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Cincinnati Hosts Unique Exhibit: Art by the Nation’s Wrongfully Incarcerated Now on Display


The University of Cincinnati recently hosted the first-ever international conference of Innocence Projects. While the conference itself has ended, a powerful reminder remains in the form of a unique Cincinnati exhibit that runs through July 9, focusing on art created by the wrongfully convicted.

Date: 5/10/2011 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Innocence Project exonerees

UC ingot   By using science – usually in the form of DNA evidence – Innocence Projects around the nation have freed more than 270 men and women across the United States who were wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

Now, that use of science has led to a unique art exhibit currently on view at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: “Illustrated Truth: Expressions of Wrongful Conviction” currently on display through July 9, 2011.

The exhibit opened on April 7, 2011, in conjunction with the first-ever international conference of Innocence Projects hosted by the University of Cincinnati – The 2011 Innocence Network Conference: An International Exploration of Wrongful Conviction. The event drew about 100 international exonerees (individuals freed after being wrongfully incarcerated) and about 500 scholars, researchers, legal specialists and students from about 40 law schools. Law schools generally serve as the institutional homes of Innocence Projects. For instance, UC’s College of Law houses the Rosenthal Institute for Justice/Ohio Innocence Project (OIP), led by Mark Godsey, the Donald P. and Judith L. Carmichael Professor of Law and Director of the Rosenthal Institute for Justice/Ohio Innocence Project.
Raymond Towler painting
Painting titled "Passing Time" by Raymond Towler. Towler served nearly 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.



A painting UC’s Godsey received from an OIP client – Roger “Dean” Gillespie – became the genesis for the “Illustrated Truth” exhibit. Explained Godsey, “The painting, titled ‘As Long As There Is One,’ depicts a Native American warrior. It hangs on the wall outside my bedroom at home. It’s the first thing I see when I walk out of my room each morning to start the day. Seeing the painting helps me to overcome the exhaustion and burnout inherent in a line of work that has steep, uphill battles every day.”

For Godsey, such art is a conversation between the wrongfully incarcerated and our wider society:  "The wrongfully convicted have important things to say, and it is clear that art is a particularly powerful and effective way for them to say it."

The painting by Gillespie is included in the “Illustrated Truth” exhibit, as are artwork, poetry, photos, letters and other literary works by 28 exonerees, many of them completed during their imprisonment.

Of the 28 exonerees exhibiting works, four are individuals freed thanks to the efforts of the Ohio Innocence Project housed at UC. These four Ohio exonerees exhibiting works are

  • Clarence Elkins, exonerated in December 2005. Elkins was imprisoned for more than seven years before DNA evidence presented by UC’s Ohio Innocence Project not only freed him but pointed to another suspect who was later found guilty of multiple rapes and murder. Works exhibited by Elkins in “Illustrated Truth” include a wallet made out of leather shoes and trash bags; a sketch of hands joined in prayer, titled “Hands;” and a poem, “Take Courage,” that Elkins sent to his sons while he was in prison.
  • Robert McClendon, exonerated in August 2008, served 18 years for a crime he did not commit. The  work exhibited by McClendon in “Illustrated Truth” consist of a poem titled “Hello Truth!”
  • Nancy Smith, a Head Start bus driver exonerated in June 2009, spent 14 years in prison on charges that were later proven to have been part of a larger scheme by her accusers to collect large monetary settlements. The work she is exhibiting consists of a painting titled “Freedom” inspired by Michelangelo’s "The Hands of God and Man."
  • Raymond Towler, exonerated in May 2010, served almost 30 years for a crime he did not commit and is Ohio’s longest-serving wrongfully incarcerated inmate to receive his freedom. DNA testing conclusively proved that Towler was not the perpetrator in a juvenile rape and assault case that occurred in 1981. He is exhibiting a painting titled “Passing Time;” a painting titled “Blue Man with the Flag;” and a painting titled “Witch Doctor.”
    Hands by Tim Howard
    Exoneree Tim Howard, who served 26 years in prison before his exoneration and release in Franklin County, Ohio, painted this work, titled "Hands."


While Towler had taken art classes in elementary school, he learned to paint from other inmates while in prison. He said, “In prison, I moved to painting with acrylics and oils. It might seem odd to say, but in prison, we were a community. Those more advanced in painting taught those who were less advanced. I learned a lot about painting from fellow inmates, though it required a lot of work and study.”

Towler added that he turned to painting because it was the most expressive means he could find to communicate. He says simply, “Color can talk.”

He recalls that he painted almost every day for the nearly 30 years he was wrongfully imprisoned, creating – literally – thousands of paintings that were then given as gifts, bartered or sold for token amounts.
“Painting takes you away from that place. It’s like you’re not incarcerated while you’re painting. I loved the process of painting so much, of first conceiving of a piece, planning for the materials and how it will be completed,” he states.

He adds that now he is finally free, “There is a lot of emotion in being reunited with my art. I can visit friends and family that I gave paintings to and see those paintings whenever I want. I couldn’t do that before. Once I let go of a work in prison, it was gone forever.”

In a similar vein, the “Illustrated Truth” exhibit reunites exoneree Beverly Monroe of Virginia with a sketch and plant pressings she created while serving 11 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. It includes a sketch of her cell, a sketch titled “Dream Home,” and cards she sent from prison with plant pressings to friends and family.

She recalls, “The plants were contraband. There was nothing natural or beautiful in prison. In the yard were a few ‘weeds,’ wood pansies, grasses, dandelions and clovers that I secretly pressed in a German dictionary. I used toothpaste for ‘glue’ to make the cards and send them out.”

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday. Ticket prices are $12 for adults; $10 for seniors aged 60 or over, educators and students with an ID; $8 for children aged 6-12. Children 5 or under are admitted free. For more information, call the Freedom Center at 513-333-7500 or toll free at 877-648-4838.

Students and faculty from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP) designed and curated the exhibit