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Attica, Augusta, and Art: A Creative Talk with Valentino Dixon

Attica, Augusta, and Art: A Creative Talk with Valentino Dixon

You may have heard the story of Valentino Dixon. But here’s what you didn’t know about the artist and the colored pencils that got him out of prison.

Ryan Sather

I thought I knew about art and what it takes. But then I shared time with a man who spoke about what art brought him: survival, focus, drive, and above all else… beauty and freedom. 

He showed me it takes someone of immense mental creativity to create art in any of its forms. That those daring enough to skirt boundaries and lose their reeling minds in the chaos of the world can spin out of themselves the most awe-inspiring pieces. 

My golf drawings added years to my life in prison. It was life insurance. I was on borrowed time, and golf gave me life. 

He showed me survival depends on how well you complete the drawing. Sometimes the “drawing” is your life – it starts blank and wildly fills with colors and schemes spun with beauty. Our drawings all take different turns, greet different faces, but are unmistakably our own art throughout the journey. 

We spoke with Valentino Dixon at his home studio, where he showed us his colored pencils,
his process, and why he devotes 10 hours every day to drawing his works of art. He even showed us a few new pieces on the way.

This man’s name is Valentino Dixon, and his story does not take much searching to uncover these days. Two scrolls down that page and knew I wanted to meet the man behind the words in the article. Mr. Dixon is a lot of things: a father, an artist, a champion for others, and these days he’s a free man. 

For a large chunk of his life he was denied that adjective, as he spent 27 years of his “drawing” in Attica Prison in New York. The Buffalo native had his freedom revoked for a wrongful murder charge all those years ago. His emotional 2018 release came by unnatural circumstance of gaining national recognition for his golf artwork. The man crafted pencil drawings with an aesthetic closer to a painting, and woke the world up with his beautiful Bermuda-and-pines renderings of Augusta.

Golf Digest’s Max Adler and a team of Georgetown Law students grabbed the torch to run the final leg of the race, and in 2018 Valentino stood on the stairs of a courthouse a freed man after his conviction was overturned. 27 years after it was dealt to him.

If survival depends on how you complete the drawing, it’s safe to say that Valentino had drawn his way out of prison. In his words, he “conquered the beast” that was injustice. But making his way back home was not the end of the fairy tale. It was merely the start of his next drawing.

Valentino says that all of our pages start blank when we sit down and arrange the pencils to begin our “drawing”, our mark on this world. As each pencil stroke and each pop of color collide, we create the life we were meant to live.

In prison, Valentino put his colored pencils to work every single day for ten years. It’s that dedication, and a certain drawing of Golden Bell at Augusta, that got attention on his wrongful conviction.

I had the immense pleasure of sitting down with Valentino, but instead of just re-hashing  his past, but we talked about mostly his process and how his brain works. We contemplated the highlights in his life, such as inspiring inner-city children, spending time at Augusta, and gaining recognition for the beauty he continues to create on paper. You may have heard the story of Valentino Dixon. But here’s what you didn’t know about the artist.

Q&A with Valentino Dixon

Q: What kind of colored pencils do you use? 

Prismacolor. They cost me $1.10 each. I like them because they’re smooth. There was a time when I couldn’t afford Prisma, and the best, cheapest pencil is Crayola… In prison I used Crayola at first and then I used Prismacolor. Right now I have 200 greens. Apple green is my main color I use for the greens in my drawing. Then I’ll go in with grass green on top of that. I’ll do what you call a filler which will be a spring green, lighter than apple green”. A filler is when I take that drawing look and I make it that paint look. I make sure I get all of the white paper from the background, because If I don’t, it won’t look like a real painting. 

Favorite shade of green? Apple Green. With some Peacock Green on top.

Q: What words would you use to describe your artistic style?

The main thing is the color scheme. It’s all in the sketch and all in the shading of the drawing. For many years I practiced my shading. If I can master my shading I can pretty much draw anything. Shading is everything. Good shading technique is what pops the drawing out at you, and let it talk to you. I learned little tricks as I went along. You try to perfect your craft. 

I will layout only the pencils that I am going to use. I add shade and depth to the painting, and then erase the colors to make it more realistic.

Q: What’s your mind like when you are in the middle of a drawing session?

It’s a combination of things. You are trying to survive your worst nightmare. Survival depends on how well you can complete this drawing, the outcome of it. The beginning stages aren’t so fun because there’s not much to look at. But as you get going and I throw down the greens and see it start to pop out at me. This is where real joy comes. When someone walks past my cell, whether it’s a guard or an inmate. And they say, “Wow look at that there.” That’s the reaction I am looking for when people see my work. But at the end of the day it was prison that tried to break my spirit. For me, art was so therapeutic it took me outside the prison. My body was there but my mind was at the 12th at Augusta looking at the azaleas and the bridge. Even though I had never golfed before, I felt like I was a professional golfer. I became one with these golf courses. 

