Serial Killer Art, Therapy With a Profit Motive
West Palm Beach recently made some noise over an art exhibit that featured nineteen paintings done in prison by John Wayne Gacy. During the 1970s, Gacy lured and killed at least thirty-three boys and young men, burying most of them in the crawl space beneath his house. While in prison awaiting his execution, which occurred in 1994, his artistic output was prodigious. According to Steve Suo in The Oregonian, he amassed over $100,000 from his artwork. (Suo reports that prison officials were going to take the money, but decided against proceedings that might delay Gacy's execution date.)
His subjects ranged from Elvis Presley to Pogo the Clown (the persona he'd used to entertain children) to fellow killer Jeffrey Dahmer. In the controversial art show, reported the Associated Press, his painting of a bird was offered for $195, while his depiction of a baseball game between dwarves and the Chicago Cubs, autographed by baseball players, was going for $9,500. (The sketch of Dahmer was reportedly for sale on eBay for $41.) Gacy's agent, Steve Koschal, also an autograph expert, had collected some two hundred of these paintings as part of his three-year correspondence with the condemned killer. It was he who suggested they offer the paintings for sale. It wasn't long before he found a diverse market, ranging from celebrities to professionals to home-makers. "There's a huge demand," he says. But a new prison warden stopped Gacy from painting a year before he was executed---yet his death only made the items more valuable.
In 1997, writes Harold Schechter in The Serial Killer Files, an exhibit called "Sensation" included a large black-and-white depiction of Myra Hindley, one of the team of child killers known as the Moors Murderers. What made this piece by Marcus Harvey so controversial in England was that it was created from children's handprints. However, Schechter points out, such an exhibit has a long tradition in the history of art. Medieval depictions of bloodied saints, and human atrocities featured by painters such as Goya and Cézanne, have ever been part of the art world. Whether the artist is using savagery to make a point about humanity or is himself (or herself) a criminal offender, art is about human expression, not about what pleases others.
A state-sponsored art show for inmates in 2001, "Corrections on Canvas," drew protests when it was learned that Arthur Shawcross, the killer of eleven women in Rochester, New York in 1999-90, was offering ten pictures, including a pencil sketch of Princess Diana. He was going to get half of the proceeds from any sale (and his work commanded from $500 on up). Shawcross had already been punished two years earlier with solitary confinement for giving his poems and paintings to people who had put them on eBay. In response to the protest, the New York State Senate quickly passed a law against inmates getting any of the money, and according to BBC News, Governor Partake took steps to keep violent felons from exhibiting in the future in such shows.
In 2002, Korn singer Jonathan Davis, a former mortuary student, announced he was planning a "serial killer museum" in which to display artifacts associated with multiple murderers and their crimes, but his announcement drew the ire of partner Arthur Rosenblatt. As reported by numerous news agencies, including Yahoo! News, Rosenblatt had a completely different understanding of their venture. Rosenblatt is a collector of criminal artifacts, including Ted Bundy's Volkswagon, and he had believed they were opening a museum associated with the criminal justice system. He also said he never received any funding, though he had loaned Davis the car and other artifacts. As of June 2004, this museum is on hold, while its organizers figure out what they're doing. Regardless, the killers will continue to produce. For many, it's a way to keep affirming themselves and their deeds.