An exhibition of drawings by Valentino Dixon, Drawing My Way To Freedom, was on view at the Burchfield Penney Art Center last year.

Mulligan of a lifetime

Valentino Dixon always loved to draw. His mother likes to say his talent was a gift God gave him when he was born. As a four-year-old, he demonstrated artistic abilities well beyond his years.
When Dixon was twenty-two, Louie’s Texas Red Hots, on the corner of Baily and Delevan was a favorite hangout, a place where crowds of young people would gather to socialize. Dixon’s East Side neighborhood was known for crime, drugs, and despair. Dixon says, “I was surrounded by drugs and hopelessness,” and he had his share of run-ins with police, who knew him as an up-and-coming drug dealer.    
On August 10, 1991, a fight broke out in the parking lot of Louie’s. In the bedlam, four young black males were shot, and one, Torriano Jackson, was killed. Dixon heard the shots from inside a deli where he was buying a beer. Leaving the store, he saw LaMarr Scott firing a gun into the air, as everyone scattered. Dixon grabbed his half-brother and drove home.
A tip-off
An anonymous phone tip identified Dixon as the shooter, and the next day police pulled him over. It wasn’t unusual for Dixon to encounter the police; they would often stop him on the street, harass him, maybe rough him up some, to remind him who was in charge. But this was different. Dixon was arrested for murder.Still, he wasn’t particularly worried; he was not involved in the shooting and there were so many witnesses.
Two days later, LaMarr Scott confessed to WGRZ television that he killed Jackson. It didn’t seem to matter to the police; they had the man they wanted to charge. Prosecutors built their case around three flimsy eyewitnesses, while onlookers who could have exonerated Dixon refused to come forward out of fear. Dixon was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to 38.5-years-to-life.
The prison years
While in Wende Correctional Facility, Dixon maintained a close relationship with his daughter, who was six months old when he was convicted. Over the years, she grew up, celebrated birthdays and Christmases, went to school, graduated, and became an advocate for her imprisoned father.
While in prison, Dixon began drawing again, typically spending from six to ten hours a day working with colored pencils. One day, the warden asked him to do a drawing of a golf course for him. Dixon had never played the game—which is associated with affluent white people—or set foot on a golf course, but he did the drawing, and fell in love with the subject matter. “I can’t explain it,” says Dixon about his attraction to golf greens, “but it’s a very peaceful thing…and I come from a place that’s not that peaceful.”
In 2012, Golf Digest ran a story about Dixon, detailing how golf had “saved his life.” The story featured images of his artwork This led to three more appeals in his case, all of which fizzled.
The college students
That’s when three Georgetown University undergraduate students took up his cause for a course taught by Professors Marc Howard and Marty Tankleff. Tankleff himself was wrongly convicted and served almost 18 years before being exonerated. The students did extensive research and produced a persuasive documentary supporting Dixon’s innocence. District Attorney John Flynn promised to conduct a thorough and fair review of the case as part of his new Conviction Integrity Unit.
As a result, LaMarr Scott—who was in prison for another murder—pled guilty to the murder of Torriano Jackson. In court, Scott said that if they would have believed him when he confessed the first time, the second victim might still be alive. As part of a plea deal, Dixon’s record was reduced to a minor offence. On September 19, 2018—27 years after being wrongly convicted—Dixon walked out of prison a free man.
A new ending
This makes for a great ending to a story of personal triumph over adversity, but recently an unexpected event put frosting on the story’s cake. A couple of months ago, a woman called Dixon saying her boss wanted to buy one of his golf drawings as a Christmas gift for her husband, an avid amateur golfer. She had heard about his story and thought a drawing by the now fifty-one-year-old artist would be just the thing her husband would appreciate.
She was right. The husband was very pleased with the Christmas gift, and couldn’t wait to tell about it on his Instagram account. “For Christmas, Michelle surprised me with this drawing of the 12 hole at Augusta National by the terrific artist @ValentinoDixon” read the post. “It’s an incredible piece, but the story behind it is even better. Valentino grew up in Buffalo, New York, and developed a great skill and passion for drawing from a young age. Unfortunately, when he was 21, he was wrongfully convicted for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to a minimum of 38½ years in prison.” By now, you’ve probably guessed that the amateur golfer is Barack Obama, and it was Michelle Obama who bought the work as a Christmas gift.
“Today, Valentino travels extensively, sharing his story and promoting the need for criminal justice reform,” Obama added. “And thankfully, for me and for so many others, he continues to draw.”
The good life
“I don’t know if it gets any better than this,” Dixon said in a recent Buffalo News article. His drawings are widely sought after at blue chip prices by golf enthusiasts and others. His story has been picked up by magazines, newspapers, and television news shows all over the country. He has a show on YouTube, called “Draw and Talk with Me,” where he often chats with celebrity guests. And he hasn’t forgotten about his old neighborhood. He’s currently lining up donors for a community center for teenagers on Buffalo’s East Side.


Skin deep Buffalo fan

I find tattoos interesting. I don’t have any myself, but I’m intrigued by the indelible images people put on their skin. So, dear reader, if you were going to get a tattoo to mark your devotion to the Buffalo Bills, and simultaneously pay tribute to your favorite Buffalo bar food, the one most often enjoyed by fans as they watch the Bills on TV, what would it be?
Scott Howard is a local skin artist at The Living Canvas Tattoo Studio, and he came up with a thought-provoking synthesis of these two topics, which he posted on his Instagram page. Howard’s design perfectly reduces life in Buffalo down to its quintessence, and you cansee it here. The design is so popular that Howard is marketing them as stickers.

