A painted portrait of a man with two teardrops, depicting other men, on his face

Fulton Leroy Washington (aka MR. WASH)

Fulton Leroy Washington (also known as MR. WASH) was born in 1954 in Tallulah, Louisiana. In the late 1990s he was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of a nonviolent drug offense, the mandatory minimum that had been set during the era of the “War on Drugs.” On May 5, 2016, after he had been incarcerated for twenty-one years, President Barack Obama commuted his sentence and granted him clemency. While in prison Washington began to draw and eventually to paint. His first subjects were his fellow inmates: he created elaborate photorealistic portraits of his cohort, often setting them in idyllic landscapes, dressed in civilian clothing and free. Other portraits depicted the inmates’ psychological fissures, including large tears drawn on their faces; some portraits were adorned with paintings within the paintings of fears or anxieties the subjects had shared with their portraitist. Washington took commissions and sometimes extended his repertoire by painting the news. In 2014 he completed a work titled Emancipation Proclamation, modeled on Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s painting First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln (1864). In it Washington painted Obama granting him clemency. He argues that this work is what caught the president’s attention and catalyzed his release.