NEW YORK — In the ongoing series of miracles that has become the existence of Valentino Dixon, the man who was exonerated last September after being wrongly imprisoned for 27 years, perhaps the most remarkable happened Wednesday evening in Lower Manhattan. The man whose freedom was won in part through his drawings of places he had never been and about a game he had never played was front and center at his own art show.
Dixon was the focal point at the Andrew Edlin Gallery in the Bowery. With the gallery crammed to the gills, Dixon mesmerized a crowd that hung on his every word, and there they were lining up to shake hands, pose for pictures, exchange hugs and, yes, buy his art like this had been his scene his whole life. He could barely fathom what he was witnessing.
“This wasn’t in my plans,” he said, a smile wide and bright, infectious, awed and yet somehow confident, too. “In a million years, you couldn’t have told me that this place would have anything to do with me. Golf art? C’mon, are you kidding me?”
And just then Dixon was called away. Another one of his drawings had just sold. “One of your new collectors is dying to meet you,” Edlin said.
Dixon’s first individual show displayed 25 of his colored pencil drawings, all of them produced within the walls of his 6-by-8-foot cell at the Attica Correctional Facility. Some of the works on view Wednesday were the very pictures Dixon sent to Golf Digest that led to Editorial Director Max Adler’s 2012 piece. That profile, in addition to Dixon’s art, illustrated the possible mistakes made during the inmate’s arrest, trial and conviction. The story attracted national attention and led to students at Georgetown University’s Prison Reform Project taking up his case.
Dixon’s wrongful conviction was vacated in September, and now he finds himself seeing a future he’d never imagined. Even those closest to his story find it hard to believe.
“The U.S. has the largest incarcerated population of any society in history, and yet to most of us it’s out of sight, out of mind,” Adler said in introducing Dixon to the crowd. “That’s why it’s a miracle to be here, and I totally stand by that word choice. It’s a miracle that we even heard from Valentino. The art on these walls literally saved his life. It’s evidence that his soul survived a system that was set up to break it.”
Everywhere around the room was Dixon’s impressionist golf landscape art style, glowing with his brightly rubbed-in greens, carefully shadowed bunkers and forests framing every background. Keen golfers could recognize features of certain holes from Augusta National, Pebble Beach, Congressional and the TPC Stadium Course at Sawgrass, yet each image took on Dixon’s distinct point of view. Perspectives are condensed, flagsticks or greens or players are highlighted asymmetrically. It is not unlike the way a man and his dreams overfill a cramped cell, the holes almost more real because they live in his imagination.
Dixon’s imagined views of golf courses are about to be not so imaginary. He will be a credentialed illustrator for Golf Digest at Augusta National during this year’s Masters. Fittingly, a request by the warden at Attica to draw Augusta’s 12th hole eventually led to the series of illustrations that made its way to Golf Digest. From that first drawing, Dixon told Adler, “the look of a golf hole spoke to me. Something about the grass and sky was rejuvenating. ...It seemed peaceful.”
That juxtaposition of peace amidst great suffering is a theme the art world knows well. Edlin sees Dixon’s art as much the story of the man as it is what he’s produced. “His life is quite incredible,” Edlin said. “It’s impossible to imagine what he went through, and yet you feel his passion immediately.”
Rising as Dixon has requires more than talent, but a miraculous kind of resolve, especially when 27 years behind bars can literally consume a lifetime.
“I had seen friends of mine who hadn’t made it out, who committed suicide or lost their minds,” Dixon said. “I was just so determined not to let that happen to me. I just would fill my brain with so many positive things.”
His art is that positive force. For him as an inmate, it was freedom in the midst of the greatest lack of freedom there is.
“I was celebrating,” Dixon said of his time drawing in his cell. “That’s crazy, but I was. I had some struggles sure, but for the most part I was celebrating. This was my fortress of peace.”
You cannot appreciate the vivid colors of Dixon’s art without knowing the bleak landscape of his past, his mishandled case and the fact that more than half his life has been behind bars for a crime he did not commit. And yet, there is a beautiful symmetry to Dixon’s story, how his art was his refuge in prison, and how that salvation led to his redemption, exoneration and eventually his freedom. He now finds himself in a position to crusade for prison and sentencing reform, and he already has the ear of those in power, including a meeting with aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He now wants to bring to others a freedom he once only dreamed of for himself.
“Many times when I was drawing, I would fantasize about being out in the real world—I wanted to be with you guys,” he told the crowd Wednesday night. “So when I stepped out after 27 years, it wasn’t really difficult at all because I had lived in this fantasy world the whole time.”
At the start of a completely new life, one made miraculously real at a New York gallery, Dixon’s art—his great escape—now becomes his great opportunity.