Observations: Artist reveals the human face of death row

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The Independent Culture

If you were lucky enough to catch Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta's Life Before Death exhibition at the Wellcome Collection early last year, then this might just be the perfect topical – and artistic – counterpoint. While Schels and Lakotta photographed hospice patients before and after death, Claire Phillips, a portrait artist from West Sussex, has travelled to the US to paint pictures of those who have spent time on Death Row. Working with human- rights charity Reprieve, her subjects have included Linda Carty, a British citizen who has faced execution in Texas for the last eight years for the murder of a neighbour (the conviction, apparently, was based entirely on the testimonies of her co-accused, three career criminals). Carty is joined by Howard Neal, who was sentenced to death in 1982 for the alleged killing of his niece and half-brother.

The art competently conveys the characters behind the convictions. Neal, who has been in and out of mental institutions for much of his life, stares straight ahead with a look of faint amusement, his head quizzically tilted to one side. Carty, on the other hand, is shown closer up, sporting a look of pinched-lip defiance.

Phillips says she became involved in the project after painting the portrait of Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve's director. He suggested she raise awareness of those wrongly convicted and on Death Row, using her artistic skills.

"I was a portrait painter, had done a degree as a mature student and was always interested in human nature and experience. This was such an unusual, intriguing project," says the artist. "Death Row is one of the few places in the world where people are trying to kill you, most of the time we are trying to extend human life."

The Human Face of Death Row, The Capitol, Horsham, 15 August to 9 October, then on tour (www.clairephillips.com)

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