Artist Inspiration: Anthony Papa

An art graduate, I’ve realized that I have slowly lost much of the art history I learned while in school. Lately, I’ve decided to make an effort to reconnect myself and re-study the work of other artists and their styles & techniques.

I began by thumbing through one of my art books. I have been reading artist bio pages and information on artworks that catch my eye. One such artwork is one that I remember from an art history class, but I didn’t remember the artist or the incredible story behind the piece.


 This painting is called “15 Years to Life” (1988) by Anthony Papa. Anthony is an artist, author, advocate against the war on drugs, and co-founder of the Mothers of the New York Disappeared.
Anthony was a middle-class family man, owner of an auto repair shop and radio business, with no previous criminal record when a member of his bowling team offered him some “easy money”. He was asked to deliver an envelope of cocaine, and he agreed, only to find out that the one who gave him the envelope was an undercover police informant and Anthony was arrested upon the delivery of the 4.5 ounces of cocaine.
New York’s strict drug laws at the time, the Rockefeller drug laws, were among the strictest in the United States. The possession of 4 ounces or more of drugs like heroin and cocaine and the sale of 2 ounces or more of the same substances carried the same penalties as those for second-degree murder. These laws have since been revised, thanks to Anthony Papa’s work.
Following his conviction, he was sentenced to one 15-years-to-life sentence at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison. While there, he earned 2 bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree from New York Theological Seminary. He also discovered his artistic talent and began to paint his way to freedom when “15 Years to Life” was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He painted using the very restricted materials that were allowed to him. Oil paints weren’t permitted, so he worked in watercolors and acrylics, cleaning his brushes in his cell’s toilet bowl.
After serving 12 years, Governor George Pataki granted him clemency in 1996. Upon release, he did some acting then went on to fight for those left behind in prison who were there due to the same strict drug laws.

He continues his advocacy to reform drug laws and works for the Drug Policy Alliance as the Manager of Media Relations. He has been interviewed many times and submitted articles to various publications and continues to use his art to fight for those less fortunate.

In 2004, Anthony published his book “15 Years to Life”, an autobiographical account of his experience in the New York criminal system. In 2011, the film “Breaking Taboo”, about the global war on drugs and narrated by Morgan Freeman, was released.
He inspires me because from what he calls a foolish mistake, he kept fighting. He got educated, found his talent, which led to his release, and now continues to fight against overly strict drug laws that are filling our prisons with nonviolent offenders. He didn’t wait for perfect circumstances; He worked with what he had available to him.
“Art has actually saved my life, helped me maintain my humanity.” 
-Anthony Papa

** The image isn’t mine, but the link to it was broken, so I don’t know the original source. **


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