Depicting Injustice

An interview with Fulton Leroy Washington

MR WASH sits in a chair facing the camera, with a solemn expression. The room around him is covered in artwork.
Photograph by Sean Maung for The Atlantic

In The Atlantic’s November-issue cover story, “This Is Not Justice,” Jake Tapper writes about C. J. Rice, who, as a teenager, was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to decades in prison. Rice’s court-appointed lawyer made a series of missteps before and during his trial that, Tapper shows, severely hampered his defense. Rice’s story reveals the empty promise of the Sixth Amendment, which theoretically guarantees the right to counsel. In practice, Rice’s experience is a common one.

For the cover, we commissioned the artist Fulton Leroy Washington, known as MR WASH, to paint a portrait of Rice. Washington recognized much of his own story in Rice’s—he spent 21 years in prison for nonviolent drug convictions before having his sentence commuted in 2016 by President Barack Obama.

After receiving a life sentence without parole, in 1997, Washington began experimenting with oil paints in prison. He soon developed his signature style: photorealistic subjects crying large tears, with smaller portraits of figures from his subjects’ lives inside the teardrops. He continued to elaborate on this motif and others over the course of his incarceration, eventually painting a prophetic work titled Emancipation Proclamation—which he believes inspired Obama to free him. The painting, which depicts Obama signing Washington’s clemency papers, reimagines Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln. Two years later, life imitated art, and Washington was freed.

I recently spoke with Washington over Zoom about his life and art. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Oliver Munday: There’s something visceral about the way you presented your painting for the cover—we’re seeing C. J. Rice through a pane of prison glass. His likeness is so vivid, but then there’s the reality of the glass, which becomes an additional layer between the viewer and the subject. How did this come about?

Fulton Leroy Washington: You know, I think the added dimension is special. It’s real and important. The title (From Behind the Glass) came to me as I was sketching. I’ve been thinking about creating an installation with the painting, putting in an actual phone for the viewer to pick up while they look at the image. Maybe it plays a recording of C. J., a soundbite. He should get to tell a short version of his story. I think it could be powerful.

Munday: In your paintings, you have captured from several angles the human toll wrought by the U.S. carceral system. While imprisoned, you painted politicians and other free people on the outside. You also painted many inmates with whom you spent time. Now, as a free man yourself, you’ve painted C. J. Rice’s portrait. What was it like to read C. J.’s story?

Washington: My heart went out to C. J. when I read an early draft of Jake Tapper’s article. I realized that he and I were similarly situated. He’s on a path now that I’ve been blessed to make it all the way through. And I think this is one of the reasons that God sent me back out—to help people like C. J. I remember the feeling of being punished for an excessive amount of time. Now I get to try and bring something unique to his story through the artwork.

Munday: You’re currently setting up a new studio in Compton, but you were also raised in Los Angeles. Which neighborhood did you grow up in?

Washington: I grew up in Watts. After the 1965 rebellion there, my family moved to Gardena, California. I left home when I was about 15 years old and kind of bounced around, crashing with some of my brothers and sisters. In 1975, I bought a house in Compton.

Munday: When did you become interested in art?

Washington: That’s a very complicated question for me. Every time it’s raised, I find a different answer. In public school, art was a requirement. I used to like painting snowmen and Santa Claus, that kind of stuff, but a more complete answer is that I learned about art through jigsaw puzzles. My family and I used to sit there at the dining-room table, everybody looking through the box of puzzle pieces, trying to find the piece that fits. To me, the act of fitting something together is artistic. It’s how you look at the colors, how you start to match them up. My mother was a big part of it, encouraging me. Later on, in high school, I took drafting. I learned how to chisel. I also always had good penmanship. I think that all of these things collectively shaped my relationship to art. I find myself relying on it all now. Fine art uses the same skills I learned back then.

Munday: Were you immediately drawn to portraiture as a mode of painting?

