By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The exhibit’s being organized by the L.A.-based Web site www.WM3.org, also known as the West Memphis Three “support group,” run by a handful of Angelenos who for the past seven years have tirelessly publicized the case and helped turn it into a movement on par with the effort to free Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in the ’70s. The art show is the brainchild of Chad Robertson, a painter and graphic designer with extensive contacts in L.A.’s art world. His girlfriend, Kathy Bakken, one of the founding members of the WM3 support group, introduced him to the case.
“She broke it to me on our first date,” says Robertson, who with his spiked black hair looks like he’d still fit right in at the Big O skate park in Orange County where he spent his early teens. “I borrowed the Paradise Lostvideos from her and watched the first one by myself. I was kinda like, ‘Man, something’s wrong, but those guys are fucking crazy.’ Then I watched the second one, and I was like, ‘Holy shit! These guys are so fucking innocent.’”
It’s a common reaction for those who’ve seen both documentaries. In the first, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky left viewers with the niggling feeling that Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin may have had something to do with the crime, even though there appeared to be nothing of substance in the prosecution’s case. However, in the sequel, Berlinger and Sinofsky go bare-knuckles with the proposition that the West Memphis Three are guilty. They focus on the drug-addled, borderline-psychotic behavior of John Mark Byers, the mysterious demise of his wife, Melissa, whose cause of death is still “undetermined,” and the highly suspicious way he just happened to lose all of his teeth around the same time bite-mark evidence became a crucial issue in the appeals process. In short, it’s difficult to come away from Paradise Lost 2and not believe that the West Memphis Three are the victims of a colossal miscarriage of justice.
Initially, Robertson planned to paint only the three men, but then he read an interview with Henry Rollins, a supporter of the WM3 who last year released Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs To Benefit the West Memphis Threeand has since been doing a worldwide tour to support the album, which includes covers by Iggy Pop, Lemmy and Ice T. (According to Rollins’ Web site, $10,000 has gone to the WM3’s legal-defense fund so far.) In the article, Rollins discussed the case and his activism, saying he’d run out of ideas and would like to hear from anyone who had any. The proverbial light bulb went on over Robertson’s head, and “Cruel and Unusual,” a particularly apt title in view of Echols’ recent treatment, was born.
“Originally, I picked Raymond Pettibon just based on his artwork,” says Robertson. “He’s so outspoken, with an extremely interesting point of view. And I felt he would be a really great voice for what’s going down — the strangeness of this matching the strangeness of his art. Then I picked some of my heroes, like Exene — X, of course, was my all-time favorite band. Then, as the show started picking up speed, Kathy brought in Matt Mahurin, and Grove brought in Floria Sigismondi. So it wasn’t all just my choosing. But the original, core people were, and they were based on the punk rock values, shall we say.”
Many artists in the show expressed a personal connection to the case in addition to a desire to raise awareness of the larger issues involved. For Dead Kennedys founder Jello Biafra, the idea of people being sentenced to life in prison or death row because of their appearance and their musical tastes struck a nerve.
“I was an outcast from the moment I started school,” explains Biafra, “and it took me many years before I became proud of that. It still meant I wound up accused of many things I didn’t do both at school and at home, and it kind of stoked a fire inside of me as far as my strong opinions of the justice system go.”
Poster artist and billboard liberator Shepard Fairey, he of the ubiquitous Obey Giant images, met Robertson at Rollins’ free Amoeba show back in December to promote the Rise AboveCD. Fairey, who recalls being harassed by Southern cops for “looking funny,” instantly signed on, and did a blue-and-black silk-screened poster of Rollins to benefit the WM3. Sales of the poster have so far garnered the legal-defense fund $2,000, and Fairey’s doing a two-tone silk-screen of the three young men for the show.
Punk rock Daumier Raymond Pettibon’s Remember the West Memphis Three is a scathing, hilarious denunciation of America’s backstabbing snitch culture wherein Joe Citizen is your worst Stalinist nightmare come true. Other than its title, the pen-and-ink drawing does not refer directly to the case.
“It’s human nature to have concerns raised by the things you’re closest to,” explains Pettibon. “I think the fact that it had to do with rock music and that sort of thing probably brings a lot of attention to it from artists and musicians and so forth. That’s a genuine response, but in my case, I’d be suspicious of going in that direction because this sort of thing happens, it’s systemic. That’s kind of the problem when there’s so little attention raised to the many victims of the justice system.”