When I am in the zone I think, “I am going to conquer this beast”. I am one with the paper and I am one with these pencils. When they try to give me a hard time, I think I am going to conquer this beast. This picture has to be a success. I have to love this piece before anyone else can love it. I aim to shock myself and think, “How did you just complete this picture?

While I am drawing, I am contemplating, analyzing the world, and planning my next move. What do I need to do that I haven’t done since I’ve been home?

Q: Favorite color?

White – I just bought a White Porsche Panamera. The beginnings of all of my paintings start with white, a blank piece of paper.

Q:  What is your favorite part of the golf course to draw? What parts of a golf hole are the most meaningful to you?

I can’t wait to get to the trees. I draw the course first and save the best for last. The black pencil is the icing on the cake. It makes it come out at you.

Q: Most of us fall in love with the game after we first experience it, after our first day of swings. However, yours was the opposite. Tell me about your thoughts towards a game you had never played, but that was already a part of your soul nonetheless.

When people first read my story there was empathy for me, but for the most part golfers think how can he possibly love this sport. There’s no way I can draw hundreds of courses over 6 years and not love the sport. I just love it from a different perspective. I spend my time drawing while they spend their time playing it. Just like a caddie, that’s how they contribute to the game. Everyone has their role.

Q: What was it like meeting Tiger?

When I met Tiger at the Masters in 2019, I told him “You’re gonna win the Masters”. He said I will do my best. He looked at me and his manager and said, “I like this guy.” And then he goes out there … and wins the Masters! I think I invigorated his spirit, I brought it back to life. I gave him that fist pump.

I would like to believe that a black kid from the inner city that knows nothing about golf, and the majority of the inner-city kids know nothing about golf. But the one thing we know is Tiger Woods. If Tigers in the lead, everyone tunes in whether you’re a golfer or not.

Q: I watched a video of you playing a par 3 hole at Puerto Vallarta, a hole you have drawn in the past. You were so determined to get that ball in the hole! What’s it like to stand on the tee box of these holes you have drawn in the past, especially at Augusta?

So I don’t know how to swim. But I was prepared to drown in that ocean to get that ball in the hole!

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When I went to the 11th tee at Augusta, it was incomprehensible. You just have to take it all in and enjoy the moment. It was out of this world. I could see things on the course that I couldn’t see in the magazine. A photograph has its limitations, it doesn’t show you everything. The stone on the bridge was not quite the color I thought it was. I didn’t even know there were pine needles there until I went. I thought it was dirt. Tannish, orangish dirt. We don’t have that type of pine straw in Buffalo. I wandered around the course all by myself and took it all in, getting away from the camera men. I was out there for three hours just by myself.

I met Jack Nicklaus when I was there and he compared me to Nelson Mandela, he said it was because of my spirit.

Q: Many say that the game of golf is similar to life. Do you see it that way?

Yes. In life you have to have a strong mental capacity. There’s going to be obstacles just like golf. The first hole is 300 yards away and you have to hit it over trees and some water. Are you mentally prepared to make that perfect swing or does something distract you when hitting that ball? In my case the golf drawings added years to my life in prison. It was life insurance. I was on borrowed time and it gave me life. 

Q: What was it like the moment you heard that Michelle Obama was interested in one of your original pieces?

It caught me off guard. My assistant called me and said that Michelle wanted a drawing for Barack. I thought she was pulling my leg. It was the most important piece i’ve ever done. I drew her and Barack while I was in prison, I have the picture of my wall. Barack sent me a personal video thanking me and congratulating me.

 Q: Tell me about the moment you decided that you were an artist.

At 3 years old I started drawing every day – cartoon characters and funnies out of the newspaper. My grammar school art teacher noticed I had a talent. After high school I didn’t draw for a few years, and I made some bad decisions and got myself into trouble. The next thing you know I am getting a wrongful conviction. For the next 7 years I didn’t do any art whatsoever. It was at this time that my uncle spoke to me and said “If you can reclaim your talent you can reclaim your life. You may have to draw yourself out of prison”. At first I thought, what is he talking about? Then I told myself, “Valentino you are wasting your talent away in prison”. In the movie Shawshank Redemption, it says “you get busy livin’ or you get busy dyin”. Once I started drawing again the other inmates could not believe it. I became so motivated and inspired to become a great artist. And I was trying to make up for lost time. So I started drawing 10 hours every day for the last 20 years of my time in Attica. I did not take days off. 

Q: Are you a golfer these days?

I have played golf about 9 times, and I have a good short game because I am an athlete. Pretty good with my hands. I can hit a good ten, twelve-footer. But when it comes to the drive, forget about it. My longest drive has been 200 yards with bounce.

Q: What is something that the world may not know about Valentino Dixon?

I am very passionate about helping others, I moved in with my 93-year-old grandmother. I love teaching kids, especially inner-city kids. How many of these kids can I save? Most of my childhood friends ended up in prison or dead. We got to stop this cycle in impoverished communities.

To support Valentino Dixon and his artwork please visit valentinodixon.com to find an original drawing by the nationally acclaimed artist.  

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