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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Prisoner

One of Gary Weaver's criticisms of the correctional authorities was that they saw him only in shades of black. Nothing he had read in his files suggested any features in his character that were redeeming or of positive value to humanity. He deeply resented the portrait the progress summary had painted and rejected it as being unfair. I asked him to identify how he saw the real Gary Weaver, and he proceeded to tell me about his painting.

I was in the Quebec SHU and there was this guy, he'd been in a lot of years. He was painting and his paintings looked good and I told him that. I started hanging out with him a little bit. He couldn't draw, and so he stencilled pictures onto a canvas and then painted. One day he saw me drawing, it was wolves. He asked me if I could draw some wolves for him. You don't ask guys for things in the SHU without offering something back, so he told me he'd give me a small canvas. It was about 8" 10", and I could have use of some of his paints. So I drew his wolves and then he showed me how to mix acrylic paint. Honest to God, this guy cried tears when he saw what I had drawn. He was really moved. He said, "You keep that up, you'll be better than me." This guy had been painting for ten years plus. He had done hundreds of paintings, and yet he's telling me that in a couple of weeks I am going to be better than he's ever been, because I'm an artist and I didn't realize what I've got. He wrote out for me a whole list of all the paints I'd need and the kind of canvases, and I promised that when I got to Millhaven I would take up painting. At Millhaven I never got into it, but when I came out to Kent my mom sent me some money. Now, I can't take money from my mom and spend it on drugs, so I ordered all the paints I needed. We had a culture night with the Native Brotherhood, and I was getting bored and I didn't like to leave because people might think that I had no respect. So I grabbed a paper plate, and all the kids were hanging around me while I was drawing on this paper plate. I was drawing an eagle head because I have tattooed it so many times. This one little boy, Ira, he said, "Can I have that?" I said, "Sure" and gave it to him. His mom came to a healing group meeting the next Tuesday and she told me that Ira put it up on his wall. He made a cover for it out of Saran Wrap to preserve it like a glass on a painting. She asked me if I could paint him another eagle. I got all my painting stuff and I sat up all night because I couldn't say no. (Interview with Gary Weaver, Kent Institution, May 25, 1994)

One of Gary's canvases showed a pack of wolves peering out from a forest of silver birches. He explained that one of the wolves had not turned out very well, and initially he was going to paint over it. However, he decided not to do this, because the animal deserved to be allowed to live. He nicknamed this wolf "The Retard" because it was not quite right, yet it still belonged with its more perfected brothers and sisters. Another painting was of a Bengal tiger. I told Gary that its detail and coloration reminded me of the paintings by Fleur Cowles in Tiger Flower and Lion and Blue, books I had often read to my children when they were young.

Gary explained his paintings showed a side of him not recognized in any progress summary.

It's hard to explain, because when I paint I'm thinking about those animals, who I love more than anything. When you bring them to life it's not just a cartoon, it's not an animated face on a canvas or a drawing or a tattoo. When I'm painting I'm sitting there, my mind is off with rivers and forests and the cottage when I was a kid, all the things that make you look back and say, "How the fuck did I get here?" I could have been in Rwanda with Dian Fossey. When I paint it's just a whole different world, and then when I stop painting I stare at it for hours. I was thinking of asking my dad to sign his name to my paintings, so that they could be exhibited at art shows. My dad would get the credit, but people could see some of the goodness in me. I don't paint evil things. . . Okay, maybe they got my body here for now, but all my thoughts aren't killing cops and selling drugs. (Weaver interview, May 25, 1994)

To contradict the negative progress summary, Gary described some of the changes he believed he had made during his years in prison.

I believe I've changed within myself. Before, I'd get involved with this and that, and all of a sudden it's just a pumped-up fantasy, because you meet guys that are really in that life. They're sitting right beside you and they're eating at the same table as you and who are they? Where's all the special things? Where's all those great things that were going to come? Where's the flash? It doesn't even shine.

Years ago I went with the flow because you don't want to be the odd man in your crew when you know that your crew is your salvation. Without them, you could just walk out in the yard and get dumped by a rival clique. . . I always wanted to be a man, and back when I started doing time, being a man was being able to pick up a knife and being able to take care of things on behalf of your crew. Whereas now, the manly thing is having the strength to go against the odds, even if it's a real heavy personal cross or if your friends all laugh and joke about something and you know they're wrong, you're risking your position right there. When people say "Fuck pigs," I used to be that guy. Although I can still get into that, like I did in that conversation they've got on tape, it no longer represents where I'm really at. (May 25, 1994)

Gary told me that, few years previously, he had sought to explain himself to his father.

My dad had a heart attack a couple years ago, and I was freaking because my mom said, "Your dad might be dying." I'm adopted, but I really love these people as my parents. All of a sudden I thought, I've got to get something through to him so he knows, and I picked a card that looked like a city skyline in the dark and I said, Well, Dad, I picked this card because this is my life, "Downtown Gary," but I want you to know that this isn't my life. I don't want you to feel that you raised me in a bad way. I don't expect you to respect the things I did but I'm asking you, if you've got to go, go with the sense of respect that your son didn't follow everybody else's footsteps. As much as some of the things that I did were wrong, I did a lot of good things. I always helped bums on the street. I would give them the last penny out of my pocket. I would give my clothes to strangers. I remember while the police were investigating me on this murder I ran into this little black girl runaway. She was about ten years old, and I gave her all the money out of my pockets. I told her I'd take her to my place but I got heat on a suspected murder, so I gave her the address to a hostel. I went out of my way for a lot of things out there which were totally inconsistent with what these people paint up of a guy like me. Like I'm just a monster. I just wanted to break free. I admit, I broke free in the wrong direction. I was stupid. I saw something, it turned me on and now I pay the price, and I'm expected to do that." (May 25, 1994)

A passage from Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood captures Gary Weaver's perception -- and my own -- that the case management process seems to focus primarily on a prisoner's weaknesses, rarely identifying his strengths. In the poem, the Reverend Eli Jenkins makes this appeal to God:

We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst.

Gary Weaver may have persuaded his father that despite his criminal lifestyle he had displayed some redeeming human qualities -- to see his best side not his worst -- but he faced a more daunting task in persuading the correctional authorities at Kent that the true measure of Gary Weaver was not to be found in the transcript of his conversation on January 20.

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