William Livingston: ‘You never realize what lengths the mind will go to accomplish things when you’ve taken away all the normal options.’ Photograph: Adrian Brune

 William Livingston: ‘You never realize what lengths the mind will go to accomplish things when you’ve taken away all the normal options.’ Photograph: Adrian Brune

Jailed for 40 years, a prisoner reaches the outside world with his art

William Burns Livingston III discovered he could draw after being incarcerated – now his work is being collected by the likes of punk legend Ian MacKaye

Adrian Brune

Saturday 11 June 2016 07.00 EDT

The Joseph Harp Correctional Center lies on a rolling stretch of land about 10 miles west of Lexington, Oklahoma. It’s an “open-yard” prison that houses nearly 1,800 inmates. When William Burns Livingston III received a transfer there from the Lawton Correctional Facility, a private medium-security prison twice the size and double the menace, it marked a sea change in his life as an inmate – and in his art.

At Lawton, Livingston had resorted to drawing to while away a 40-year sentence: dark, crowded canvases featuring thin men with distressed faces, old men with mouths agape, young men looking despondent. Upon transferring to Harp, however, Livingston broadened his subject matter from depictions of prison life to dot-matrix portraits of his favorite musicians and landscapes remembered from his youth.

“My dad said he could look at my first drawings for hours,” says Livingston, a tall, bearded 40-year-old who wears his hair chin-length and his blue prison shirt tucked into roll-cuff jeans and Chuck Taylors, as he sits in Joseph Harp’s visiting room scrolling through a photo album of his recent art. “He’s not an art guy. But he said he had never seen so much feeling in a drawing before.

“I don’t relate to too many people in here – I’m a kid who grew up in Dewey, Oklahoma, on punk rock and skateboards – and I couldn’t play music, so this became my passion,” he adds. “I put a lot of the things that I miss in my art – friends, music, things that remind me of home. Before I came here, painting was just something I did at three in the morning after I was fucked up, but now I’m always trying to push the envelope, to improve, to do different things.”

Running out of space in their home for their son’s art, Livingston and his parents decided to sell it. For the past two years, Doc and Marie Livingston have traversed north-east Oklahoma, enlisting in every art fair within range to pay for acrylic paints, brushes, canvases and other supplies for Livingston and nine other men to create art during their free time at Joseph Harp.

Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate in the United States, at 700 inmates per 100,000 people – reaching a population of 28,095 near the end of 2015 – and few resources for the men and women who spend their years there, aside from work and offender treatment programs. But from his studio at Harp, Livingston’s work has also enjoyed some local fame. Local film-maker John Swab recently purchased Livingston’s triptych inspired by the Francis Ford Coppola gang movie The Outsiders, and Danny O’Connor, formerly of hip-hop band House of Pain, recently commissioned work for an auction to help fund the reconstruction of the house where Coppola filmed it. Ian MacKaye, a former member of post-hardcore band Fugazi and owner of Dischord Records, has also started collecting paintings from Livingston.

“I can’t think of anything worse than Will just sitting there in prison feeling sorry for himself; I wouldn’t wish this life on the devil,” says Doc Livingston, sitting in a back room of his State Farm insurance office in Dewey, Oklahoma, packaging paintings for a booth at the Blue Dome Art Festival in Tulsa in late May. “This is now the way he stays connected with the outside and the outside connects with him.”

Livingston in the library with one of his paintings in the background. Photograph: Adrian Brune

Livingston in the library with one of his paintings in the background. Photograph: Adrian Brune

On an overcast day and among vendors half their age, Doc and Marie Livingston, as well as Livingston’s two children, unload plastic containers filled with paintings. As Marie chooses whether the landscape of a long-gone Bartlesville neon sign should hang next to the Lou Reed portrait or stand on its own, Doc cuts zip ties to attach other works to a metal grid. Adorned with a sign that says Prison Art, a photocopy of Livingston’s biography and a donation bucket for prisoner art supplies, the booth stands out from its kin at the Blue Dome market in Tulsa, which retail everything from license plate sculptures to hand-made pet collars.

