Kirk Charlton isn’t the first man to find his calling in prison.
But few have pulled it off in such a colorful way. With pencils and paints, Charlton has honed himself into the man he wants to be outside prison walls. The 56-year-old Hawaiian uses the cinderblock walls of the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution as his canvas. He teaches fellow inmates to find their inner artist and recently released a children’s book. At the prison, he is known as “the painter.”
“He is the only person at the institution to ever have that position,” said Ron Miles, the prison’s public information officer and supervising executive assistant to the superintendent.
Charlton, a former pawn shop manager who landed in prison after illegally repossessing a car, remembers being high at the time of the crime. He came to EOCI in 2012.
After a correctional officer noticed him drawing, EOCI’s Tom Lemens asked him to paint a mural on long slab of wall that runs along a hallway near steel gates near the front of the institution.
“The walls were a bland white,” said Lemens, EOCI’s assistant superintendent of correctional rehabilitation. “We wanted him to liven things up a little bit and change the look of the institution.”
Charlton submitted designs and spent the next several months transforming the drab wall into an eruption of pop culture and Americana. The assemblage includes Betsy Ross, Cesar Chavez, Batman, the Statue of Liberty, Babe Ruth, Louis Armstrong, Big Bird, the Golden Gate Bridge, Kiss, Elvis, Mark Twain, Darth Vader and Kermit the Frog.
That mural was the first of many. Charlton became the prison painter. Along with murals, he has other responsibilities, such as face painting at family events.
Several years ago, he tried to persuade the powers that be to let him teach an art program of his own invention called “Art Inside Out.” The object was not only to teach art, but also relate it to success in life.
“He got rejected,” Miles said. “But when people told him ‘No’ he didn’t stop or curl up into a little ball. He maintained his position that art is therapeutic and could help inmates with their behavior and their futures. He gradually won people over to his way of thinking.”
On a recent day, Charlton grinned as eight students bent over pieces of paper, their eyes squeezed closed. Each wore a blue shirt bearing the words “Inmate” in bright orange. He had instructed the men to shut their eyes and draw something related to their favorite sports team. One man drew something resembling a soccer player shooting a goal. Other drawings included a drag racer popping a wheelie and the logo of the University of Southern California Trojans. Charlton asked the men to memorize the feeling of intense concentration they felt while drawing blind.
“That’s the same kind of concentration you should have when you draw with your eyes open,” he said.
Charlton teaches four classes, one in the prison’s segregation unit. In the latter, the inmates are chained to their chairs.
Participants spend time on art techniques, but also work on themselves. They drop their masks and chat about topics, such as stress and forgiveness.
“I thought I was going to have to drag things out of these guys,” Charlton said, “but in this environment where you are surrounded by negativity and complaining and condemning, these guys yearn for positive dialogue. They pour out their feelings.”
Charlton, who also taught art on the outside, believes he may be uniquely positioned to make a difference.
“It makes sense for a guy with a blue shirt and an SID (security identifier) number and an orange patch to help other guys with a blue shirt, SID number and orange patch. This place, EOCI, could envision that.”
Charlton himself started drawing as a young boy and painting as a pre-teen. In prison, art became his main focus.
“I am obsessed with art,” he said. “I get up in the middle of the night and sketch sometimes.”
The effusive Charlton brightens further when he talks about his most recent project, the first in the “I WANNABE” series of children’s books. The idea germinated back when his daughter, Sophie, was 8 and told her father she wanted to be a paleontologist. Charlton created a children’s book on the profession of paleontology for her.
The first book in his new series, “I want to be a Marine Biologist” is available from Amazon. He has at least 15 other books in the works on careers ranging from archaeologist to jazz musician.
After his release, Charlton plans to continue his children’s book series. He has also completed 35 works for an art show featuring sketches of prison life. In addition, he hopes to continue teaching in a variety of settings, bringing Art Inside Out into other institutions via video conferencing. He envisions other types of students, as well.
“I want to help the elderly, troubled youth, war veterans and executive teams from Nike,” he said, cracking a grin. “I’m going to blow this up as big as I can.”
Charlton will soon move to a minimum security facility to prepare for release in 2019. He is training a couple of other inmate artists to take his place in the classroom.