b.1942, Charlestown, Ma. , d. 1995
“I view my paintings as just incidents and people that I met in the course of my life. It’s like someone that sings in the shower. It is not my view of myself that I’m a real artist.”
Keigney’s home town was once described by the F.B. I. as the bank-robbing / hijacking capital of America, and Keigney was a hometown boy. In and out of prison since his teens, he was serving 40 years for masked armed robbery when he and two co-defendents were convicted of a prison murder. His sentence was life without parole.
To fill the endless time, Keigney created art and wrote poems and stories. He was hounded, like most prison artists, to make art for the other inmates. He described the intensity of the prisoners’ fervor for artwork: “When guys hear that you can do something, be it carving, painting, poems, whatever, they start bugging you. Once, being facetious, I told a guy who requested a carving that there were ninety guys on the list ahead of him. He replied, ‘I don’t care, at least I’m on the list.’”
Keigney joined an art class to learn to draw portraits, an art form he believed to be considerably more serious and adult than his carvings and cartoons. In relaxed moments, in his single cell, (a luxury sometimes accorded a lifer) he began to sketch the people and places in his life. It was a surprise to him that his past could possibly be of interest to anyone, and he felt his renderings were “retarded.” He was a cynic but at the same time trusted that impulse eager to express itself. Even after his work was shown in respected galleries, purchased for prominent collections, mentioned in the New Yorker and the Village Voice, he sincerely believed that his admirers were “nuts”. “I wouldn’t know art if it bit me on the behind.”
“A late forties depiction. The woman with one leg was known as old lady Jackson, a very scary person to us kids. The woman holding the bag of groceries represents my mother.”
short story, 1992
In the early 70’s there was an inmate at Walpole who was serving life for his part in a bank robbery in which a cop was killed. Whether or not he was guilty, I couldn’t say. He considered himself a revolutionist. He worked in the prison foundry where sewer covers and their frames were made by melting scrap iron and pouring new covers. This called for the use of a crucible, which was a tall circular type furnace approximately 40 ft high. At the top was a working platform which you reached by climbing an iron ladder.
One day the revolutionist and a friend were up on the platform packing match heads into a pipe to make a bomb when it exploded and blew the revolutionist’s hands off, along with his privates, and split his belly open. His head was held on by a shred of flesh. His friend (who was serving a 3-5) wound up with a hunk of pipe sticking out of his forehead, giving him a unicorn look. He survived the blast only to fall out of bed at the hospital here and die.
When the coroner arrived to examine the bomber’s body, he put the pair of hands in a clear plastic bag. As he was leaving he was informed that they had a murder victim in one of the max blocks for him to examine. When he went into the block he put the bomber’s hands in the CO’s desk drawer. The CO comes into the block, sits at his desk and opens the drawer, sees the hands, is so horror stricken that he throws himself back in his chair and falls over backwards, chair and all.
A search of the foundry and the bomber’s cell turn up the recordings made by the bomber concerning his activities and plans for escape. He bragged about making a shotgun and test firing it right under their noses. He also made a periscope so he could watch the CO in the gun tower.
Arthur Keigney said that being a criminal was a choice. He took responsibility for that choice. He also said, “Being in prison doesn’t mean you can’t be happy.”
Hands of Time:, Thorne’s Market Gallery, Northampton, Ma.
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Cell Block Visions: Prison Art in America