‘Raphael Couldn’t Have Painted Something More Beautiful’

The couple who saved an imprisoned artist’s life — and the extraordinary gift he gave in return.

Photograph courtesy of Janie Paul for The Atavist

Kelly Loudenberg | The Atavist Magazine | March 2022 | 10 minutes (3,016 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 125, “The Caregivers.”

 

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

—1 Corinthians 13:4–8

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Danny Valentine sat alone in his threadbare single-wide trailer, staring out a window at green and red holiday lights flashing in the distance. It was 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve 2016, and the snow blanketing Rock, a rural area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, seemed to swallow every sound. In the heavy silence, Danny tried to fight off the dark thoughts that dogged him relentlessly. This was one of the hardest times of the year for the rangy 55-year-old with blue eyes. He didn’t have a tree to decorate or a family to eat a big turkey dinner with. Fresh off parole after a 23-year stint in prison, he didn’t have shit.

As Danny pushed cigarette butts around an ashtray on the windowsill, his phone rang. On the other end of the line was a woman. She sounded like she’d been crying.

“I just can’t do it alone anymore,” the woman said. “Can you please come?”

On Christmas morning, Danny got in his black GMC pickup truck and drove 12 hours through a wicked snowstorm to Ann Arbor. It was evening by the time he pulled to a stop in front of a large house, and Danny could see lights reflected in the windows. Even though he’d been invited, Danny was hesitant to approach the house. It glowed with a warmth that had been alien to him his whole life.

When he worked up the courage to go inside, he entered through the neatly organized garage, then walked down a hallway. The woman from the phone was waiting in the dining room. Her name was Janie Paul. She had dark hair, and she was bone-tired. When she saw Danny she smiled.

Sitting on the couch nearby was Janie’s husband. He was lanky, with gray hair. Danny sat down next to him and patted his arm. “Hey, Buzz,” Danny said gently. “How you doing?”

Buzz couldn’t answer, not really—but Danny knew that already. He was there to help Buzz. He’d do whatever his friend needed, and he’d stay for as long as it took.

Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love.

 
Buzz Alexander wasn’t someone who had often needed help. He got his undergraduate degree in English literature from Harvard, continued on to Cambridge for his master’s, translated poetry in Italy while writing verse of his own, then went back to Harvard for a doctorate focused on the novel as an art form. With his wife, an art history student, he became a house parent in a dormitory, then a parent to two kids of his own. He moved his family to Ann Arbor in the early 1970s, when he accepted a teaching position at the University of Michigan. Buzz would remain there for the rest of his career.

Participating in the antiwar movement while U.S. forces were in Vietnam cemented Buzz’s commitment to social justice, and he approached activism through his first love: the arts. He wrote a book, Film on the Left, about radical documentary filmmaking of the 1930s and ’40s. He also traveled to Peru and participated in street theater performances about community empowerment, public health, and self-discovery.

Buzz was in his fifties and divorced by the time he met Janie Paul at an art residency in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1992. She was a painter and educator, with degrees from Hunter College and New York University. “The first day at breakfast,” Janie recalled, “we were sitting in a huge lodge overlooking a lake, and I asked, ‘Does anyone want to go canoeing?’ ” Buzz took her up on the offer. Janie was glad he did. “He looked like Henry Fonda,” she said. About a decade Janie’s senior, Buzz was tall and wiry, with a rugged, expressive face. He walked with a forward slant, as if eager to get where he was going, and carried an extra-large backpack full of books and yellow legal pads scrawled with notes.

As they paddled the canoe under canopies of trees, Janie told Buzz about her experience as a little girl landing on the shore of Lake Atitlán and being greeted by a swarm of people. Janie’s father was a prominent anthropologist, and in her childhood she traveled to Guatemala, where he conducted fieldwork studying the mysterious bonesetters, Mayan healers who treated injuries with powers they believed they derived through dreams. On the trip Janie described to Buzz, which occurred in the early 1950s, she remembered sharing a bag of art supplies with local children, a communal creative experience that would stay with her forever.

Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love.

The following year, Buzz went on sabbatical and moved to Manhattan to be near Janie. They shuttled between his tiny sublet on West 74th Street and her spacious loft, which she shared with other women and their children. Janie confided in Buzz that she had spent time as a young adult in a controversial “therapy” cult, the Sullivanians; the members disavowed the nuclear family and lived—and slept—together in several apartments on the Upper West Side. He didn’t judge her. Janie and Buzz made love, discussed human rights, shared passages from Proust, and went to movies at Film Forum. Buzz was taken by Janie’s curiosity and passion for adventure. She loved that he was a scholar but also down-to-earth. “I could talk to him about a Henry James novel in the same conversation about his experience giving sheep baths in Peru,” Janie said.

