Saturday, 17 February 2007

Artist 's date with death row

Artist 's date with death row

Claire Phillips hopes to interview through bullet-proof glass two inmates awaiting execution

A portrait artist has been given £5,000 to paint condemned men on death row in America.

Claire Phillips, 43, is travelling to the Deep South next month to record on canvas prisoners facing execution by lethal injection or the electric chair.

Mrs Phillips will be travelling through Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas during her ten-day mission, which starts on March 2.

She was inspired to successfully apply for a grant from the Arts Council after painting veteran journalist Charles Wheeler, patron of Reprieve, a charity which provides legal representation for people on death row.

Mrs Phillips, who graduated from Northbrook College, Worthing, said: "I have been supporting this British-based charity for a long time and got more and more involved.

"I have also painted the legal director, Clive Stafford Smith, who talked about using whatever talents you have to raise awareness

"We came up with this idea of having a series of portraits of people who have faced or are facing death."

Mrs Phillips, who lives in The High Street, Partridge Green, said he hoped to interview through bullet-proof glass two inmates awaiting execution.

She also intended to talk to a British subject called Krishna Maharaj, originally from Peckham, London, who, after being convicted of murder, spent 15 years on death row before his sentence was commuted to life without parole.

Other subjects she planned to meet included a prison warden who had executed people but subsequently voiced misgivings about capital punishment, and former prisoners who had been freed.

Mrs Phillips, who is travelling to the States with husband Mike, also, 43, already had photographs, provided through Reprieve, of those she intended to visit but felt it was very difficult to paint someone you had never met.

She hoped her portraits, which will take about two years to complete, will make people think about the death penalty.

Mrs Phillips, who has three daughters, Emma, 16, Sally, 14, and Sophie, 12, said: "Personally I think the risk of executing an innocent person is way too high.

"One of the people I will be painting, using documentary footage, is Edward Earl Johnson who was executed some years ago even though there was a very strong case that he was innocent.

"I don't think it is grisly. These are human beings. It is a question of humanity. A lot of these people are there because they don't have the money for a good defence.

"It could be anyone's father, son or brother."

Mrs Phillips, who is also visiting flood-ravaged New Orleans during her trip, ultimately hoped to stage an exhibition of her oil portraits in a top London gallery.

5:35pm Friday 16th February 2007

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