Imprisoned for 27 years, diagnosed with HIV, a Ventura man finds joy in painting what he sees.
He paints in bright colors and bold shapes. His sense of abstraction is keen, and he’d rather be painting than doing anything else. 52-year-old Donnie Holmes lives in an area near Santa Barbara known for its burgeoning arts community, and while he hasn’t mastered cubism yet — his hero has always been Pablo Picasso.
Chances are, you haven’t seen Donnie’s work — since he doesn’t have a gallery he calls home. In fact, he doesn’t have a home, period.
For the past two years, the wiry 6-foot-5 father of ten has lived with his wife Charla in a crude but clean outdoor homeless encampment — or more accurately “dome village” called River Haven near the Santa Clara River basin in Ventura, California. (Pic #3) With no showers and no electricity, the couple lives with 20 others who’ve pledged not to drink or use drugs while residing there. Statistics show that the residents have a 40 % success rate — meaning they move on to a life of self-sufficiency. And that’s exactly what Donnie has in mind, now that he’s officially – finally – off parole.
Homeless, but not hopeless.
Donnie has spent more of his life in prison than out. He’s a convicted drug dealer and user — having served hard time at Wasko, Chino, and Vacaville state prisons. He admits to feeding a $500-a-day habit of speedballs (herion and cocaine) — and kicked the habit behind bars. Then, in 1994, while enrolled in a methadone clinic — he heard the sobering news that he’d contracted the AIDS virus.
In 1996, while incarcerated one more time, Donnie passed out and woke up in a Bakersfield hospital only to discover he was also diabetic. Within months, battling both conditions, his weight plummeted from 270 t0 140 pounds.
But even when locked up, Donnie always found peace through his art. Surrounded by colorless walls and no nature to speak of in a series of gray state prison facilities, he managed to find life through his pencils and paint. Other inmates would ask him to sketch their portraits, which became a source of encouragement for a man who’d proven the crime-watchers right: recidivism rates increase with each additional stay at CDCR institutions. First-time offenders have a 51.1 percent likelihood of returning to prison; those who have been in prison 15 or more times have a 86.3 percent chance of going back.*
Paul White, a local tough-love schoolteacher who knows Donnie’s story, says his past will most likely follow him — “and in today’s challenging job market, every sentence is a life sentence,” White says. An extensive prison record “interferes with your ability to secure work for as long as you live.”
But Donnie has a dream. He’s been clean and sober for years now, and says he’s ready to “make things right” — especially for his 10 children. Despite spells of weakness and frequently feeling sick, Donnie told me he thanks God every day for his gift of art, and for a second chance. He’d like to keep painting, immerse himself in some classes to learn more about abstract art, and eventually open an art gallery to sell his work. And it wouldn’t be the first time he’d have made a sale. At a recent Art Fair run by the City of Ventura, Donnie sold 14 paintings of his “dome landscapes” depicting the homeless village where he lives. (Pics #1 and #5)
In Good Company:
Mr. Holmes is not the only artist in history to serve time.
Internationally renowned sculptor and outspoken activist Ai Weiwei was recently released from prison in China for alleged “economic crimes,” though human rights activists say Ai’s arrest was purely political. Ai is perhaps best known for helping design the famous Bird’s Nest stadium built for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Then, this past April one of Norway’s most famous artists — 67-year -old controversial painter Odd Nerdrum — who reportedly suffers from Tourettes syndrome — was sentenced to two years in prison after a local court in Oslo found him guilty of tax evasion.
Further back in history, Jacques-Louis David, an influential French painter in the Neoclassical style (who served in the French Revolutionary government painting portraits of its leaders and befriending Maximilien Robespierre) was imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall from power. (Pic #8)
Paul White observes that Donnie shows remarkable strength to have endured nearly three decades behind bars, and exceptional spirit to face a terrifying mix of unpredictable health issues every day.
It would be my hope now, to watch this passionate, prolific, self-taught artist discover something deeply personal, fresh and new in every canvas — and in himself.
“We artists are indestructible; even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell.” ― Pablo Picasso
* According to a recent KALW News report