In 1992, a young man who had run away from home was shot dead while trying to steal an elderly man’s truck in Eugene, Oregon. At the trial, the man was not convicted, as he was defending his personal property.
At the same time, Seattle-based author Tim Moxley was finishing up his education at the nearby University of Oregon, and halfway through his first novel, when he heard about the incident.
“I kind of felt like, ‘I love the story that I’m working on, but I really need to do something that matters,” he said at a lecture at Castleton University on Nov. 29. “Something that’s going to have positive impact.”
Fast forward a few years, and his drive to do something meaningful turned into “The Human Zoo: A Death Row Poetry Collection.”
The authors of the poems are, or were, death-row inmates. There’s a woman in Nevada, who went for a drive down a Reno sidewalk and killed seven people and a man in Virginia who shot his elderly neighbor, among others.
It always perplexed Moxley how divided people were on what he was doing.
“I was always struck by the divisions between people who thought it was such a great thing, and people who were truly angered at the idea that what they thought I was doing was trying to make famous the people in this book,” he said. “Nothing could have been further from the truth.”
His goal behind the book was to educate people through the words of these death-row inmates.
“Education, not incarceration, has got to be the primary focus of any true civilized society,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do with this book.”
When the collection of poems was all put together, Moxley said he had a difficult time finding someone to publish it.
“I don’t call them rejection slips, I call them non-acceptance letters,” he said. “But I got 52 of them from every publisher I sent a copy of the manuscript to.”
The last non-acceptance letter came on the day the execution of Timothy McVeigh was announced. Undeterred, Moxley decided he would publish it himself.
The cover for the second edition of the book was redesigned by Castleton graphic design professor Bill DeForest. DeForest and Moxley first met in high school – and Deforest introduced him at the event.
“You’re the first person I ever met who could just recite a poem,” he said to Moxley at the event. “It is no surprise to me that you would go on in life and that you would go on to edit poetry. But I will confess that when I found out about it, I was surprised at the nature of this book.”
Just outside the auditorium where Moxley gave his presentation is the Christine Price Gallery. On the right side of the gallery stands “Cellblock Visions,” by curator Phyllis Kornfeld.
Kornfeld has been teaching art in prisons for 36 years. The artwork contained in this gallery, and in the published book of the same name, was made by prisoners from 1983 and 2011.
“These artists tell the truth, without self-consciousness, unfettered by concepts and theory,” Kornfeld said on her website. “This pure expression of individual personality has produced a wide variety of styles and imagery, and at the same time, the commonalities of their imprisonment color every piece.”
The artwork in the gallery is made using different mediums. Some represent the more conventional mediums, such as acrylics, colored pencils and pen and ink. Others involve more creative mediums, such as coffee, or even carvings from a bar of soap. According to her website, Kornfeld never really had to do much to get the true potential of the artists to come out.
“I try not to get in the way of the inmate’s natural expression, no conventional “lessons” or the imposition of my own concepts and techniques,” she said on the website. “So many of the prisoners are overtaken with creative force as soon as they get their hands on the materials, and all I have to do is get out of the way.”
“Cellblock Visions” is on display at the Christine Price Gallery at Castleton University until Dec. 21. The gallery is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays and is free and open to the public.