While most aspiring artists were enjoying their time in art school, Damien Echols was on death row as a member of the West Memphis Three, who were tried and convicted as teenagers for murdering three boys. Echols awaited the death sentence for 18 years until DNA evidence asserted his innocence and resulted in his 2011 release.
Today, Echols is a gallery-showing visual artist. He formed The Hand art collective alongside artists menton3 and David Stoupakis. The collective currently has a show at Santa Monica’s Copro Gallery titled SALEM, consisting of ritualistic drawings, gothic paintings, and sculptures made by Echols while on death row. Stoupakis believes that Salem has a universality to it as a theme, “Salem felt like the proper title for this exhibition; I think one time or another we have all felt injustice towards us in some capacity.”
The exhibition’s title is an apt metaphor for Echols’ experience in prison, “I saw exactly what happened in Salem happen to me; I experienced it from a first hand perspective. I saw people and the state of Arkansas try to murder me just like the people tried to murder the accused in Salem,” Echols tells The Creators Project.
Echols’ venture into art began as a therapeutic process during his time behind bars, “When I was in prison, it almost sounds crazy to say, but I would get so immersed in creating art and trying to express certain things, that there were times when I almost wouldn’t see the prison walls for days at a time because I was so turned inwards,” he says. “It gave me something to focus on other than the pain and the humiliation and the torture and the trauma and everything else I was undergoing. In a way, it helped preserve my sanity.”
Alongside art, Echols honed his spiritual practice of Magick to mentally and physically endure during his sentence, “I had been hit in the face by guards and I suffered a lot of damage in my teeth. There’s no dental care [on death row]. Your choice is to live in pain or let them pull your teeth out. I didn’t want them to pull my teeth out so I had to find a means of coping with the pain,” says Echols. “The meditation, breathing, and visualization techniques of Magick helped me cope and deal with that pain. If not for Magick, I don’t know how I would’ve survived in there.”
Magick appears to be the most important part of Echols’ life even outside of bars, even coming before his new art practice, “For me artwork itself is just a side effect of the Magickal practice,” Echols states. “If we live in a world where we can practice Magick, everything else is of secondary importance. That’s what I want to dedicate my life to.” His collective has even launched a social awareness campaign titled Magick Revolution, that aims to “awaken viewers to higher states of consciousness.”