When Christopher Williams was released from prison in 2020 after 28 years, his family had art supplies waiting for him.
At that point in his life, he had spent more time incarcerated than in the free world. Williams was 23 when he was sentenced for charges related to an attempted robbery.
As a kid, Williams would draw and melt crayons on the radiator to mix colors. While in prison, he continued to hold on to his love of art.
“I would jot stuff down on a piece of paper sometimes, and I would send some of my stuff home,” Williams said. “But most of it was inside my head.”
The first thing he painted when he was released was a portrait of Melchizedek, a Biblical figure and guide.
Now, that painting is on display at the Tully-Levine Gallery in St. Petersburg, part of ReIMAGINE, an exhibit this month highlighting the work of artists who have a past with the legal system.
The exhibit was curated by The Well for Life, a center focused on the needs of communities of color, and creative production company Artists Change the World, along with the Warehouse Arts District Association and Green Book of Tampa Bay.
More than 30 pieces of art from five artists will be for sale at the gallery through Feb. 28. LaDonna Butler, founder of The Well for Life, said she hopes the art sells out. She also hopes the exhibit helps bring the artists into the community and encourages people to examine policies that create barriers to re-entry.
“I hope that when people walk away, there’s a greater sense of shared humanity, where we have deeper empathy for individuals who have been impacted by our criminal legal system,” Butler said.
The idea for the exhibit arose through a series of conversations. Brittanie Dial, founder of Artists Change the World, said she was inspired by her discussions with Alfred Cleveland, an artist who was incarcerated in Ohio and whose artwork is featured in this month’s exhibit. Dial also spoke with Butler and Hillary Van Dyke of Green Book of Tampa Bay, a nonprofit that promotes Black-owned businesses. Together, they pitched the exhibit to the gallery.
“Artists tell us about our history,” Dial said. “They challenge the status quo.”
Catherine Weaver, 62, drew on her experiences growing up in St. Petersburg for some of the artwork she submitted to the exhibit. Weaver was convicted of welfare fraud in her 20s after she didn’t recertify information for her application on time. Though she was only incarcerated for 10 days, the felony charge continued to follow her for the rest of her life, she said.
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“Being an artist, I could create my own opportunities,” said Weaver, who now owns the Uniquely Original Art Studio in St. Petersburg.
“My art opened up doors,” she added.
The exhibit’s organizers recruited artists through conversations with different people in the St. Petersburg community, Van Dyke said. Van Dyke and Butler connected with Williams and his brother after seeing their artwork at the Urban Drinkery Wine Bar.
“It’s been a combination of knowing people and their stories, and then word of mouth about artists,” Van Dyke said.
Markus Gottschlich, executive director for the Warehouse Arts District Association, said he wanted to highlight “culturally and socially relevant exhibitions and art” and hopes that the exhibit will draw attention to topics surrounding the legal system.
“If the art exhibit that we’re having here can shine light on this issue, then we’re extremely happy about that,” he said.
For Anthony Williams, the younger brother of Christopher Williams, art is “a labor of love.” He also got into art as a kid, inspired by his older brother, and has artwork on display at the exhibit. Anthony Williams was released from prison in 2015 after serving about 13 years in prison on drug-related charges.
“Incarceration is a terrible thing, so all you have is imagination,” Anthony Williams, 50, said. “So many of us, we’re only imagining being free, being with our families, being with our loved ones.”
The exhibit is open through Feb. 28. It can be viewed from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday at the Tully-Levine Gallery, 515 22nd St. S in St. Petersburg. To purchase art, contact the Warehouse Arts District Association at 727-256-0821 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Warehouse Arts District Association will also feature artists from the exhibit during a panel from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Feb. 22. Registration is required and can be found on the association’s website. The event is free to association members and $20 for non-members.