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, painting White Co-Arising, and that direction ended. 

2020SOS FleshTime Series is a developing series of portraits of the life-sentenced women I have collaborated with for decades. They are describing their experiences (and those of their friends and families) with the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.


In the early 1990's, I was the Director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society Arts and Humanities Program. This 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, the documentary Life-Sentence, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Prison Society and produced by Laura Jackson, educated me about the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. In 1990, I implemented a program at the State Correctional Institutions at Graterford and  Muncy to bring visibility to a group of exceptional men and women sentenced to life without parole. The participants were selected by each institution's  administration and staff with one criterion: participants long deserved to be pardoned. The goals of the program were to bring lifers visibility through portraiture and narrative and to support them through the challenging and often diabolical 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. I also witnessed the unconscionable process of this racist, politicized, destructive entity. The pranks in the form of ever changing, random policies of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons have continued. The impact primarily on our black communities has been catastrophic.

Interviewing and painting life-sentenced people over decades have given me access to a truth that many white people never access.  As Covid-19 spreads in the prisons, where social distancing is impossible and good people are trapped, the white community is waking up from a deep sleep to the relentless brutality inflicted on our black communities in the form of the New Jim Crow, mass incarceration and institutions like the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.


Protesting and dismantling statues is a start. Significant change will come when mass incarceration and companion institutions like the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons are completely reconstructed. Individuals who have experienced the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons first hand, the exceptional individuals who have been pardoned from life-sentences in Pennsylvania, must be the leading members of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, envisioning a future of decarceration and reparations for incarceration . 

© Mary DeWitt 2020