Drawings by Faruq Shabazz

drawing of lady justice

Phyllis Kornfeld, art teacher and curator, discusses drawings by Faruq Shabazz with gallery director Catherine Tedford, March 8, 2021.

Phyllis Kornfeld: There was nothing in his past that ever hinted at his future as an artist. He wasn’t interested and he didn’t do it. He did copy from comic books. He was in for 9 years and then paroled. His name was Willy Thomas. He may still be alive. I don’t contact them when they are out. I made that decision a long time ago, or else I would be inundated with mail.  People in prison write very long letters.

He was out after 9 years and was afraid that he would get in trouble again and go back to prison. He did have some amount of religion in his history. He prayed to God, asking, “What shall I do to serve you?” “What can I do to serve you?” Then he writes about this image, he said, “Out of nowhere, I saw colors of black, brown, yellow, and white begin to take on forms. I saw round things and curved things interacting and lining up in front and behind each other. I saw the sun, the moon, and the human head roundness, the curve of female buttocks from a side view. I saw the curve in the wing of a bird and then a rooster appeared with flowing tailfeathers.”  

He decided to design some jeans with this image. Everything he designed from then on had this image of the bird. So he started copyrighting everything; he just used the copyright logo. He didn’t contact a lawyer or anything, copyrighted all of his designs. He designed furniture and clothing. He drew a love seat and put all the birds and tailfeathers on there. He copyrighted everything from then on. The colors of the tailfeathers represent the five races of people in the universe. It was about peace, people working in unity, as everything should be.

“Out of nowhere I saw colors of black, brown, yellow, and white begin to take on forms. I saw round things and curved things interacting, and lining up in front of and behind each other. I saw the sun, moon, the human head roundness, the curve of female buttocks from a side view. I saw the curve in the wing of a bird and then a rooster appeared with flowing tailfeathers.”  -Faruq Shabazz

PK: When I met him, he was Willy Thomas for a few weeks, but he soon joined a Muslim group of inmates. I’ve seen an extraordinary transformation in them. They’re clean and polite and responsible, no matter what they were before that. That was really interesting. The only other thing I remember – I have a vague memory that he was interested in some sort of a personal relationship with me, not that he did or said anything offensive. I have to make sure it’s clear – they know I love them, and I have said a few times to people over the years, “If I were allowed to hug you, I would.” Because I was taught in the beginning not even to pat them on the shoulder, but I do pat them on the back – literally.

He changed his name to Faruq Shabazz. I remember that I was permitted at that time – this was in Oklahoma  at a medium-security men’s prison. The warden was the greatest warden I’ve ever met in my life – Jack Cowley – who totally believed in this sort of creative opportunity for the inmates. He said, “I’ve seen the difference in a man who creates art. He’s cleaner, he walks straighter, he says good morning to people.” That’s why he made sure there was space for them to work in. This was even before there was an art program. Things were quite different in Oklahoma at that time.

Catherine Tedford: It’s interesting that Faruq himself and the figures he was drawing and the warden you just mentioned, all portray dignity and respect. When you look at these figures, they are very dignified.  

PK: Even with curvy butts and long hair, and all of that, there is great dignity. Because he is sincere about peace and unity, and humans having respect for one another.

CT: The two on the left have semicircles. Are those representative? Sun and moon, things like that?

PK: That is in his vision.

CT: The second one (Blind Justice) looks like the sun and moon.

PK: When he has small figures all around, like in the American one, they are all new. Even though he is talking about peace, which many artists have depicted in many ways, he’s always giving us a fresh configuration.  That tells me that this is coming from someplace very deep. There is an absence of cliché – there’s no usual depiction of moon or the sun with its rays. They’re very loving, too. He loves these people.

CT: Maybe it’s part of self-love also?

PK: Self-respect for sure. When he started with the copyright, when he got out, he thought he could sell this patent for the design and the clothing and everything.  What he is designing is mostly the imagery. He did try to get into the business world and the fashion world but had some bad experiences that led him back to prison.  

From my own experience, things were very loose from my perspective in the Oklahoma prisons at that time. This was 1983 to 85, something like that. I could go into the cellblocks and people’s cells. It’s unheard of today. I did visit him in his cell, and he opened his locker – a standard thin locker – and it was just crammed with artwork. I don’t know how much time he served.  He did call me years later from wherever he was, Atlanta or someplace like that, and he actually apologized. He realized that at some point that he was personal – not anything offensive or anything like that. I could never report him for anything in a million years, but I could tell he liked me, and I liked him. There is a line that I have to be attentive to.  He kept the name Faruq Shabazz, and I don’t know how or what he is doing now.