February 2013

John Resko

The man who painted his way out of Dannemora

FRIENDS CALLED HIM JOHNNY. Gangster Lucky Luciano was his neighbor, FDR saved his life and Hollywood turned his dramatic memoir into a big studio movie. His art adorned walls of celebrated museums and galleries around the world, and for 17 years the Adirondacks was his home. So how did he achieve such fame and evade our collective memories? And who was he?

John Resko, the son of Lower East Side immigrants, first gained notoriety in 1930, when a professional hoodlum convinced him to hold the gun in a small grocery store stickup. The Great Depression loomed. Resko had a pregnant wife and a young child to feed. The storeowner fought back. Resko fired. He and his accomplice were ap­pre­hended immediately, charged with murder, tried together and sentenced to death. Resko faced the electric chair at Sing Sing. He was only 19.

His older accomplice was executed. Resko’s head was shaved, and his pant leg slit to place the electrodes. With only 1,200 seconds before his execution, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt re­­prieved him. Jurors who felt Resko had been controlled by his accomplice wrote letters to Roosevelt on his be­half. Resko was instead sent to the prison nicknamed Siberia to serve out the rest of his natural life.

Siberia, to some, was worse than ex­e­cution. Clinton Prison, in Dannemora, was fa­mous for its fortresslike walls, isolated location and notorious criminals. In the 1930s prison life included corrections officers with met­al-tipped clubs, a bucket for a toilet, bug-infested cells and five minutes per mystery-meat meal. Resko arrived in 1931 knowing he would die there un­less he escaped or was pardoned. Neither seemed likely.

After six frigid months he started sketching and painting. He boiled state-­issued socks for pigment and fabricated homemade brushes from bits of hu­man hair from the prison barbershop. Word of Resko’s talents spread and he had a backlog of orders for draw­ings from guards and inmates.

Supervisors repeatedly denied Res­ko’s requests for real materials, but he noticed a “rat” inmate who had special privileges making an oil study of Thom­as Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. Sign painter Whitey Curtis told Resko that he was the actual artist behind the masterful copy. Curtis was painting secretly at night and having the rat paint over his marks to get other in­mates interested in a sign-pain­ting class, part of a school the prison was planning within its concrete walls. The state would buy real brushes and paints. Curtis wanted Res­ko’s help. Resko wanted in.

The prison minister sent the jailhouse version of Blue Boy to artist John Sloan, chair of the New York Armory Show, who promised a section of wall space to in­mate artists of Dannemora. Resko’s work was displayed and Sloan recognized his genius. After Curtis was re­leased, Resko took over teaching du­ties and encouraged the students to be more experimental. Resko himself took liberties with new media and techniques.

In 1936, Dannemora welcomed Charles “Lucky” Luciano—sentenced to  30 to 50 years for pandering. Luciano could get almost anything he wanted into prison. Luckily for Resko, they had grown up on the same block. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, provisions were rationed, but Luciano arranged for three trucks filled with food and supplies to arrive at Dannemora on Christmas Day, 1941. A box for Resko came stuffed with art materials. “Charlie said, ‘When a guy wants to do a thing, he should have the right equipment for doing it,’” Resko recalled in his memoir.

To the entire prison, corrections officers included, Resko was a symbol of hope. They realized before he did that he could possibly paint his way out. Resko wrote: “If John Resko #22818, convicted murderer, com­­mutee from the electric chair, lifer, could make it, then there was real, palpable hope for all the others.”

Fans and collectors on the outside in­cluded vagabond mem­oirist Jim Tully and New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. “But no­where in the annals of prison lore was there any recital of a convict winning freedom by wielding a brush,” Resko wrote.

In 1942, two “big shots” toured the facility. One was Sam Lewisohn, a mem­ber of the New York State Prison Commission who was also a wealthy art collector and trustee at the Museum of Modern Art. The other was his friend, the noted author Carl Car­mer, of the Saturday Review of Literature. Car­mer gave Resko good news—the Museum of Fine Art in Boston asked to purchase a painting and the magazine wanted several drawings.

Newly inspired, Resko worked feverishly to improve his portfolio and created posters for the War Conservation Board, American Legion and Red Cross. Resko wrote, “The idea of painting my way out of Dannemora began as a no­tion, developed into a conviction, and, in time, jelled into a necessity.” Watercolor, oil, tempera, pottery—Resko im­mersed himself in all media and passed along knowledge to his class.

If Resko had been able to plea to second-degree murder, as prosecuting law­yers wanted, he would have been eligible for parole after serving 13 years and four months. Unfortunately, his accomplice insisted on risking a trial and paid with his life. In Resko’s 16th year of incarceration, Sloan and Carmer persuaded fellow artists to send letters to Governor Thomas E. Dewey pleading for his re­lease. The letters celebrated the inmate artist’s talent and the successful rehabilitation program.

Clemency was denied.

In April 1948 Carmer’s story of an anonymous lifer convict was published in the Saturday Review. Featuring several Resko drawings, the article stated the basic facts of Resko’s case and his abilities, that after 18 years in prison he was a success story of the vocational and therapeutic training he received. Hundreds of letters to the editor arrived in response, all but one voicing the belief that the unnamed inmate had earned another chance at life. Groucho Marx wrote, “Sir: I would be glad to sign a petition to have this artist released from the penitentiary. I agree with you that he has paid his debt to what is loosely called society.”  Still, no pardon.

Then more bad news: Resko was transferred from his post to the prison hospital. A guard who had questioned him about a shipment of clay arranged the transfer. Resko loved teaching and was devastated. But the guard, an am­ateur sculptor impressed by Resko’s natural ability, knew the artist needed to learn anatomy and arranged for an X-ray technician position. Resko was given a real room and liberty to go anywhere in the prison unaccompanied. “It was the closest thing to being free,” he wrote. Resko studied the human body and painted on his breaks. He ran the machines efficiently, eventually be­coming supervisor of the X-ray department.

As Christmas 1950 and parole review time approached, Carmer warned Res­ko that his chances for release ­re­mained slim. Resko felt defeated again.

When summoned to see the warden, Resko expected news of his sick mother’s death. Instead, the confused in­mate received release papers. Miraculously, Resko was freed.

Six years later, in 1956, his memoir, Reprieve, was published. That same year Resko’s first one-man show opened at A.C.A. Gallery in New York. The film version of his story, Convicts 4, starring Ben Gazzara and Sammy Davis Jr., premiered in 1962.

Resko went on to marry a children’s book author (his first wife had divorced him after his arrest), illustrate books, teach, show and collect art. He continued to work with prisoners and consult with detention centers, sharing the idea that art classes could help provide therapy and rehabilitation. He died at the age of 80.
John Resko had painted his way out.

Related stories from our archive:
“Dannemora Gets Lucky” (August 2007)
“Welcome to Siberia” (December 1997)

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