Wayne Lo has a very unique story.
As Wikipedia explains, he perpetrated the shooting at Simon’s Rock College of Bard on December 14, 1992 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He killed one student and a professor, and wounded four people before he surrendered to police. He is currently serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole.
I knew none of this when I came across his amazing art on Flickr. Having discovered this story, I was intrigued and made contact with him, via his website, to find out more. Given his circumstances, it’s not been easy to collect all this information, but I am pleased to be able to share it with you. This post contains excerpts from existing interviews as well as parts of a letter he wrote to me.
“I started to seriously produce art about 4 years ago. In the beginning I did drawings etc. and experimented with a lot of different techniques. Unfortunately I soon found out that I totally suck at drawing plus we are not allowed any art supplies such as paints or brushes in prison – only colored pencils. But I guess the good thing to come out of these restrictions is it prompted me to conjure up new and alternative methods of expressing my art. I wanted to find something unique that suited me.
“I picked up a little of the whole sewing thing when I watched my mom (as a child) who had learned to tailor clothes and design clothes. My first foray into stitching stuff was actually mending my own socks. They sell a basic sewing kit with 26 color threads here in prison so I figured that would be my form of expression! I began embroidering on cloth like pillowcases and t-shirts. But then I could only make images about 5 inches in diameter ’cause that’s how big my bowl lid was which I used as a stretcher frame for the fabric.
“So one day I figured why can’t I embroider on paper? So I basically did research by poking different types of paper til I discovered that manila folder paper was the best for embroidering and the rest is history!! My first piece was “Door God” and it took me like 3 months. I was very worried because I had no idea how much I could do and how much the paper could take – but after I made “Door God”, I knew manila could handle everything I threw at it, so then I began to do more!
“I would do mixed media including paint on a couple of pieces, too, but actually, that was only cause I didn`t really trust that the paper could hold an entirely embroidered piece. “Garland, Illinois” was the first entirely embroidered piece followed by “Anamia”.
“Anyone can make embroidery on paper. All you need is a lot of time and patience. Of course the polyester thread I use is much thinner than embroidery floss, so it takes longer to make a piece. I wonder how much quicker it would be if I used thicker thread.
“I cannot exactly recall when I started to do photo embroideries. I think I was just experimenting one day and saw that photo paper was strong enough to take the threads. Just tape the photo onto a card board frame and then draw a design, then go ahead a poke holes on the drawn lines and just fill in the spaces with thread. I used this techique with “Scrodzilla”.
“I experiment with all kinds of styles. Whatever I see that I like, I`ll try to do it myself. My favorite artist at the moment is Gustav Klimt. I guess I`m attracted to the mosaic aspect of his work. Repetition and patterns are very interesting. The only challenge I really face is how much time it takes to produce my pieces. Embroidery is very time consuming, but it is also very meditative.
“My work takes weeks and months to complete. The polyester thread from the sewing kit, is very thin, so it takes many back and forth cross hatching stitches to cover the backround. I would say I cover a half square inch area in a day of 4 hour embroidering. The smaller embroidery on photo pieces take only a week to complete, while larger pieces done on 8×11 manila folder paper takes over a month usually.
“There are no secrets to my embroidery, anyone can do it. But who has the time and patience? And quite frankly I wouldn’t be doing embroidery on paper if I actually had access to painting equipment! So it was a fortunate discovery. I have been researching this embroidery on card craft. It’s weird how nobody took it a step further like I am doing. I may not have invented embroidery on paper, but I have certainly taken it to a higher level. It’s difficult to crash an exclusive party like the art world. Even with a new medium of embroidery on paper. Many still consider embroidery a mere craft rather than an official art medium such as painting or sculpture. I mean I paint and sculpt with thread!! People need to see it that way as well.
“Concerning the topics etc of my works, well, I don’t wanna reveal too many secrets! But yes, there are some hidden elements in my art. I mean, the titles to my pieces always have different meanings. Some are inside jokes, some are references to art history, and some are just stupid sophomoric cracks. But in the end I think it comes down to whether one likes the entire piece or not. And not focusing too much on the hidden elements. In the end its not about what I have to say about my art, but what people see in it, if they see something in it.
“My main focus is (I know how this must sound to some artists) is to make money with my art which I donate to Gregory Gibson and the Galen Gibson fund. The web has allowed me to get my works out there. I obviously have no direct access to the Internet, but my friends have been very helpful. I face a lot of criticism about my art. Lawmakers are doing their best to stop me, even though Mr. Gibson supports my endeavours. In America, prisoners are never allowed to do positive things because, well, I really don’t know the explanation for it, but that’s just the way it is.
“Why wouldn’t I turn over the money I make to my victims? I’ve taken so much from this world that this is a very small way to pay it back, but certainly it is not enough and will never be enough. I can never repay what I have destroyed.
“But as my decision to send the money to Mr. Gibson – I have to thank him for allowing me to send money to him because I think a lot of victims of crime wouldn’t deal with the person who harmed them even in terms of restitution. I know there are victims – other victims – of my crime who can not stand what I am doing and I totally understand where they are coming from. But I chose to continue my venture because it is positive in a small way.
“What I am doing doesn’t absolve me at all. It doesn’t make me a better person, and it doesn’t make those who keep their profits for themselves any worse either. It is a personal choice and everyone still makes choices even when they are locked up. I don’t condemn others for what they choose to do because I simply don’t have the right to judge anyone else, especially after the bad things I have done. I can only keep doing what I do. I think many others would also like to pay restitution to their victims but as I said, there are those who don’t believe in restitution.
“I kind of want to distance myself from the whole “murderabilia” label. I don’t wish to glorify my crime or any crime for that matter. I want people to view my art and buy my art because it is a new medium and it is unique – not because the creator is some famous murderer, which I don’t think I am anyway.
“I really enjoy the Fine Cell Work programme, because prisoners have so much time on their hands, and so much creativity and talent and the yearning to do something positive with their time. I wish all prisons can harness all that energy and come out with wonderful programs which can benefit all kinds of organisations in society… I know prisoners would love to be able to pay restitution for the harm they have done… The punishment for crime should be about making the offendor give back, not just sit around all day and waste more of society’s money … well, such is my humble opinion.”
It’s a remarkable story. My involvement with Fine Cell Work has helped me understand the power that embroidery has to heal and help rehabilitate. Wayne’s story reinforces this fact, and it seems clear to me that he continues to make amends for his actions with every piece he makes.
His art is amazing, more so when you consider his limited access to materials and inspiration, and the money for each piece that is sold through his site goes to the family of one of his victims. His work embellishes photos with vibrant colour and shapes, many of the pieces are filled with joy and humour. His Obscuration series masks peoples’ identities in surreal ways, extrapolating characteristics from the photos and creating new narratives about those that are obscured.
We always hope that people can be rehabilitated, and that they can work to repair the damage they may have caused. Wayne seems unlikely to ever leave prison, but it’s undeniable that, through his embroidered art, he is doing what he can do atone for what he did.
The Cutting (& Stitching) Edge is brought to you in association with PUSH: Stitchery, the contemporary embroidered art book curated by Jamie Chalmers. Featuring 30 textile-based artists from around the world, it’s a must have for needlework fans.