When you’re on death row, you can either despair or channel your shackled energy in creative ways. Damien Echols chose the latter, learning the disciplines of magic and meditation — and art.
“At one time I tried to make a paint brush out of my own hair” in prison, Echols said. “Did not work at all.”
Echols is one of the “West Memphis Three,” a trio of teenagers who, in 1993, was arrested in West Memphis, Ark., and convicted in the murder of three young boys. Echols’ “goth” style, taste for heavy metal and, particularly, interest in Western ceremonial magic made him a bull’s-eye in a crime with the appearance of ritual in an era of “Satanic panic.”
Echols spent 18 years on death row and likely would have been executed had it not been for a series of HBO documentaries (“Paradise Lost”) that revived interest in the case. Celebrities and musicians rallied behind the men. But a new development in the case ultimately led to their freedom: DNA testing of material at the crime scene in 2007 didn’t point to the convicted men. There had been no such testing at the time of the trial.
After attempts by attorneys for a new trial, Echols and the other two men were finally released in 2011 on the condition of an “Alford plea,” which allowed the state of Arkansas to maintain their guilt but also allowed the men to claim their innocence.
After living in Salem, Mass., for 18 months, Echols moved to Harlem (with his wife, Lorri Davis, his most ardent champion while he was imprisoned), where he currently lives and makes art.
Echols said he began making art on death row as a “side effect of my spiritual, magical practice.”
“My artwork is the same as a practicing Catholic would use a rosary, or a Muslim would use a prayer rug,” he explained. “Things that are set apart from daily life ... sacred objects.”
In prison, he had to find creative ways to create, such as shaving tongue depressors with a razor blade or smearing pencil sketches with his own spit to create the illusion of movement. (“I tried other things when I got out, like spray bottles,” he said. “Was not right — so I went back to using spit.”) Two pieces from his death row days are in “Salem,” along with a series of talismans: ornate etchings that embody concepts for visualization practices.
The talismans are part of Echols’ ongoing devotion to Western magic (he follows the traditions of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an British order from the late 19th century).
“Salem” is an homage to how the Massachusetts town, infamous for its own witch hunts, now embraces outcasts. “We want to show that something of beauty can come from horror,” he said.
Echols said people are always surprised he doesn’t run from the thing that made him a target in that 1993 case. In 2012, he wrote a book about his death row experience (“Life After Death”), and he still does public speaking engagements — but he wants to shift focus away from his time behind bars and on to art and creative collaboration. He may even write a book on magic.
“What I’ve always said is, if you start giving up the things you love, the things that make you who you are, the things that make your life worth living, that you find beauty and magic in,” he said, “then you may as well not be alive anyway.”