David Gussak Ph.D., ATR-BC

Art on Trial

The Candy Man: A Prisoner Paints with Delectable Materials

How one prison artist paints with candy to relieve his desolation

Posted Apr 07, 2015

At the end of last year, I received a handwritten letter from a prison inmate from central Florida. It began with my name is John Blasi, I am an extraordinary artist and love to paint.” 

A striking introduction...

The letter explained that while incarcerated for over three decades, he began painting. His work has been well received by heads of state, government agencies and through private commissions. He wanted to know if I would be interested in seeing his work.

Oh, did I mention that his art was made from "paints I make from the colored dye of M&M candy and my brushes are handmade from locks of my own hair”?

Blasi, used with permission
Source: Blasi, used with permission

This began a correspondence between us in which Blasi's work and life slowly unfolded. Along with his lengthy handwritten letters, he included a number of heavily varnished small paintings [still faintly aromatic of the candy they were made from], an artist statement and several press releases that confirmed that his work has indeed been obtained by high profile politicians and government agencies.

So, who is John Blasi?

Blasi, used with permission
Source: Blasi, used with permission

On-line and in the papers, John Blasi is a convicted murderer, robbing and killing two shopkeepers in 1981. In a recent letter to me, he is someone who has been wrongly convicted who “killed no one.

“I’m not the monster they made me out to be. My prison record and conduct on a daily basis speaks for itself.” 

He would not nor could not discuss his conviction as his case has periodically been revisited in the courts. He did, however, admit:

“I’ve reached a place in my life where I can look back without panicking. I have regrets, but I’m willing to mention them if they might help someone else avoid a mistake I’ve made. Mostly, I look over my shoulder in gratitude

I am in no position to judge as I do not know the whole story. I know what he tells me. However, I have found it rare, after working with inmates for a very long time, for someone to maintain their innocence after almost 35 years unless he really was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.

So why contact me? He explained that while he wished to find a patron who believed and supported his work, that after thirty years in prison, “…whatever it takes, I’m willing to make a difference in others lives through the use of my artwork.”

Blasi, used with permission
Source: Blasi, used with permission

He agreed to be the subject of a post, and answered a number of questions posed. He explained he had always done some type of art “here and there, nothing to any great length”. He had at one time shared a prison art space with one of the Highwaymen. The Highwaymen were a well-known group of self-taught landscape artists—around 26 African American men who relied on cheap construction materials for their media. Blasi learned a great deal from him. Blasi later read an article about Donny Johnson, an inmate in California who used candy to paint. Exposure to these two artists led him to his technique and style that Blasi has been using since mid-2006.

So, why does he struggle with such unusual materials to painstakingly create such detailed images? The materials can also become quite costly, especially as he needs to use a great many M & Ms for a single art piece, and a large packet of them are so much more expensive inside. Yet, he reflected:

 “…what’s the price for enjoying oneself and getting satisfaction? I get a natural high off doing my artwork. Many times it has pulled me thru these years especially when receiving bad news or something like losing a loved one. Prison is a very negative and lonely place were [sic] one can’t afford to wear their feelings on their sleeves!!! The artwork has played a major part in my life in here.”

Blasi, used with permission
Source: Blasi, used with permission

"What prompted me was I needed something that I could feel good about, something constructive that I could see results; actually knowing that I could create something for a moment in time… I could look back and see what I had accomplished having to show for—so many in prison have so much idle time and choose to waste it. I chose differently.”

He added, “I cannot change what has happened in the past, only to learn from it, as sadly as that is.”

As I've mentioned in previous posts, some people become fascinated by the art of those who are imprisoned—even those who murdered-simply because of morbid curiosity [see the post "The Art of Murder(ers)"] I find his art transcends this through the the very means he goes through to  overcome the insitutional limitations to create his unique expressions.

A previous post, “Prison Art—Strings are Attachedstressed that as long as there has been incarceration, there has been art. Prisons are filled with creative energy needing an outlet. Or, as one author stressed:

Blasi, used with permission
Source: Blasi, used with permission

"The incarceration experience, one of sensory deprivation, is a world of imposed controls, rigid regulations, tedium, minimum allowable risk, and consistent inconsistencies. It appears that the creative process (art-making) is an apt coping mechanism in order to survive such an oppressive dysfunctional milieu, especially to derive some sense of order out of chaos." (Ursprung, 1997, p. 17)

Regardless of the crime, the work oftentimes rises above the ugliness inside. These rare and exceptional pieces certainly did so.

Perhaps, Blasi said it best:

Blasi, used with permission
Source: Blasi, used with permission

“If you look closely [at the paintings] they pretty much tell their hidden story of my life in a prison’s world. Some days good, others not so good…I invest so much of myself into each piece that the connection between the artist and the subject definitely shows.”

Reference

Ursprung, W. (1997). Insider art: The creative ingenuity of the incarcerated artist. In D. Gussak and E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy In Prisons and Other Correctional Settings (pp. 13-24).Chicago, IL: Magnolia Street Publishers.