Washington: Back in the day, they used to have these hippie vans with paintings on the sides. They were very popular; you saw them everywhere. At the time, I was building motorcycles and customizing cars (I’m a master welder too). I had a company called Custom Lines, and I was able to paint characters, scenes, and designs on cars and motorcycles, mostly from photographs. So I got involved in art in that way. But I was always fascinated by portraiture, how artists seemed to bring the figures out of the dark, from nothing. During my trial, I started drawing to pass the time: butterflies and other little characters, even sketching little people in pencil. One day, Karen R. Smith, an attorney who took over my case after my initial conviction and before sentencing, asked me if I would try drawing some of the people I used to work with that were mentioned in my case. These were people we didn’t have pictures of and hadn’t been able to find. I hadn’t drawn a portrait like that before, but I figured I would try.

Munday: And from there, you continued to hone your craft and ultimately found painting?

Washington: I painted constantly, teaching myself along the way. I struggled with color, initially—skin tones. It’s still hard for me, especially darker skin. My skin tone is very difficult to capture. But a basic understanding of color is at the heart of art. I also used to paint different parts of the face and body to practice; once, I painted a thousand different eyes on one canvas, just trying to get it down. Smiles too—at one point, I took a class and became a dental tech. It took two years, but I understood teeth and how they functioned so well. I always try to paint the crookedness, the character.

Munday: In many of your portraits, tears are used as a motif. They act as containers for other images—figures and scenes—that embody loss. How did you come up with the tear device originally?

Washington: One day, while painting in prison, we were listening to the radio in the studio. A song by Tim McGraw, the country singer, came on. At the time, I didn’t have my own way to play music, and I hadn’t watched TV for over a decade. The song’s chorus just hit me: “I don’t know why they say grown men don’t cry.” I’m sitting there painting in my own little zone, following the song’s story of a man on his way home to his family and passing this lady. She has a little baby, and she’s out in the elements. The man’s got everything, and she’s got nothing. Something about it just made me break down in tears. I cried, trying to hide myself behind my canvas. I didn’t want anyone to hear the sound. When I went back to my unit, I picked up a pencil and outlined the shape of a tear on paper. I sketched my portrait. Inside the tears I drew my daughter and my wife. At the time, my wife was struggling, because she wanted to have a full life. And I thought that she should, because I wasn’t coming back. Once other people saw the paintings, they were shocked—inmates and guards and everybody—because I was the last person they’d ever imagine crying. But I told myself I was going to do it. I felt the pain, so I painted it. This opened the door that everybody could walk through. In prison, you can hear people crying at night. There’s a lot of sadness. Other inmates started to ask me to draw and paint them, requesting different things to go inside of the tears. A car or a dog. So I’d listen to them as they told me their stories. Sometimes, they’d bring me pictures. In prison, you can’t appear soft, so this was a way for others to access their emotions and be vulnerable. Their stories are complex, and sometimes, people can’t find the words.

Munday: Your work has been prophetic: Many things you’ve painted have later come to fruition. What is it like to depict your visions?

Washington: I remember first painting Obama as president in 2007, before he was elected. I was ridiculed for it. No one thought we’d have a Black president at the time. I also painted a portrait of Michelle Obama as the first lady. Some inmates destroyed that painting after Obama was elected. I still have the broken pieces. Then I painted Biden as president back in 2014, with Obama in the background. No one believed me. There were also the times when I painted myself free. In 2003, I painted myself on a hill with the penitentiary in the valley behind me, two dogs chasing after the trail of blood left in the snow. It’s one of the largest paintings I’ve ever made. They punished me for the fact that I showed myself free, like I was trying to escape. They took away my paints, and I couldn’t work for almost three months. That’s the only period of time that I wasn’t able to make art for the 21 years I was in prison.

Munday: What does your future look like?

Washington: My future looks blessed. I’m just grateful to be back in society. Since being back, I’m determined to create a bridge for former inmates looking to reenter their lives. I started Art by Wash and lead the organization Help Us Help Wash to connect formerly incarcerated people to galleries and museums around the world. In terms of the art, too, I want to help build talent and craft to match creativity. I want to provide a space for people to build and grow and stay away from the streets. In my own work, I continue to pray for visions of the future too. Right now, I’m continuing to paint murals and portraits. I’m taking commissions as well. Really, I just want to continue to tell stories visually. It’s the only way I know how.