CULTURE & ARTS

How Making Art On Death Row Saved Damien Echols' Life

Almost 22 years after his execution date, the West Memphis Three member discusses the healing powers of art and Magick.

If you know the name Damien Echols, it's likely not in the context of art. Echols is one of what's now known as the West Memphis Three, a group of three young men from West Memphis, Arkansas., wrongly accused and convicted for murder in 1993. Echols, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., were only teenagers at the time, condemned for killing and mutilating three 8-year-old boys as part of a satanic ritual.

The West Memphis Three were targeted, as a New York Times article explained, because they were "fond of drawing pentagrams, skulls, and snakes on art materials, and [had] once arrived at a football game decked in black with black tears painted on their faces." The boys' interest in the occult sparked panic in the Southern town, with citizens and police so desperate to find the culprit of the hideous crime they convicted three boys, virtually, for liking Metallica. 

It's a long and horrific story, how Echols, deemed the mastermind of the crime by the police, was sentenced to three death penalties with no scrape of physical evidence. Misskelley -- who, reportedly with an IQ of just 68, surrendered to a coerced confession -- and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison. The documentary trilogy "Paradise Lost" goes into far greater detail surrounding the specifics of how Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were unjustly imprisoned and, in Echols' case, placed on death row.

In 2011, after 18 years of attempting to prove their innocence, the three were finally released from prison after changing their pleas from not guilty to guilty, due to a very rare form of plea bargain know as an Alford Plea, in which a defendant proclaims he is innocent of a crime while admitting the prosecution has enough evidence to prove he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead of waiting for exonerating DNA evidence that could have taken years, the three remained guilty in the eyes of the state, but were given their freedom. 

Throughout his nightmare, Echols maintained sanity by practicing Magick and creating art. Mostly his work consists of symbols and glyphs that serve, according to Echols, as portals to the subconscious and spiritual realm. Talismans and evocations, the images are visual incarnations of Echols' Magick practice, based on The Order of the Golden Dawn. 

Echols' artwork will appear alongside that of artists David Stoupakis and Menton3 in an exhibition titled "Salem" at Los Angeles' Copro Gallery. Loosely based on the events of the Salem Witch Trials, the exhibit will explore the ideas of darkness, beauty and Magick that align events in the 17th century with those of the 20th century and beyond.

The exhibit features the last two remaining works Echols made in solitary confinement on death row: a disposable razor-crafted wood carving and a bird figurine constructed from paper, soap and paper clips. I reached out to Echols to learn more about his art practice and its impact on his extraordinary life. 

When did you begin making art?

I remember loving to draw and paint as far back as kindergarten, but I think I started taking it seriously about eight or nine years into my prison sentence. It helped me cope. Sometimes getting really involved in a new technique would help me forget I was in hell. It helped me build a world, you know? Making art, it was like I wasn’t in prison 24/7.

Under what conditions were you making art in prison? Were there certain artists that inspired you or were you able to receive any training? 

I was in solitary confinement, so everything I learned was self-taught. What spoke to me most was acrylic paint. For me, the art was almost a side effect of my spiritual practice. I would combine meditative approaches from The Order of the Golden Dawn with artistic techniques to make them aesthetically pleasing. But mostly, I just wanted to have a reason for existing. I always say that art is never supposed to be something you bought because it matched your couch. I think of my pieces as a prayer in material, physical form.

What did the work you made in prison look like?

I describe them as Talismans. They’re about taking abstract scenarios and concepts and giving them form. Like conceptual art, but used for energy work. For example, I made a talisman for protection. I was in a horrendous, violent situation where I feared for my life on a daily basis. Protection, it’s such an abstract concept, but if you turn it into a symbol and you paint that symbol it becomes real. It's abstract -- not like paint spattered all over the canvas -- but like you wouldn’t be able to tell what the meaning was unless I told you.

Could you feel the effects of your work, for example, the protection talisman? Did it make a difference?

There will always be people who argue that things like this are only psychological, but even still, that holds huge value. When you’re life is a living hell and you have to watch your back 24 hours a day to make sure nothing will harm you, any feeling of protection serves a purpose. But I’ve always believed it’s more than that. It all ties back to ceremonial Magick. I call it energy just because I can’t think of another word. Every culture has a name for it but ours: in Chinese it's qi, in Japanese, ki. In Hebrew it's ruach.

What is the reaction, generally, to your interest in Magick?

With a lot of these things, people will think you sound like a New Age nut job. But let me tell you: not only can you tell a difference when you do it, but you can tell when the energy starts to wear off. I had this happiness shrine and -- it's like a battery, you can feel when it starts to lose its charge and you need to redo it. You feel the despair start to creep in.

Earlier you mentioned The Order of the Golden Dawn. Are your magical practices directly derived from this tradition? 

