Art For Justice unveils some uncomfortable truths

by Ben Silver
Posted 6/13/24

Daniel Gwynn, Muti Ajamu-Osagboro, Eddie Ramirez and Chester Hollman III spent 126 combined years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. 

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Art For Justice unveils some uncomfortable truths


Daniel Gwynn, Muti Ajamu-Osagboro, Eddie Ramirez and Chester Hollman III spent 126 combined years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. 

Though no one can give these men back the time they lost, Art For Justice, co-founded by Ann Marie Kirk, provides a voice to people who have been imprisoned. Since 1997, her organization has engaged viewers in conversations about collective justice and individual worth through art.

While the criminal justice system has made people all across the country into statistics, Art For Justice humanizes the incarcerated. In partnership with the Johnson House Historical Society (JHHS), an upcoming Juneteenth exhibition brings Gwynn, Ajamu-Osagboro, Ramirez and Hollman III to Germantown Mennonite Church for an interactive workshop and art exhibit dubbed Innocence: The Truth Not Being Told.

For Gwynn, released from prison on Feb. 28, the exhibition will be among the first times he’s interacted with a viewing audience. But expressing himself artistically while incarcerated helped him keep his sanity. 

“It was a key part of my life in there because it was one way to speak about the injustice that was happening to me and also the pain that I was feeling,” he told news reporters in February. “I paint to heal and survive.”

After spending 30 years in prison, 25 of those on death row. Gwynn’s case was reexamined after ardent supporters brought attention to overwhelming evidence in favor of his acquittal. Ultimately, when it became clear a false confession, faulty witness testimony and suppressed evidence had marred his original 1994, Gwynn was released. 

Other Juneteenth speakers at Germantown Mennonite Church have had similar experiences. Having spent 42 years behind bars for a crime committed by another, Ajamu Osagboro was released in July 2023, Hollman III was exonerated in 2019, 27 years after a wrongful conviction, and Ramirez was given his freedom barely six months ago, on November 30, 2023.

Through their artwork, made public via Art For Justice, these men have found supporters as far away as Switzerland, England and France. 

“It was a means of communication, documentation, a declaration of his humanity,” Kirk said about Gwynn’s art.

Charles Zafir Lawson, who is still imprisoned for third degree murder and currently fighting for his freedom, has produced ‘Continuing Slavery’, a deeply expressive and poignant piece. It depicts the criminal justice system as an extension of the chain gangs and prison labor mobilized in the early 20th century, which themselves were a further extension of 19th-century southern sharecropping and slavery. 

It was Lawson who worked with Kirk to found Art For Justice – two years after she had purchased one of his pieces at a local art show in 1995. Since then, his work has been featured in more than 100 displays and exhibits. 

He, too, said the ability to express himself artistically has kept him grounded during his imprisonment – as it has for the handful of others who’ve connected with the program. 

“I know that art can communicate the deepest truth of a person's character and internal perceptions,” Kirk said. “Processing that into a creative product, it's essential for somebody who's been severely isolated.”

Though Kirk’s organization wasn’t developed as therapy, it’s been just that – touching those who’ve felt silenced, and giving them a chance to be heard. 

According to Kirk, Art For Justice is designed as the start of a conversation, one in which she hopes viewers will come to a deeper understanding of their own inner strife. 

“It's heartbreaking for society,” Kirk said. “Everybody has a right to justice. It shouldn't be flawed by people intimidating witnesses, by withholding evidence from the defense, which was done in all these men's cases. There should not be trickery. That is not how you build trust in a community.”

In celebration of Juneteenth, Gwynn will once again be welcomed back into the community by JHHS at the Germantown Mennonite Church. His art has put him in high demand – he’s been interviewed by 6ABC, CBS Philadelphia and been covered by The Associated Press. Coming soon, he has an interview with SiriusXM radio and a Zoom appearance for a group in the United Kingdom.

Art For Justice can also provide ballast for formerly incarcerated people upon their release – which is almost always a stormy and uncertain time.

Would Gwynn’s case have gotten the attention it deserved if not for his art and Kirk’s showcases? It’s uncertain. But Gwynn would not be getting the attention he’s received during the past several months were it not for his work.

For more information, go to Art For Justice and The Johnson House Historical Society.