Fulton Leroy Washington sits at his workspace inside the Palm Springs Art Museum, working on a small mixed media piece that will eventually be dubbed “He Laid Hands On Us.” The artist — a calm, quiet man in his 60s who goes by Mr. Walsh — is creating his piece out of multiple molds of his own face.
The sculpture consists of four sides, all displaying his face, and each is painted a different color. After he’s done painting, he adds fake flowers and other details to the work, the final piece in his new museum installation.
Devin Reynolds is a younger man. His demeanor is a little more immediate. He stands in front of a large fragment, one of several large pieces that, when installed, will engulf the room in which they are displayed. Once the fragments are assembled and hung on the wall, the pieces — made of materials ranging from wood to tires — will work together to resemble building facades you’d see in a large urban area.
“This piece is about 80% done,” he said. “It used to be part of a movie set.” He and his pieces give off a Southern California counterculture vibe.
The two men, and their art, are very different.However, they now share the experience of being the first two artists chosen by the museum for the new “Outburst Project” residency.
“We are the first two in residency to create the artwork right here,” Mr. Wash said as he walked around the space in which his artwork is displayed.
Creating his way out of confinement
Mr. Wash came to art in an unusual way. After being wrongly convicted for non-violent drug offenses, he taught himself to paint while incarcerated. His “Hands of Time” pieces, which symbolize the experience of being in prison, are a big part of his “Outburst” work.
“The smaller hands were created while I was incarcerated in prison. I’ve created some new stuff for this show in the same theme,” Mr. Wash said. “[They represent] Things that you can’t touch and hold onto when you’re incarcerated. You can’t embrace your spouse. You can’t embrace your children, your partner, your loved one. That’s what these hands represent.”
Mr. Wash is self-taught. Before he was incarcerated, he was always creative and took art classes in school, but never considered it a viable career. When in prison, he began to use art as a way to express feelings that, due to the situation he was in, had to be kept inside. He began to see other prisoners who drew and he would watch and learn from them.
“I was always good with a pencil. I would draw blueprints and landscapes that my construction company would fix,” he said. “I would sketch the homes and the additions to them, and I was using art as a selling point in that way.”
Mr. Wash’s more artistic drawings began when his attorney had him draw a portrait of a person he was working with who was accused of a crime. Through this rough sketch, the man was located and sent to court.
“I promised God I would continue to use that skill,” Mr. Wash said. From then on, he continued to practice any time he could.
In prison, he finally got a seat in an art class and began working in oils. He worked on skin tones, but still feels he hasn’t mastered the many hues of Black skin — even as a Black man, he doesn’t feel that he has perfected his own skin tone in his paintings.
“Yakkity Yak,” one of the pieces in the exhibit, was Mr. Wash’s first finished attempt at a realistic skin tone.
Once his art began to gain notice, people began sending money to his lawyers in exchange for a Mr. Wash piece, supporting his effort to be exonerated. Even the prison got in on the action, providing materials to Mr. Wash so he could paint more pieces. The artist said he would love to go back inside Lompoc Prison to get pictures of his artwork that still exists on its walls.
Mr. Wash has never been paid anything, to this day, for creating those pieces.
Everything changed when Mr. Wash painted a piece called “Emancipation Proclamation” modeled on Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln” (1864). In it, Washington painted President Barack Obama granting him clemency. Through the painting, President Obama became aware of Mr. Wash’s predicament. Obama commuted the artist’s sentence in 2016 after the man had spent 21 years in prison.
Devin Reynolds grew up in Venice, California, the biracial child of a white mother and Black father. Early on, he got into graffiti art, but due to legalities of working in that medium, he gave it up. His day job was working on a fishing boat at the time, and he didn’t want to risk being arrested and losing that job.
However, he never abandoned his creative side.
Reynolds eventually moved to New Orleans to study architecture at Tulane University, where he got back into graffiti. After he left, he began expressing himself through printmaking and sign painting.
“I ended up living near a train line, and there is a really prolific graffiti artist named Ichabod. … I used to just go sit by the train track watching the trains (with his work on them) go by,” he said.
From that inspiration, Reynolds began his career.
Because of his background in sign painting, Reynolds is comfortable using large canvases. That’s why the smallest piece in this “Outburst” show is around 7 feet by 8 feet.
“Working for other people, painting murals, graffiti and sign painting, it like broke the boundaries of scale for me,” he said.
It also helped that he never had roommates who minded the large-scale works.
“I was living in a place in New Orleans called ‘The Treehouse’ for a while. It was sort of like a punk-art cohabitation house with a bunch of people … nobody really cared that I took up a 16-foot chunk of the living room (wall) to make one of my first text paintings,” Reynolds said.
In this show, Reynolds aims to demonstrate how his city ubringing affects his new relationship with the desert.
“When I lived in Venice, I never even went east of Sepulveda,” he said. So the desert was not something in his sphere of experience.
There is a certain architectural piece found in the desert that Reynolds decided to pay homage to using rims. Viewers of the exhibit are encouraged to look for the rims and see if they remind them of any common local structure.
Brought together by chance
Mr. Wash and Reynolds knew each other before the residency, but had not worked together. Reynolds had an unused portion of his studio in LA, and Mr. Wash was looking for a place to experiment with sculpture. It was a perfect match.
“One of the biggest blessings of getting to do this show is getting to work with Wash,” Reynolds said.
Along with the two “Outburst” artists, the museum is proud to present “Miracle of the Eternal Present” this month — an exhibition running April 22 through Oct. 2 that surveys more than two decades of work by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija.
The museum celebrated its spring exhibition openings by throwing a trendy party April 21. The event honored Mr. Wash and Reynolds, welcoming them as the first artists to take part in the “Outburst Project.”
The evening included performances from queer, Latin musician San Cha, and plenty of tunes spun by DJs BAE BAE, King Woman and Nancy Whang (of the band LCD Soundsystem).
The exhibitions are open to the public April 22 through July 3.
Kevin Mann is a Desert Sun intern who writes about arts and entertainment. Email him at [email protected]