Fulton Leroy Washington Was a Prison Painter. Now He’s an Art-World Star.

Fulton Leroy Washington, 66, is one of the most intriguing artists in Los Angeles. Many of his paintings, such as Mr. Rene # MAN POWER or Mondaine’s Market, depict people in federal prison. His work brings to life the communities, families, and loved ones that incarcerated individuals leave behind, while also depicting the despair and fears that people grapple with as result of their imprisonment. Those who want to understand the Black experience—and how that experience has been so fundamentally skewed by mass incarceration—can learn from Washington’s story and artwork.

Some of Washington’s signature paintings are currently on display at UCLA’s Hammer Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At the Made in LA 2020 biennial, his teardrop series was awarded the prestigious Mohn Award for Public Recognition, which is voted on by the general public. Washington is currently designing a creative artwork featuring Vanessa Bryant, the wife of the late NBA legend Kobe Bryant and hip-hop artist Drake has commissioned artwork from Washington.

In the late 1990s, Washington took up painting while serving a life sentence for nonviolent drug-related offenses that he says he did not commit. Prior to his imprisonment, he was a welder and owned a construction business. During his more than 21 years in various federal prisons, Washington created hundreds of pieces of art, including the painting Emancipation Proclamation. He says his legal team shared a photograph of the painting with White House counsel Neil Eggleston, prompting the Obama administration to review his case and ultimately grant him clemency in 2016.

Through high-profile exhibitions and his prize-winning work, many within both the art world and criminal justice reform movement have been inspired by Washington’s unlikely release from prison, his immense artistic talent, and the way he uses his art to tell stories of American incarceration. Washington is also working to open an art studio with a community classroom for the public in Compton, Calif.

I co-led the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission’s National Day of Learning this past June, which featured Washington’s Targeted Insurrection, a painting that connects the 1921 race massacre and the 2021 Capitol insurrection with systemic police violence against communities of color. In interviewing Washington for the conference and spending time with him at his Compton studio, I gained deeper insights into what drives him and his work.

—Karlos K. Hill