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Formerly Incarcerated Man Who Spent 42 Years On Death Row Opens Art Exhibit ‘We Are the Willing’ In Detroit

A prisoner who was falsely accused of murdering a white student in 1974 and spent more than four decades behind bars has channeled his experience into art. 

Gary Tyler held his first solo art exhibition in Detroit after spending close to 42 years imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The art event was sponsored by Library Street Collective, World Socialist Web Site reported. Allison Glenn was the curator. 

Art often mimics or replicates things in life that impact people in big ways. Tyler’s work features self-portraits of his time in prison, Library Street Collective noted. The prisoner-turned-artist used textiles to create the images. His work, also consisting of appliqué quilts, gives glimpses of his transformation from a young teenager to a man in prison. Tyler learned appliqué patterning in prison, according to World Socialist Web Site.

The exhibition was titled “We are the Willing.” Tyler came up with the exhibition title from the Angola Prison drama club’s motto, according to the Collective. The artist was president of the club for 28 years, where he encouraged prisoners to develop literacy and self-expression. World Socialist Web Site reported Tyler turned to the arts to get through his time in prison. Now a free man, he uses his skills to fight injustice.

Tyler became Louisiana’s youngest death row inmate at age 16 for a murder he did not commit. According to The Bay State Banner, a white youth was shot among a mob of white students throwing items at a bus of Black students. The Black students were bussed over to Destrehan High School due to a desegregation order. The World Socialist Web Site reported a gunshot fired from outside the bus killed the white youth. But police framed Tyler as the murderer, even though he was inside the bus at the time of the gunshot.

The Supreme Court did away with the death sentence altogether in 1976. Still, Tyler remained in prison for 41 and one-half years until he was released in 2016.