Monumental mess

You probably read about the graffiti damage to the McKinley Monument that occurred during the protests over the summer. You also likely heard about the Thanksgiving Day minivan crash into the monument that left one passenger dead, and critically injured the driver, who is now charged with vehicular manslaughter in the second degree. You may be wondering when the monument will be repaired.
Don’t hold your breath
In a recent article in the Buffalo News, commissioner of the Department of Public Works, Parks and Streets Michael J. Finn, estimates that repairs could cost more than $100,000. My guess is it will cost much, much more. And if past experience is any indication, it won’t happen anytime soon.
First of all, if you haven’t seen it, take a look at the way the vehicle impacted the monument. That’s not minor damage. The driver’s insurance may cover some of the repair costs. Finn claims that most drivers have only about $10,000 property damage liability. That is the minimum New York requires, but insurance companies recommend much more, usually around $500,000. I hope the city is pursuing that angle.
Bring in the experts
The plan is to have a restoration expert look at the monument over the winter to determine what to repair and what to replace. That alone could chew up a good chunk of $10,000. The News article says that a “$1 million restoration project in 2017 reset all of the monument's paving stones and stairs. Stone poles were cleaned and repaired, with two replaced. The fountains, obelisk and animals were cleaned; leaky fountain pools were relined; and the 96-foot-high obelisk was repointed in places.” The article goes on to say that a protective coating was applied to the monument, which was partly removed along with the graffiti over the summer.
Way back in 2018, LSS wrote about the historic Gates Circle Fountain, which had been hit multiple times by drivers, starting in 2015. Three years later, it had not been fully repaired. The city had already spent $212,082 to do partial repairs, but it still looked badly damaged. The city wanted to study how it could change traffic flow around the monument, to help prevent future car/fountain encounters, and planned to do a study. We wondered then why it was taking so long to repair this important architectural monument. Now we ask why it has taken seven, with no work done?
We also ask how long will the McKinley Monument take? And how much will it cost? Like we said, don’t hold your breath.

Does truth matter?

Let’s talk about Congressman Chris Jacobs. He’s the guy who won the seat vacated by Chris Collins, when Collins resigned to plead guilty to insider trading and lying to the FBI. To better understand Chris Jacobs’ behavior as a congressman, you have to picture the27th congressional district. It is the most reliably Republican district in the state, with Donald Trump having won it by 24.5 points in 2016. "It's no secret that I support the president and his major policies, which I think have been getting this country on the right track," Jacobs said in a Buffalo News interview.
Recently, Chris Jacobs had a problem. On January 6, the House was to vote to certify the results of the presidential election. This is normally a formality, but this year, many Trump supporters objected to it on the basis that there was widespread voter fraud. It’s what Trump had been aggressively promoting for months, despite a total lack of evidence.
Jacobs jumps on the conspiracy bandwagon
Jacobs no doubt knows that the election was fair, and that Biden won handily, but if he says that, he also knows Trump will publicly attack him, despite Jacobs obsequious devotion to the president. Being attacked by Trump is the kiss of death in heavily Republican territories.
Like many other members of Congress, Jacob announced in advance that he would take the cowardly path and object to the certification. This was largely an empty gesture intended to placate his constituency, since there weren’t enough votes to stop the certification. But by voting this way, Jacobs perpetrated the dangerous falsehood that a vast international conspiracy had undermined our elections. Trump followers, including a large portion of Jacobs constituents, believe this nonsense. Jacobs had a decision to make: stand up for the truth or placate his voters with what he knows to be a lie.
Who knew?
On January 6, America learned just how dangerous Trump’s false claims are. Believers came from across America, summoned by the President to march on Washington and stop the congressional certification of Biden. Trump had earlier urged them on with such messages as, “Be there, will be wild!”
It was wild
Even after seeing the destruction the election lie caused, Jacobs doubled down. He voted against certifying the results and made it clear that he would not support any effort to remove Trump from office, either through the 25th amendment or impeachment.  
The letter
Last week, seven WNY lawmakers signed a letter calling on Chris Jacobs to resign from Congress. Most of the signatories are New York State Assembly members, with two state senators. All are Democrats. The seven are Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Sean Ryan, Timothy Kennedy, Patrick Burke, Monica Wallace, Karen McMahon, and Jonathan Rivera.
This was another politically motivated empty gesture, nothing more than a public scolding of Jacobs for being spineless. The letter begins by summarizing the damage Trump and his enablers have caused by propagating false claims, “intended to sow distrust in the integrity of our election and keep Donald Trump in office despite his clear electoral loss.”
It goes on to say: “Even after experiencing the attack on the Capitol Building, Congressman Chris Jacobs abandoned his oath of office and constitutional duty when he voted against certifying the results of a free and fair election.” All of this is arguably true, but it’s also what Jacobs’ constituency wanted. The question: as an elected official, when do you do the politically expedient thing, and when do you do what you know is right? Of course, Jacobs shot back at the letter with a totally unrelated response based on counterclaims of state mismanagement of the pandemic. It’s the equivalent of “Oh yeah, well, your mother wears army boots.”
Two more days
Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I hold out hope that January 20 will usher in a much more civil and rational political landscape. Not perfect, but measurably better.  

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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