After that idyllic year had passed Buzz went home, but he and Janie couldn’t stand being apart, so she looked for a job near Ann Arbor. She soon landed a coveted position teaching color theory in the University of Michigan’s art school. Janie moved into Buzz’s three-story Victorian, adjacent to campus. To colleagues and friends they seemed inseparable, a package deal: Janie and Buzz, Buzz and Janie. It would stay that way for more than twenty years.
 

Before meeting Janie, Buzz had led several poetry and theater workshops in Michigan’s prisons. He was part of a nationwide community of progressive activists, academics, and artists responding to the injustices of the carceral system through arts programming. By the 1990s, U.S. prisons were overflowing with people, many of them men and women of color swept up in the War on Drugs. Since Buzz’s arrival in Michigan, the state’s incarcerated population had leaped from under 10,000 to more than 30,000. He believed the arts would enable people trapped behind bars to express their creativity, tell their stories, and find healing.

Buzz’s workshops revolved around improvisation, including performances inspired by the inmates’ own life experiences. One play, staged inside a women’s prison, was titled Bodies on Slabs. It took place in a morgue where corpses came back to life and told the audience what had happened to them. They soon found that they couldn’t get out of the morgue, couldn’t escape their fate.

With Janie as a partner, Buzz expanded the work he was doing in prisons. They both thought academia was too conservative, a stodgy bubble where people indulged in niche pursuits. They preferred to invest their energy in civic engagement, and especially in making art more accessible. Together they formed the Prison Creative Arts Project, a University of Michigan program dedicated to promoting the arts behind bars.

Before long their lives revolved around PCAP. Janie and Buzz hosted Sister Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, and Jimmy Baca, a formerly incarcerated poet, memoirist, and screenwriter, at their home when they visited for PCAP events. University students came over for potluck dinners and to discuss the injustices of U.S. prisons.

In 1996, Janie and Buzz decided to put on an exhibition of painting, sculpture, and other visual work created by Michigan prisoners. They knew from experience that there were men and women in the state’s incarcerated population who were producing exceptional art that too often went overlooked. The PCAP show would be held at one of the university’s art galleries, where students and colleagues, as well as the family and friends of the participants, could see it. The works would be for sale, with proceeds going to the artists.

To get the project started, Janie and Buzz asked contacts at the prisons where PCAP worked to recommend incarcerated artists. Phil Klintworth, the activities director at a prison in the city of Jackson, suggested a guy who, in his words, “could do anything.” The man had volunteered to clean up after the prison’s clay workshops, even though he didn’t participate in them. Day after day, month after month, he filled a five-gallon bucket with scraps of clay from other prisoners’ work spaces. He used those leftovers to sculpt an array of figures, including mermaids and ballerinas. When he didn’t have clay, he used other items—toilet paper and soap, for instance—in his work. Anything he could get his hands on, Klintworth told Buzz, the man used to make something beautiful.

People at the prison had taken notice. When a guard was renovating his bar at home, he paid the artist a few hundred dollars for hand-sculpted figures, including a pair of dolphins. The inmate also drew family portraits for guards, and for other men doing time, for $100 a head—or, if he liked you, $50. He based them on photographs, and they were strikingly realistic. (The sales were aboveboard, made through official channels inside the prison.)

Buzz was impressed. He knew right away that he wanted the artist to be part of PCAP’s first exhibition. To find out if the man would be interested, Buzz wrote him a letter. He was prisoner number 156689. His name was Daniel Valentine.

When Danny was six his grandmother gave him a coloring book full of dinosaurs and spaceships. He added his own figures and shapes. He didn’t understand why he should color someone else’s drawing.

 
Danny grew up in a blue-collar family on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, the second of five kids. His mom, Mary, worked in an auto-parts factory and sometimes held other jobs to make ends meet. His dad, a mechanic, was “an abusive but good man,” Danny said. He once whipped Danny with a fan belt from one of the trucks he used for work. Sometimes he’d make Danny pay for the food he ate. Mary was afraid of her husband; he’d once threatened to hit her with a crowbar, she told me. But given the time she spent working, she didn’t witness much of the abuse he inflicted on their children. She did recall one occasion when she caught her husband on the verge of purposefully breaking Danny’s leg.

Amid the violence at home, Danny was able to teach himself to draw. According to Mary, when Danny was six his grandmother gave him a coloring book full of dinosaurs and spaceships. He added his own figures and shapes. He didn’t understand why he should color someone else’s drawing.

Danny ran away when he was 12; in response his dad called the cops. This kicked off Danny’s long career in the carceral system. He spent time in juvenile detention, ran away, and was locked up again for fleeing. It happened over and over. Danny was an escape artist, a regular juvie Houdini. He once faked a leg injury so that he could be sent for X-rays at a hospital; there, he went into a bathroom, climbed into the drop ceiling, and made his way out of the facility. Another time, Danny jumped on the desk in his cell until he loosened the iron fixture that secured it to the wall enough that he could remove it entirely. Danny waited for weeks for a thunderstorm to come; he knew that in bad weather the guards were required to turn off the motion sensors in the yard. Once the rain started, he used the iron fixture to break the window in his cell and pry the bars apart, until he could fit his head through the opening and wiggle his way out. He hid out for months in an empty cabin belonging to his uncle before the authorities found him.

