We’ve interviewed Clifton Garrett Sherer, a master of airbrush and incarcerated in California since 2003. Other the years, he discovered his talent and passion for art and particularly fell in love with this unique technic of spraying paint to create an artwork. Now one may wonder how can a prisoner do airbrush painting. Where does he/she do that? How does he/she get the materials? This one-on-one exclusive interview with him reveals all the secrets of airbrushing as an inmate in a State prison.
How did you get to the point where you were allowed to do Airbrush?
I’m in minimum Security which makes it even possible, and I got to get my tools by making connexion with officers who appreciate the art and by doing communal projects for the prison (i.e: murals). It’s my 20th year inside, so I’ve learned to navigate this prison world without crossing that line. I do things for the prison to make the community better, and because of that a few admins that are also in this mindset allowed me to get my art stuff. There are some people that are wanting to do better than the “break them up” mentality. I now have an airbrush for myself that I keep in my cell.
Tells us a bit more about your airbrush tool & process.
I’ve got a really old badger, it was my mother-in-law’s, an early model from way back. It’s a posh compressor, small, electric, quiet, with just enough air pressure to control 30psi. I plug it into my bed and work on my desk. The control and final result depend on air pressure and how much you let go/give. I’m in an open facility with wide open dorms (about 10 men per room). When I’m ready to paint, I turn out my music to get it in the zone. Airbrushing can definitely get messy, and overspray around! I find some old sheets from the laundry, drape those up, and turn my area into a small paint room. It’s a rather long process, and I can spend the whole day on a piece.
The painting “Time Dissipation” took me about 15 hours to work. (PS: I recommend taking it out in the sunshine for a better look!) It happened that at the very end of a piece, a major catastrophe occurs and there is paint everywhere! One piece got ruined although I was almost done. Bummer!
For the paint, I use a mix of pre-latex airbrush paint and personal golden heavy acrylic that I break down with a medium. We can order art supplies through Blitz. To do so, you first need to get approved for a hobby card to be allowed to purchase supplies. It’s pretty pricy to shop (I have support family/friends who help out a lot). I strongly believe in moral support from family members & friends to make it out of prison sane. I couldn’t imagine not having them by my side.
How did you start being creative?
I started as a kid, watching my dad. A lot of my family are artists. I picked up a pencil as a kid, then graduated high school, and then left it behind. I picked it back in prison. I started painting (traditional) and recently got into airbrush. Creating art is a way to deal with my emotions and frustration in a healthier manner. I’m grateful I made it to where I’m at now. In maximum security facilities, it’s hard to be a better person. Here, I don’t believe I’ve seen a fight in a month, there’s not a lot of interference, and this place is giving us a chance. Communication also just opened up with the new tablets and got easier with free phone calls.
How do you find inspiration?
I see a lot of things in magazines, books, Spectrum (art books), and when I’m stuck, I look into them to spark an interest. But my art content is mostly based on what I’m feeling: If I’m upset or bummed out, I’ll paint rather dark artwork; if I’m loving life, then it will be more colorful. (i.e.: The Bee’s Life painting - sold at the Checkr auction for $250). My favorite artists are Carlos Torrez and the world-famous tattoo artist Jeff Gogley. I’ve taken little bits and pieces of their style, and from there, I develop my own. I almost do all and only realistic pieces with my paintings. But currently, I’m trying to go into the hyperrealism style with historical colors, and an old vintage feel. Patience is something I learned a lot in prison.
What do you think art brings to society?
Art is awesome, it’s a great form of expression: creating something from within it’s amazing. I get this great sense of accomplishment when I send a piece, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Whether it took me one hour or 15, I poured a piece of myself. When someone buys one of my artwork, I feel like it’s buying a piece of me. I find myself trying to be a better person, using brighter colors, and playing with different mediums. I hope people who buy my art sit back and wonder: “What was he feeling? What was going on at this time?” And I hope they find answers or reasons for why they acquired an art piece from me.
How do you package the art sent out? Do you have access to packing supplies?
We get quarterly packages at the prison, about 30 lbs boxes of supplies. So I break it down, roll it up, and make a triangle packaging (for soft canvas). Or if it’s a flat canvas I need to send out, I use oversized cardboard, patted it and it’s ready to go.
Clifton uses parchment paper to protect his glossy airbrush paintings. Like many incarcerated artist, he needs to be creative in ways to protect & package his art pieces as these are not easily accessible.
How difficult is it to send your art to the outside? Did you have any bad experiences?
I had one piece missing, but it doesn’t happen often. From time to time, something gets stolen from whoever processes it. It’s not really hard to send art out to the “free world” here in California. Once a week they allow us to mail out big packages that don’t fit the mailbox.
What does AFR bring you?
It means a lot. For so long we haven’t had a voice, and you guys give us that. And I can’t thank you enough. I have been on my own for a long time. I used to draw stuff for people such as cards and portraits to support myself for many years. It just changed recently with more family support but it’s definitely an amazing opportunity to have my art out there being valued and priced for what’s it worth rather than sending it out as gifts or trading them for commissary items in prison. The art value in prison is not that good. You spend so much time on an artwork for just a few dollars. Nobody appreciates the time and the work even though some guys collect art in here for what’s is worth. I’m trying to build a reputation and get my name out there. Something more than a prison circle. So I tried to send everything out to get it onto the streets. My daughter has 20 years' worth of my art.
Do you wish to pursue your art activities when you get out?
I’m a tattoo artist before all, that’s where my passion is. I have a few opportunities out there that are waiting. Just one little push and by the end of the year, I’ll hopefully be out. I’m going to continue creating art, but I’m also going to work 9-5, even though I’m so far behind in this. But my family, my friends, and society are all waiting for me to sustain myself. Tattooing is my main activity in prison, besides college and facilitating groups. Check out new pictures my family just added on Instagram @heathenart1349