It was sometime in October that his first letter arrived at the WLUSP office. It was from a “Mikel Lesperance,” and it was addressed to the Prison Arts Foundation of Canada. I initially thought it to be a postal error, but a little digging revealed that the PAF had originally been founded in Brantford way back in 1967, spurred on by a Christmas card contest sponsored by a small volunteer organization for prison inmates.
In its heyday from the 70s all the way to the early 00s, the Foundation supported imprisoned artists not only in the receipt of their work, which crisscrossed genres and styles, but also in their display. Federally and privately funded, the Foundation held national exhibitions of the donated artwork, mostly set up in shopping malls and occasionally in prisons. Perhaps at the height of their popularity in 1992, the Foundation’s exhibits were seen annually by over one million visitors. Now it’s difficult to find any information on the Foundation whatsoever; my research sees its last exhibition as having happened in October 2003. A call to Correctional Services in Ottawa was similarly fruitless; the heavily accented French receptionist struggled to tell me, in broken English, that she had never heard of the Prison Arts Foundation, and nor did her colleagues when she asked them.
So why did The Sputnik receive this package? Looks like the PAF was founded at 111 Darling Street – now commonly referred to as “Journalism House.”
Back to this “Mikel Lesperance” – who is he? Starting from the package he sent, I was able to paint a broad picture of our mysterious subject: he was located in Monteith Ontario, a northern town of around 800 residents which, not surprisingly, housed Monteith Correctional Facilities. Google Street View shows a fairly developed but dilapidated Monteith – overgrown grass on several properties, a couple boarded up houses, virtually empty streets.
I also found an article published in the Northern News that talked about a Mikel Lesperance who had faced 27 charges, 14 of which were breaking and entering (the article has since been removed from Northern News’ website, probably for logistical reasons). Mr. Lesperance is a career criminal.
It was with this information in mind that I sent my first of many letters to Mikel. I informed him that PAF no longer existed at our address, and that we, The Sputnik, had received his letter and art instead. I expressed an interest in receiving some more of his art, maybe to print in a future issue. He replied, a few weeks later, with a letter and more art – lots of art.
By looking at Mikel’s work, it’s easy to tell he has talent; he’s no Picasso but given that he’s working with crayons and pencils worn down to stubs, his art is impressive. It’s mostly caricatures and political commentary (one 8.5 x 11 piece he sent us featured a cartoonish Ed Sullivan flashing a Nixon-esque peace sign, surrounded by comments like “VIET NAM WAR SHAME USA” and “Harper always wins, he just shuts down Parliament!”), but he’s also sent us art that makes me wonder what must go through his mind sometimes. One large piece, intricately drawn in pencil and painstakingly shaded in crayon, features a Hobbit-like old man in Victorian-era gentry clothing, sitting on a bridge and writing in a tome with a quill pen, all in front of a grandiose castle. I want to ask him about the stark difference in tone and style, but I don’t press the issue yet; reading the comments he tacks onto each piece of art he sends me, I get the feeling that there’s something there, something deeply personal, like the contrast represents something to him.
In his last letter to me, he sent his missive – a sort of summary of his life and his goals. He told me about his childhood; he comes from a dysfunctional home. He writes that he received verbal and physical abuse from his mother (“There isn’t anything in a kitchen I hadn’t been beaten with by my mother – except for the toaster, fridge and stone”) and father (“I have been burned by my father – all ten fingers with his Zippo lighter; he also burned my face on a small very hot light bulb covered by stainless steel, rubbing my face on it and screaming how stupid I was.)
He also tells me that by age 5, he was “emotionally stripped and full of fear and hatred.” By the time he left home at age 15, he was an alcoholic and drug addict.
From 1979 to 2006, he spent almost every year in prison, serving 25 years of a life sentence on what he calls an “installment program.” He still hasn’t told me what he did to deserve a life sentence, but I don’t press the issue. He’s back in prison now, in Monteith, probably a result of some or all of those 27 charges sticking.
Mikel thinks that he’s in for the long haul now, writing that they are moving him to Kingston Penitentiary, one of Canada’s most infamous maximum security prisons, sometime in the next couple months. But he doesn’t seem fazed by it; it’s all a routine to him by now.
When Mikel Lesperance turns 50 on May 27, he will have spent more than half his life behind bars. And yet, he’s not bitter or angry with anyone but himself; he knows why he’s here and he’s come to terms with his own role in his fate. Today, he fights for change in what he calls “our corrupted Canadian institutions,” advocating for fair treatment of Canadian inmates. He tells me that the abuse of prisoners that he sees on a daily basis reminds him of those nightmarish times from his childhood. I can’t help but think that, surrounded by abuse, corruption and the promise of the remainder of his life imprisoned by steel and stone, that Mikel uses his art as a way of mentally removing himself from his current predicament. It’s at once inspiring and deeply saddening to know that such a talented, creative soul could have allowed himself to fall so far, and yet he continues to draw and do what he loves.
So, we print some of Mikel’s art here, alongside a “response piece” of art from our own Bridget Parker – to showcase their talent, to present Mikel’s story to an audience, to celebrate creativity and to hope, collectively, that one day, Mikel Lesperance and all talented souls like him will break free from their bonds, whatever they may be, and soar as freely as their imaginations. Solidarity, Mikel, my friend.