Food dye as paint, hair as a brush: how a lifer found an escape in art

His paintbrush is made from his own hair. His paints are the coloured pigments from M&M sweets. His canvas is the back of a used greetings card and his studio is a cell that measures seven feet by 11 feet. This is the world of Donny Johnson, sentenced to life in California in 1980 for a murder committed during an argument over drugs when he was a teenager. If you were to pitch his story as a film, you might suggest it was the Birdman of Alcatraz meets A Sense of Freedom but there is no need for such a pitch as a film, Painted With My Hair, has been made and will premiere later this month to coincide with an exhibition of his paintings in London at the Riverside Studios.

Donny Johnson was five when his violent ex-con father subjected his mother, Helen Grimes, to a savage night-long beating. “He was a carefree little child until then,” recalled Grimes on a visit to London to see the film. “But after this happened he got hostile, he would break things. The beating was something that went on for nine or 10 hours – we had neighbours on both sides but nobody called the police. I got away at six in the morning and called the police but when they came he [her ex-husband] was gone.”

It was another five years before she discovered that Donny had heard the entire beating and still felt guilty that he had been unable to stop it.

The damaged little boy became a drug-using, wilful teenager. This led to a confrontation over the sale of the drug PCP, in which he and two other young men were involved in a murder in San Jose, California. The police wanted to know which of them carried out the killing and the trio decided that they would toss coins and whoever lost would confess.

“They flipped a coin and Donny lost,” said Grimes, a retired nurse from Castro Valley, near San Francisco. “They agreed that whoever gets the bad flip they would take care of – and of course they didn’t.”

After being sentenced to 15 years, his situation worsened in 1989 when he got involved in a prison fight with a member of the far-right Aryan Brotherhood (AB). During the confrontation, a prison guard opened fire and the AB gang member was badly injured. “They [the AB] told him ‘you have to pay for this, you’ve got to do a guard’,” said Grimes.

She claims that they then told her son they would kill his family if he refused and gave him a blade. Johnson duly badly wounded a guard. The other guards retaliated, beating him into a coma, she said. “The priest called me and said if you want to see your son alive, you should come now. When I got there, they said he’d been in a scuffle.” At his trial, he pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to a further 18 years.

Solitary confinement in the notorious Pelican Bay prison in northern California followed. It is based on the “panoptican” design of Jeremy Bentham, the 18th-century philosopher, whom Johnson describes, in a laconic letter from jail, as “that old Utilitarian”. The design means that prisoners can always be observed from every angle. There was no physical contact with other people, apart from strip searches by guards, for the next two decades. Visits from his mother were conducted behind bullet-proof glass.

Then, in 2002, a New York psychotherapist and writer, Steve Kurtz, saw Johnson’s profile on a list of inmates seeking pen friends, contacted him and encouraged him to paint. Access to art materials was prohibited but Johnson had seen a fellow prisoner use M&Ms to colour a greetings card and another prisoner had once asked him for a piece of his ponytail to make a paintbrush. He borrowed those ideas, giving his paintings extra texture with apple and sesame seeds and egg shells.

“I paint in the blood of the prison-industrial complex,” he writes in one letter. “I dig the look of Jackson Pollock and Miro – Miro is so playful and full of life … I love Van Gogh and relate to his outsider status … I can feel his exile in my garret, his asylum in my cell.”

One of Kurtz’s friends is the English film-maker, Mike Dibb, who made the celebrated Ways of Seeing with John Berger in the 1970s and has since made countless television documentaries, most recently a film on Parkinson’s disease, Playing Against Time, with the jazz musicians Barbara Thompson and Jon Hiseman. Dibb was fascinated by Johnson’s story and made contact.

The prisoner wrote back: “When you’re buried alive you dig for your life. Digging where you delve in solitary confinement, into the unconscious, I found a pool of mythic images and painted them with my own DNA, ie a brush fashioned out of my own hair.”

He and Dibb have since met in prison and keep in regular touch. In the film, Johnson’s words are voiced by actor Stanley Tucci.

“Donny’s ordeal is an inspiring example of one man’s astonishing resilience and personal transformation, achieved in defiance of a gratuitously cruel prison system,” says Dibb.

Will he ever be released? He is now in the High Desert prison in Susanville, California and his next parole hearing is in December. In the meantime, he paints and writes and writes and paints and digs for his life.

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