The Golden Dawn has always been my first love. I discovered them for the first time when I was 12 years old. I came across it and just thought, “This is mine.” I’ve learned more from their techniques than anything else. The older I get, however, the more my Magick becomes something that takes on uniquely personal tones. When I teach Magick classes, I always say you have to experiment. If something feels strong for you, it’s going to be strong for you. I've woven in my own personal techniques over time, but I'd say I still incorporate about 85 percent Golden Dawn. 

When you were released from prison, did you continue making art? Was there any sort of shift in your vision or process?

When I got out, I found tons of my old artwork I had sent to Lorri [Davis, Echols' wife]. Those things had bad memories in them; they came from such a dark time in my life. I didn’t want to have them up in my house, but at the same time I didn’t want to throw them in the garbage. I had a friend who was the director of a gallery and so we decided to have an art show. And the work all sold out. So I never really stopped. 

Your current exhibition at Copro Gallery revolves around the Salem Witch Trials. How did you land on that theme?

It’s an event that everyone knows about, that's had some impact on most Americans. But still, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around. For me, when I heard the stories, something deep within me felt this absolute horror, that something like this had happened and happened relatively recently.

Of course, it hit me hard because they accused me of the same things they accused them of. They put them to death, tried to put me to death. But now, Salem is a very safe place for people who practice alternative spiritual regions, especially modern-day Wiccans. After I got out of prison, I moved to Salem and lived there in Salem for about 18 months. There are all kinds of weird things that are part of the fabric of the city today, like underground tunnels that weave all throughout the city, that seem to reach through time and space. 

The exhibit is a group show with David Stoupakis and Menton3. What was the preparation process like for the show? Did you collaborate or was most of the work done independently?

We didn’t collaborate on specific paintings, but we talked about it and shared ideas every single day. It became a huge part of our daily lives, just talking about it, feeding ideas off each other. I came away from the process thinking, "I don’t want to do solo shows anymore."

Is there anything specific you set out to communicate through this exhibition?

The state of Arkansas tried to murder me for my love of Magick. The reason that was possible is because, in the world today, Magick has these sinister connotations. We get ideas of what it is from cheesy horror movies and extreme right-wing propaganda. I want to share with people the techniques that helped me survive over 20 years on death row. Magic is this rich spiritual tradition that rivals anything from the East in beauty, depth and meaning. It’s something you can apply to your work in everyday context. The artwork is a bridge to understanding the Magick.

From my perspective, a lot of the works on view are very sinister and eerie. Would you agree?

I think a lot of people could look at it and say, “That’s kind of scary.” But Salem was a dark chapter in American history. You can’t escape that darkness, but you can transform it into beauty. That beauty will always retain the edge of darkness, and a lot of it comes across as kind of eerie.

I guess I'm specifically talking about the "Coffin Cell" drawings and the similarly figurative works. 

Those were inspired by this Salem tour I went on, where they reconstructed the dungeons where they kept people during the trials. People had to pay for their cells in those times, believe it or not. And if you couldn't pay, they’d put you in what's called a "coffin cell," a cell in pitch darkness where you didn't even have room to sit down. It had such a huge impact on me, I had nightmares for several nights after.

A lot of people, when they look at those, they’re just going to say, “That’s scary.” But I hope people do their homework, go home and Google what coffin cells were and bring the situation more clarity.

Do you identify with terms like folk artist or outsider artist that sometimes refer to self-taught artists working outside the mainstream?

Honestly, I refer to myself as a magician. The art is a side effect of the Magick. But really, it’s always about the Magick. To me, that’s what makes life amazing and worth living. 

Do you see any parallels between art and Magick in their ability to conjure meaning or emotion from certain practices or techniques?

I think it can, but for the most part what I see now coming out of the art world doesn’t do that. Especially here in New York, so much of the art scene is a playground for rich kids. Anyone who has a voice and a message is being pushed out because they can’t afford to live here. You’re left with people who don’t have anything to say but went to the right schools, made the right connections. I don’t think there is any magic in that. I think it’s mental masturbation.

Your interest in Magick had such a traumatic effect on your life. Did you ever turn away from it or question its impact?

It’s weird. Magick has caused me so much pain but it also saved my life. As a yoga teacher helped me realize, if you’re going to start giving up the things you love, the things that make your life worthwhile, you’re not really living. I was on death row, but if I'd have given up Magick, they would have already killed me.

"Salem," featuring work by Echols as well as David Stoupakis and Menton3, runs until April 16, 2016, at Copro Gallery in Los Angeles.

  • Runes made on death row
  • Invocation of Jupiter
  • Death Comes to Salem II
  • Invocation of the Initiation Current in Red
  • Invocation of the Initiation Current
  • 19
  • Talisman of initiation (overlapping cipher)
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