Antonio Howard: Creating His Own Narrative
The inspiring local painter shines prolifically after imprisonment
Antonio Howard is a busy guy. A rapidly rising painter of note, he's also a spoken word artist and has written and published three books. In 2020, the now 44-year-old Erieite completed two public art projects, one that beautified the exterior of the Whole Foods Co-op, and one mural that adorns the wall next to Luther Manus' 12th Street Sunoco station. He was recently selected to provide the art for two City of Erie bandwagons, , which are regularly deployed at more than 40 events each year. After being awarded Erie Arts & Culture's Emerging Artist Fellowship in 2019, he is now an artist in residence with the organization, helping to re-envision bikeways and public spaces around the city. He's a member of this year's Jefferson Leadership Academy, and his artwork is currently being exhibited at Gannon's Waldron Campus Center, including a piece that was part of the Erie Art Museum's 2019 Spring Show.
He is doing all of this after being labeled a "juvenile lifer."
At the age of 15, he became one of Erie County's nine youths who faced a mandatory life sentence for murder, involved in a shooting that resulted in the death of cab driver Richard Stevens. His mandatory life sentence — as well as that of many others like him — was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama. He served 26 years at Huntingdon State Correctional Institution before being released in 2018.
Howard is a brilliant and radiant presence. He is quick to introduce himself as "Peggy's son" when he's in the positive spotlight, in honor of his mother. Meeting him, you get the sense of someone who truly understands himself, and the fact that his past need not entirely define his future.
I had the privilege of joining Howard on a Zoom presentation on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day for Erie Arts & Culture on public art. There, he shared the fulfilling experiences he had crafting the Manus mural, and I knew I had to talk to him more.
Nick Warren: Can you just tell me what kind of got you started creating and making art?
Antonio Howard: I don't know what exactly got me started. I think circumstances that did not facilitate creativity got me started consciously painting while I was in prison. So I say consciously because if you ask my grandmother, I have been drawing my whole life, but I don't recall any of that. So my official art career or trajectory began while I was in prison and I've been painting for approximately 20-some years now. So, to give you a bit more information about that process — all this is already in my book and I really regret telling all of these stories again, because I wrote the book to purge all the emotion that came with it.
So I started painting — while I was in the RHU (the Restricted Housing Unit, commonly called "the hole") — a bunch of sketches of shields. When I was growing up, faces were very interesting to me. They were also defensive mechanisms. So I started designing these African shields. I ended up sketching facial features onto those shields. Those designs took on their own meaning to me — they were just sketches at the time. I got out of the RHU, ran into some people who were kind of into the arts, saw my designs, and were like "I would like to pay you if you paint one of those for me." I had never painted before. So long story short, somebody gave me some paints — actually oil paints at the time — and a canvas. Windsor Newton water-mixable oils. I stayed up for days. Completely immersed in the toxic smell of oil paints, because the scent was hermetically sealed almost. So I was upside-down, on my side, just trying to figure out how to maneuver the paint, because it's oil, it never dried. So I painted what would turn out to be a mask — it was supposed to be a shield but everyone referred to it as a mask. I presented it, the individual suggested I should bring it down to the auditorium because there was an art show coming up. The last Friday of every month or so, they had an art exhibit in the auditorium where staff members could actually come down to the auditorium and purchase a prisoner's work. Prisoners would be compensated, DOC will take 10 percent, so that's how I was invited down there. I went down there and set it up and the guy said he would put a price on it. I put some menial, extremely low price I thought it was worth. I didn't know what art was, I didn't know what would happen. But I came back after lunch, and somebody told me my painting got sold.
I don't remember the number, so I'm making this number up right now, but I got 20 bucks, right? And it turned out that it sold for maybe a hundred or a couple hundred bucks. So I'm like "wait a minute, somebody changed the price that I had put on the painting and it sold. I was sold after that. That was the first time I actually made money, in my life on my own. I was a teenager. And I'm like, "wow." And I've been doing painting ever since.
NW: You mentioned your books, let's dive in there now. Are you specifically talking about the first book, When A Child Is Worth More Than the Worst Mistake He Ever Made? Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process, what inspired you to make this happen?
AH: I think my writing was impelled by not having a voice. I have a lot of unresolved issues about my story. I spent most of my life hearing people tell my story from their perspective. It was strange to me because usually, that perspective is skewed. "I'm the problem," "disciplinary," "bad seed." It was always from a really biased perspective, somebody else's perspective. So I started keeping my own journal. Why don't I tell my own story? I started journaling, waking up at three o'clock in the morning, thinking about my story and my narratives. Because I had no voice, which was the reason I wanted to publish it, and rid myself of all those unresolved emotions that were behind it. Verbally defending yourself against shields, adults when you were a child, police officers, whoever else is an exercise in futility, because you have no voice. That was my opportunity to use my voice.
Before I shared it, I sent it to my father, my mom, everybody, to get their perspective on it. And interestingly enough, everybody was pissed off, right? Because you don't air your dirty laundry in my family. But the interesting thing was that everyone up until that point was invested in airing my dirty laundry. But they all eventually came to terms with it and I moved forward with the publishing process. Me sharing it with them opened up some much-needed conversation that was impossible to have prior to that. They all came to terms with it. We talked it through, got some other information I hadn't known about myself, my upbringing, I learned some really valuable information about their stories as a result, but in the end, I told my story.
NW: What were some reactions from readers who maybe didn't know you personally?
