in helping kids find their artistic side, they could escape the system — the prison industrial complex — that acts as quicksand for many troubled youths.

“Anger is a human emotion,” Olatushani said. “And that’s okay, as long as you can turn it into a positive. I challenge them, I ask, ‘How can we artistically express this?”

It’s hard to argue against Olatushani’s point. When he heard of his mother’s death while in a prison cell, he found a way to pick himself up — and art ‘found’ him, as he puts it.

While on display at ZEEL’s New Beginnings gallery, Olatushani’s art caught the eye of ZEEL owner Dana Barak.

“Olatushani’s art is a message conveying something greater,” Barak said. “It’s his vehicle for what he’s trying to say.”

ZEEL’s New Beginnings gallery also includes familiar faces Eric Anderson and Brett Matarazzo, and newcomer Michael Dowling.

The show runs through Sept. 30 from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 11 a.m. to 8 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays or by appointment. For more information, call 720-231-9820.