Instances of resilience come in many forms — large and small, dramatic and mundane.
And then there is the resilience of Fulton Leroy Washington, a.k.a. Mr. Wash.
A grandfather from the southern California city of Compton, in 1997 Washington was given a mandatory life sentence after he was wrongly convicted for a non-violent drug offense.
As a way of coping with life in a federal prison, Washington taught himself how to paint, finding resilience through art. In 2016, Pres. Barack Obama granted Washington clemency.
This evening, Friday, Dec. 27, Original Thinkers and the Telluride Education Foundation are presenting A Mindful Cocktail Hour at the Michael D. Palm Theatre. There will be drinks and appetizers at 5:45 p.m. followed by a screening, at 6 p.m., of the short documentary, “Mr. Wash,” and a conversation between Washington, who is in town for the event, and Original Thinkers founder and impresario David Holbrooke.
In the film, Washington tells his story.
“In 1997, I was wrongfully convicted of three non-violent drug offenses [and] I was sentenced to life in prison,” he explains. “The judge didn’t think that life was appropriate in this case, but due to mandatory minimums, he was forced to impose a life sentence.”
A life sentence for crimes you didn’t commit would break many of us, but not Mr. Wash, who took up painting after watching other inmates working with the medium. The activity seems to have been rewarding in multiple ways.
First, Washington himself explains in the film that his works served to provide insight into the havoc minimum sentencing and mass incarceration have wrought on the black community.
“While you are painting, you can hear the world around you and sometimes in those soft-spoken words of quietness you are able to see images of a reality that are so profound that it comes out in the form of a painting,” he said.
He continues, “I would paint pictures of other inmates, telling their stories, what’s going on inside of their homes, so it became an avenue that built bridges between a reality and the fictitious world of incarceration.”
And, of course, there was also the way art helped Washington himself face the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.
“My art delivered patience through perfection, perfection brought about persistence and persistence delivered resilience,” he said. “Discovering art did help me become resilient and find the tenacity to continue to fight for my innocence and freedom.”
Holbrooke said he is looking forward to sharing with Telluride the story of Mr. Wash — who also participated in this year’s Original Thinkers — and the tragedy of minimum sentencing and mass incarceration in conjunction with TEF, whose theme for 2019 has been resilience.
“Original Thinkers is ultimately all about wisdom, so to collaborate with Telluride Education Foundation seems just perfect,” Holbrooke said. “What we are trying to do with this new festival is look beyond the traditional pathways of education and look at the education of the self and the spirit. Of course, we try to integrate the experience into that as well, so I believe our event, delving into what Mr. Wash is all about, works so well with the mission of Original Thinkers and the focus on resilience by the good people of the Telluride Education Foundation.”
For her part, TEF President Toni Nash said, “We are very excited to be partnering with Original Thinkers for TEF's holiday Film & Speaker event. TEF’s theme this year is on resilience. TEF’s Film & Speaker Series focuses on raising awareness about social and emotional well-being and topics that are impacting our local Telluride community. Mr. Wash’s story of survival in prison personifies resilience. We are looking forward to the in-depth conversation between David and Mr. Wash on how he used his artistry as a means of turning life’s obstacles into a gift of opportunity. Working in collaboration with Original Thinkers to bring this very special speaker to Telluride, has truly been a joy.”
Tickets are $10 in advance at and $15 at the Palm Theatre door. Doors at 5:45 p.m. The show starts at 6 p.m. and is expected to finish by 7 p.m. For information and to purchase tickets, visit tellurideeducation.org/event. For more on Mr. Wash, visit artbywash.com.