Since the early 1980’s, I use only four colors to mix every shade of flesh, zinc white, ivory black, cadmium yellow light and cadmium red deep. My experience after over 40 years of painting hundreds of portraits, many of people of color, is that these in varied combinations accurately represent any human skin tone. 

Initially, I thought I would paint abstractly using only this palette, representing four backgrounds with the three other colors used in the foreground. I only finished the abstract white background and that direction ended. 

 

Backstory:

In the early 1990's, I was the Director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society Arts and Humanities Program. The experience exposed me to the extreme cruelty and racism of mass incarceration. I learned that in Pennsylvania all life-sentences are issued without parole. At the time I saw the powerful documentary Life-Sentence, by Laura Jackson. Interviews with "lifers" showed the politicized pardoning process leading to decades of warehousing of good people deserving of pardon. I implemented a program at the State Correctional Institutions of Graterford and  Muncy to bring visibility to a group of men and women sentenced to life without parole. The participants were selected by administration and staff with one criterion: participants must be worthy of pardon. The goals of the program were twofold: to bring the participants visibility through portraiture and to support their commutation process. I trained with Pardons Case Manager Harvey Bell, attending all of the monthly Board of Pardons hearings in Harrisburg over a 12 month period. I developed a practical understanding of the workings of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons as I observed the unconscionable racism and politicization of the pardoning process.

The experience of interviewing and painting life-sentenced people over decades has given me access to a truth that many white people never see.  Prisoners, their families and their communities have been destroyed by mass incarceration and a careless system of pardoning. The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons must be dismantled, and the timing to move forward on this is now.  

© Mary DeWitt 2020

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