Diego & Me

By James D. Fuson

I was in prison for life when I had my first real experience with the Detroit Institute of Arts.

I’d been to the museum once as a kid, a long, long while ago, but it was a time when I would not, could not, truly appreciate the place. Most of my life, I haven’t known about Diego Rivera’s monumental Detroit Industry Murals, but eight years ago, that changed. And since then, the frescoes have wound their way into my brain, challenging me to decipher them, hinting at my own hidden part in it all. I’ve sat on a stone bench in prison for hours at a time, thinking about them. My life experience has become inextricably entwined with them.

Life. Death. Incarceration. Freedom.

Those words pop up in my mind. Not just because of the layered meaning behind the imagery of the frescoes, but because the stunning work, completed in 1932-33, reminds me of my own liberation—my mental (and eventually, physical) freedom following decades of incarceration as a juvenile lifer.

My connection to the artwork began pleasant enough in 2015. I had been a member of Writer’s Block, a workshop inside the prison that evolved into a community-based educational and advocacy group, Hamtramck Free School. It was open to any kind of writing, but we typically practiced poetry and hosted readings on the inside for each other and for guests who came in to listen and sometimes participate.

One day, our lead facilitators, Jonathan and Michael, informed us that the DIA would be hosting a reading of our work in Rivera Court. This was amazing news. Although we couldn’t personally attend, the thought of friends and family reading my poetry aloud on my behalf inside this prestigious place felt like a nice feather in my cap, something to get me through long nights when I needed positive thoughts to keep me going.

We immediately got to work. Writing new poetry. Editing old worry. Practicing reading aloud to see how it would sound. Making lists of readers. Making lists of attendees. Finding ways to get the word out. We only had a few months to get it done and we could only meet once a week on the inside. It was up to Jonathan and Michael to the do the heavy lifting on the outside.

The day came, a cold winter one in 2015, when all our hard work would manifest.

The event was packed. Our family, friends, and other supporters read our poetry while our art was displayed for everyone to look at. It was a powerful feeling to know that people on the other side of the fences and walls would stand behind a microphone and read words we had written. After months of review for potential censorship and banning, Jonathan and Michael were finally able to share photos and a video recording with us so we could all see the love and support given to us. I saw people I knew from different educational classes or workshops on the inside but I also saw their families. I felt so strongly connected to the event that it seemed as if I was there in-person experiencing it.

As much as I enjoyed watching the footage of friends standing behind a microphone and reading poetry we wrote to an attentive audience, my eyes shifted to the frescoes, and I became transfixed. What were the men in gas masks doing? Why were warplanes lined up, ready for takeoff?  Why did the two people kneeling at work look like they were praying?  Who were the stern nude figures of sand and rock? Were they manufacturing cars, sewing clothing, readying for war? Were those towering, mechanical robots or industrial machines? Was the boss spying on his workers or contemplating suicide? Maybe the exhausted worker to his right was. And what was with the baby?

The murals took root in my brain, burrowing further and further into my thoughts and imagination. I saw so many parallels in Rivera's work to my own 28-and-a-half years of incarceration: the guards that walked among us, watching and listening, while the warden, with his cameras, observed all of us: the prisoners, prison staff, and guards with their riot gear and masks and gas. The prisoners toiling away for pennies a day, not daring to look up from their work, else they meet the gaze of the guards. Prisoners who have been in for so long they have lost all social etiquette, or those who can’t speak English very well who come from different places, walking around; lost, forgotten, marginalized. Other prisoners who have bonded with the staff, telling on others or volunteering to do work normally done by the guards, like processing new arrivals and itemizing prisoner property. The incarcerated kids, paraded around by the Department of Corrections as symbols of the good work they’re doing, saving wayward youth from themselves.

It began to feel like I might be in Rivera’s mural. Seemingly random and fragmented moments of so many wasted lives, the arbitrary decisions made by the bosses, weaving a lengthy and esoteric story of oppression and doubt and sadness.

In 2022, seven years after that reading took place in Rivera Court, the courts overturned my juvenile life-without-parole sentence and I found myself on the outside, after nearly 30 years inside.

I have made the most of my new status in life, seeing the sights around town, visiting people and places. And of course, on my second day out, two friends took me to the museum.

Back when I first visited the Detroit Institute of Arts as a kid, my priorities were more base and self-centered. I lived in the moment without thinking much about what I left behind or the consequences that affected my future. This time around, the trip to the DIA meant so much more to me.

The building is beautiful and huge. Not like the lifeless, sterile buildings I had been housed in. And I could feel the centuries of history enveloping me, touching every cell in my body. The first section, Native American. Then Prints & Drawings. We breezed past the cafeteria and lounging sections and into the arts of Africa and Egypt. We went up the stairs and past a few more sections. We made it to a large hall. I saw the murals.

The moment was surreal—seeing it with my own eyes, being there in person, not just looking at it on a screen or a page. I recalled all the biographies and essays written about it: the workers, the machines, the bosses, the baby, the constant surveillance, the death. I was surrounded by it all, I was inside it.

I immediately felt one with it, like it was an inextricable part of my life since birth. I felt kinship with those men, toiling at their machines to build more machines. I knew the oppression of those men in suits, watching their every move, the man in charge listening to their every word. There I was again, taking a direct order from a guard. Checking in to report to my work detail. Submitting to pat-downs and searches. Showing my prison ID every time I left the housing unit. The Prison Industry Mural.

My connection to those workers depicted has grown stronger as I have continued returning, visiting all the wonderful exhibitions, but always drawn back to Rivera Court, multiple times during each visit. I examine each panel. I sit on the cushioned bench and contemplate everything: my life, my death, my job, my incarceration, my freedom. I observe other visitors discovering and exploring the work, wondering what they’re thinking.

I wonder; what if they knew, I’m a part of the fresco.

Lead image: Diego M. Rivera, Detroit Industry Murals, 1932-1933, frescoes. Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Edsel B. Ford, 33.10.

Born in Detroit, James D. Fuson is a writer and artist. His work has been featured by The New Yorker, Washington Square Review at New York University, University of Michigan Press, the Detroit Institute of Arts, National Public Radio, Free School Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, and the Detroit Film Theatre, among others. In 2023 he recieved an award in literary arts from Kresge Arts in Detroit, a fellowship program of The Kresge Foundation.

Read more by this author:
Three Fold has published a two-part diaristic essay by Fuson about his time serving as a juvenile sentenced in 1994 to mandatory life without parole. His sentence and the sentences of thousands of juvenile lifers would be later ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. Fuson was resentenced in 2021. He returned home on September 27, 2022 after nearly 29 years confined by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The first part of his essay, “End of a Life Sentence: 28 Years, 8 Months, 3 Days, and a Wake-Up,” which appeared in Three Fold’s fall 2022 issue, was written during his final months of incarceration. Link to the full text. Part two, “Life After Prison: The First Three Months,”  appeared inside our winter 2023 issue. Link to full text.

Read next: Letter to My Daughter by Ethel Kabwato

Founded in 2020, Three Fold is an independent quarterly based in Detroit that presents exploratory points of view on arts, culture, and society in addition to original works in various media, including visual art, literature, film and the performing arts. We solicit and commission contributions from artists, writers, and activists around the world. Three Fold is a publication of Trinosophes Projects, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization located in the historic Eastern Market neighborhood in downtown Detroit. Click here to check out Three Fold’s events page and view a schedule of the publication’s on-site activities.

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