While his home life was dangerous, Danny was no safer in detention centers. He was an attractive boy, with girlish features and curly blond hair. According to Danny, he was sexually assaulted many times. When he was 17, locked up in an adult prison for stealing a motorcycle, security came in the form of a boyfriend. “He was one of these guys who was feared among everybody in the prison,” Danny said. “He was a real gruesome-looking guy.” But with Danny the man was soft, sensitive. “He wouldn’t show this side to nobody else, but he would show it to me, and it was beautiful,” Danny said. The man bought Danny coats from guys on the yard and cookies and ice cream from the commissary.

As an adult, Danny continued to break the law. He said he never carried a gun or intentionally hurt anyone. He was mostly trying to survive, shoplifting food and once stealing a car, a Chevy Impala with a vinyl top, for shelter. He lived in the car for two months of a brutal Michigan winter.

During stints behind bars, Danny drew. At one point a friend gave him a tablet of paper and a set of Prismacolor pencils. “They were like magic,” Danny said. He liked to draw people doing everyday things. With the right pencils, he could mimic the chrome of a motorcycle or the fuzzy texture of a mother’s bathrobe. Sometimes he coated the tips of his pencils with wax to achieve interesting effects on the page.

During one period, Danny was free for about a year. He picked up odd jobs, pumping gas and working in hotels, before landing a position at an art gallery in downtown Ann Arbor. According to Danny, the gallerist was also an amateur photographer, a poor man’s Hugh Hefner who liked to photograph beautiful, scarcely clothed women, particularly university students. He paid his models ten dollars an hour and sometimes supplied them with booze and cocaine during shoots. An admirer and collector of old pinup drawings, the gallerist asked Danny to render the photographs he took as illustrations to sell.

One day the gallerist hung a few of Danny’s artworks in the gallery. Two of them sold: a colored-pencil drawing of a muscled woman sitting on a motorcycle, and a pen-and-ink drawing of a woman’s half-shadowed face. Danny made about $1,500. “It was a first for me, a big deal,” he said. “I thought I had arrived.”

He promptly went out to celebrate—and burn through the money he’d earned—at a biker bar and strip club called Leggs Lounge. It was the kind of place, Danny said, that had a room designated for blow jobs. He was having a blast, snorting coke while stuffing cash into the countless G-strings, when a pair of sex workers solicited Danny, promising him a night of erotic splendor.

Danny later claimed that he paid one of the women up front, and when she ran off with the money—plus some extra she’d taken from his pocket—he and the other woman agreed that he’d settle up with her when they were done. They went back to his place, where according to Danny the woman refused to do what they’d agreed upon, so he didn’t pay her. His landlord, who also happened to be his employer, the gallerist, later informed him that cops had come by looking for him. After evading the police for a few months, Danny was arrested for rape.

He denied the charge, but a jury found him guilty. Danny was given 20 to 30 years in prison, and he started his sentence at a correctional facility in Jackson. His only lifeline was his art—and in time his wife.

Danny had been dating a woman named Diane for a few months before he was locked up. She loved him, and she was loyal—she’d been there every day of his trial, sitting alone on his side of the courtroom. Danny’s family was nowhere to be found. Now Diane racked up hundreds of dollars a month in phone bills calling him in prison. She sent him clothes and helped him buy art supplies. She spent as much time as she could seated across from him in the prison’s hollow, sunless visiting room.

After Danny had served a year of his sentence, he and Diane decided to get married. Danny asked the prisoner in the cell next to him to be his best man. Diane wore a thrift-store blazer and dress. They kissed through a bulletproof window.

Together the newlyweds came up with a plan to get Danny back on his feet financially once he was out of prison: Danny would mail Diane the art he made in his cell, and she’d sell it in Ann Arbor. They assumed Diane could get more for Danny’s drawings and sculptures on the outside than he could hawking them to guards and other prisoners. But the plan didn’t work. Diane wasn’t an art dealer—she was a nurse supporting an adopted daughter. She wasn’t sure how to sell Danny’s work, or to whom.

The relationship eventually became tense; the couple’s calls and visits routinely ended in anger. Diane moved several hours away for a new job and began seeing a doctor from the practice where she worked. When divorce papers arrived at the prison. Danny signed them.

Without Diane, Danny had no one. “I had not one person to call,” he said, “and that’s a lonely, desolate, hopeless space to be in.” He figured that he’d be almost sixty by the time he got out, and without money or a family to support him, not much good could happen after that.

Danny spiraled into a deep depression. He saw no way out.

Read the full story at The Atavist.