“One of the biggest compliments you can pay the artist is saying, ‘I want that in my home – I want to look at that painting every day,’” said Marie. “But people also want to talk. They come by, put in some money and tell us about their son or daughter or husband going away to prison.”

Doc and Marie Livingston would do – and have done – just about anything for their only child. When Livingston wanted to learn more about baseball cards, his parents helped him maintain a stand at one of the local antique malls. When he decided to pursue music, Doc helped him build a recording studio next to the family house. And despite his poor grades, drinking and recreational drug use, when it came time for Livingston to attend college, they sent him off to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. “They would do anything they could do to get me out of Dewey, which they thought would solve the problem,” Livingston says.

For a while, leaving the town indeed helped, as did meeting his former wife. While she pursued an art history course, Livingston worked as an office manager and played in local bands. When in 1999 his wife received an internship at Long Island’s Limited Arts Editions, he followed, and went from groundskeeper to print assistant, working on such prints as Green Angel by Jasper Johns.

Livingston’s parents selling his work. Photograph: Adrian Brune

Livingston’s parents selling his work. Photograph: Adrian Brune

However, Livingston’s drinking was catching up with him. After moving to Bartlesville in the early 2000s, he attended his first rehab for 90 days, then relapsed – a pattern that continued though his late 20s. The day after coming home from another stint in rehab – 10 October 2008 – Livingston left work early and started drinking, despondent over his impending divorce. Later, he decided to drive to the liquor store for a bottle of whiskey and on the way there hit a 21-year-old man, Joseph Purrington, as he swerved to avoid another car. Purrington died of blunt-force trauma to the head and body; Livingston fled the scene. The police were waiting for him in his driveway.

His parents posted $100,000 bail and Livingston returned to rehab for the next 18 months. By then, it didn’t matter. On the recommendation of his attorney and in lieu of a trial, Livingston accepted a “blind plea” – a guilty plea without the benefit of the prosecution’s approval – and was sentenced to 50 years for first-degree manslaughter, a violent crime for which 85% must be served before parole. It was Livingston’s first offense.

“I liked the idea of a blind plea because I didn’t want to act as if I was not guilty and I didn’t want to have to put Joseph’s family through a trial – it seemed cruel,” Livingston wrote from prison on handmade stationery in March. Because he took a blind plea, he cannot appeal against his sentence; he can only ask a parole board for a time cut or commutation. However, Oklahoma’s pardons and parole board usually denies all violent offenders.

“Maybe if I had stayed in Columbus or Long Island or somewhere else, things might have been different – maybe the date on someone’s tombstone wouldn’t be my sober date. I certainly wish I was serving time for a bunch of DUIs rather than the taking of Joseph’s life.”

Purrington’s family could not be reached for comment and do not have contact with either William Livingston or his parents. On a message board for victims of drunk driving, Paula Purrington, his sister, posted the folllowing: “My life will never be the same … my whole family will never be the same. Joseph loved his nieces, he was wanting a family of his own. All of that was taken away from him.”

At Joseph Harp, especially after a difficult or a tedious day, Livingston finds solace by plugging in his earphones and painting. He is very protective of the painting guild, since “wardens tend to cut out the program and not the prisoner if something goes wrong.

“We have a specific room to work in and we teach each other what we know. This has been instrumental in maintaining sanity around here, as well. We are really trying to do good things, not only for ourselves, but we also donate works to charities to raise funds for causes and we’re just now scratching the surface of what can be done here.”

After Blue Dome, Doc and Marie Livingston tally the sales, which came to a total of $1,600 – or at least 25 paintings of Livingston’s work – some of it bought from second-time collectors who searched for the Prison Art booth. With the money, Livingston will start on the commission for The Outsiders house restoration and then for a show to be held at a bar in downtown Tulsa in two weeks.

“You never realize what lengths the mind will go to accomplish things when you’ve taken away all the normal options,” Livingston said. “As far as the art goes, my problem with most of it is that some of the guys are stuck in drawing things like skulls, dragons, girls – flash tattoo art.

“It would be great if more were willing to get out of the tough guy shit and really explore themselves with their art.”