The art of absolute loneliness

It will be a year this month since Billy Sell hanged himself. I assume a guard discovered him because he had been living in solitary confinement for the past six years. Billy had been in prison for the past 16 years. He was 32 years old at his death. Found hanging in his cell, Billy was first unresponsive and later died in the infirmary. Billy had taken part in the California hunger strike by prisoners against solitary confinement.

'Self-Portrait' by Billy Sell (1977 - 2013)

Billy first wrote to me about three years ago. He asked where he was supposed to send the assignments for the through-the-mail art curriculum I provide for prisoners. Billy added that he knew I wouldn’t be able to answer him personally — assuming that the rules would forbid this. Unknown to Billy, I am able to write to any prisoner in prisons where I do not volunteer. I wrote back to Billy thanking him for his letter and said that I would be interested in receiving his completed assignments.

However, in Billy’s next letter, he apologized for taking up my time. He wrote: “I must be honest with you as I know you are with me. As I am writing, (and have weighed this out) regrets sink in my heart heavily. I do not or will not be able to participate properly in the art program. I feel as I have wasted your time. My tools prevent me from giving a solid effort and the poor quality is a waste of your time. It was never my intention to waste your time.”

When I read this, I felt Billy’s depression reflected in the letter. I wrote back to Billy saying, “I want to apologize for any discomfort I may have caused you in regard to the art project. It was not my intention to make you feel bad about the art." I continued to write that I was not interested in a display of perfectly rendered skills, but rather a visual investigation through art. I ended the letter with: “Anyway, if you don’t want to draw, that’s fine; just write back anyway and keep in the loop.”

Inspired by Bernini

Billy did write back, again surprised that I took the time to write him. This letter also reflected a depression that seemed to prevent him from drawing. I wrote back to him, sending art that I thought would interest him. Then surprisingly, after several more exchanges of letters, I received a number of drawings from Billy. These drawings surprised me mostly for the energy and because he was obviously more comfortable in drawing than he believed himself to be. In the letter accompanying the art, Billy wrote, “I want to thank you for being the nudge that you are,” and explained that he wanted to do drawings of the Virgin of Guadalupe for his mother. He also talked about other art that he liked: Bernini and some sculpture.

Billy and I continued to correspond; he sent me drawings, and I sent him artwork that his drawings suggested to me and that I thought would inspire him. In his May letter, he seemed excited to start a life-size drawing of his cell. His plan was a drawing that would be eight feet by six feet. Once, during his one-hour-out-of-the-cell time, he had inspired other prisoners to draw life-size versions of their cells. I had originally asked Billy to draw his cell this large size because I hoped it would give him space and empowerment.

In Billy's letter of early last June, he wrote about art, about colors, about how holidays don't mean much in prison, and about a drawing of mine that I sent him. Billy said he liked my explanation of the drawing; the explanation gave him insight he felt he did not have himself. He thought his own vision was too mechanical. My response to that comment in my next letter would be to take issue of this assessment of his eye. It was my experience that his eye was not mechanical; rather it was an eye sensitive to light, shadows, and nuances.

In his last letter, Billy sent me additional drawings and his self-portrait.

What happened?

I don't know if Billy was depressed. Of course, death by hanging is usually considered a suicide. Further investigation is being conducted. State law in California requires that all prisoners who participate in hunger strikes must be monitored and screened for mental health issues. Unofficial word has it that Billy requested help in the days before his death. I write to other prisoners in solitary confinement who seem to be dealing with mental health issues — paranoia, delusion, and absolute loneliness.

I think it is ironic, however, to consider absolute loneliness a mental health issue when one is required to live in solitary confinement. The absolute loneliness that one experiences in a situation of solitary confinement can only be considered a normal state of being, resulting from an abnormal requirement. If, however, absolute loneliness is not a mental health issue, but a normal state of being, then it could be concluded that the prison would not be required to respond to it as a problem. Ironic.

The prison system is on a mission of destruction.

I recently read of a woman who, when she was a passenger on a plane she thought was going to crash, turned to her unknown neighbor and asked, “Can I take your hand? I want to feel the touch of another person when the plane crashes.”

Prison is a crashing plane and all that remains is an extending hand.

Our readers respond

Nancy Herman

of Merion, PA on June 04, 2014

What a beautiful, very sad article this is. It should be circulated among law makers.

Janis Kobeko

of Sonoma, Ca on September 19, 2017

Thank you for caring about the lost souls incarcerated on Death Row. I am also an artist/teacher and working for the last five years learning about death row from a friend who was in solitary for 22 years. He is 53 now and has been in San Quentin since he was 19 for a 10-year sentence. He wrote two books in solitary and I recommend both! I visit him when I can and he is one of my dear friends and a very wise man. He has found Buddhism and meditates and it saved him from giving into this horrible situation. A descendent of slaves and sharecroppers and born into a very dysfunctional family. His name is Jarvis Jay Masters and his case is a sham, but he is another black man in prison. I love your work with art and the computer. Bless you for all your love and caring! Janis

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