AH: Oh, the first readers were people in prison. There were a bunch of people who bought my books. Appreciation came from a lot of unexpected sources, including staff members. There was empathy, it almost had the same effect that my paintings had. It seemed to humanize me in some of their eyes. A lot of people saw me as a stoic inmate who just kept to himself and my facial expressions exhibited anger. After they read the book, they realized that my facial expressions weren't me feeling anger, it was pain.
For people who make a career out of making sure that they don't know your story, or they perceive your stories as insignificant, [the books] did a lot to increase my value as a human being to them. Not to mention the fact that they were always borderline surprised that I could actually write and articulate myself.
"I didn't know that you could articulate yourself that way." It was very well-written. It started a conversation amongst the men I was around in prison, staff members, and everyone who read the book. People thanked me for being as candid as I was about my story, and shared their own stories, and would ask for suggestions on how they should write their story, and how it feels to be that vulnerable. It was a good experience, all the way around. I didn't think it would be, because I shared some personal things there, but it really was.
NW: It seems like you've ramped up your public art portfolio recently. Can you speak about the Manus mural, the things you learned, and that whole experience for you?
AH: I learned that real art wasn't the mural. The real art was creating an excuse to bring the community together in ways that it hadn't been up to that point. Caesar [Westbrook] and I worked on the project, and I don't like to say I worked on the project with Caesar without mentioning the fact that there were many more people that we worked with. It seems to be tradition to amputate key players from history. It's significant to other people, but they perceive it as being history created by one or two people. It literally took us one day to prime that wall with everybody that was helping us. Lourdes Jasso, Armando Reyes, many members from CHROMA. People from the [Jefferson] Leadership Academy. Art's Bakery stopped by to feed us. Other people stopped by to give us plates. We had so much community support. There were a couple of people who were homeless — who I knew from my previous job, working at the Mental Health Association — who came by and picked up a brush, and never painted in their lives. I met people who, for all intents and purposes, I don't think I would have ever crossed their path or they would ever cross mine. I watched Luther Manus cry, smile, and dance. It was an amazing experience. And I don't want to overplay it, like it was this dream come true. It was a fantasy, it was potential in the making. Sometimes to me, it was too good to be true. Right? We just painted on the wall. But everybody's coming around. Smiling, saying "Hey, I knew your father," "I know your grandmother." It was like a family reunion. People would show up. "Do you remember me?" No, I don't remember you. I apologize. But I remember you. Someone showed up to give a spotlight so we could paint at night. It was a communal experience. The art was about that part for me. What's left on the wall was just evidence of it.
NW: You're actively involved in the CHROMA Guild. Can you talk briefly about that?
AH: I'm currently the secretary for the CHROMA Guild, which was organized by Erie Arts & Culture to try and advocate for artists to color to provide more opportunities, capacity building, to educate those of us who may just be artists but not necessarily attuned to the financial aspects of art, logistics, and social platforms. We are a guild that is geared toward trying to facilitate the growth and development of artists of color, advancing those opportunities. I've been a member now for about a year. We're trying to recruit other artists of color in the community so that we can develop a guild that rivals other guilds and vehicles for opportunities for other people so we can have a seat at the table.
NW: Can you speak about some of the themes that seem to run through several of your pieces?
AH: I don't tend to follow a theme. I just produce the work because it's the emotion that I gotta get rid of, right? There's obviously color, vibrancy as a theme. In many of my paintings, I see them memorialized in isolation. This is in retrospect as I'm looking at some of my older work and think that based upon the lack of intentional themes, I've kind of muted my 2021 New Year's resolution to refine or restructure the way I work. I want my work to be more intentional moving forward, to be more of an artist's political statement. I want it to move communities. I want it to evoke conversations. And right now I'm not so sure my work speaks anything beyond my personal past traumas. I want it to be codified inside the work in some shape or form to match it. And I knew in pieces like "Prison Is Where Relationships Go to Die" and the other piece "Juvenile Life Without Parole" [Ed: featured on this issue's cover] that I wanted to make more statements and produce a scene that when people look at it they say, "Well, that's an Antonio piece."
That's one of those pieces that's not really art to me. It's evidence of where I was between the years of 1991 and 2018. It's definitely one of those where it's not art, it's an experience. It's proof. The themes that I intend to create moving forward in my pieces are more aligned with giving a voice to other people who are voiceless. I was imprisoned for 26-and-a-half years, and prior to that, I was a child. But now I'm here and I have a voice. You're here, hearing me, this is my voice. At some point, they say you exhaust the 26 letters of the English alphabet, and whatever sequence that you could possibly structure, at some point in your life, you exhaust that formula. You have to make a choice to either shut the f--k up, stop talking, and let your demonstration speak for you, or make a conscious choice to repeat everything you said during the first part of your life. During this part of my life, I want my demonstration to speak for me, and I want my art to do the same thing. No more words; you see it.
View Howard's work at Gannon's Waldron Center, with a virtual celebration/performance in conjunction with Gannon University, Penn State Behrend, and LifeThruMusic. Register at gannonalumni.org/event/culturalcrossroads
Howard's three books can be purchased on Amazon.com. When A Child Is Worth More Than the Worst Mistake He Ever Made // Love is When You Want the Best (For Someone Else) // A Black Man and a Spear(e): A Prisoner's Introduction to William Shakespeare Inside a Prison''s Book Discussion Group
This interview has been edited for clarity. Nick Warren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org