Among the states, Texas has a uniquely committed relationship to the death penalty. Since capital punishment was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, the Lone Star State has executed 570 convicted inmates, more than one-third the total number of executions in the 28 states where the death penalty is legal.
San Antonio artist Mark Menjivar became interested in capital punishment while studying social work in the early 2000s. His education included meeting Sister Helen Prejean during her 2005 visit to San Antonio sponsored by the San Antonio Peace Center, learning of her advocacy for abolition of the death penalty made famous by the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking.
In 2013, when Texas logged its 500th execution, the number made Menjivar take notice.
“It was that number that really made me begin to ask a bunch of questions about capital punishment” and what he termed “the effects of state-sanctioned violence on communities,” he said. His questions included asking whether an “eye for an eye ideology” works, why his home state of Texas executes so many more people than other states, why black and brown people are imprisoned and executed at disproportionately higher rates, and inquiring about the economic, social, and spiritual implications of executions.
Those questions appear in the back of a book published as part of Menjivar’s exhibition Birds, Rats, Roses at Sala Diaz through Feb. 28, with a companion artwork in a group show at Blue Star Contemporary titled Please Form a Straight Line, on view through May 9.
The book, titled DLP Wall, presents a selection of clippings, images, and sticky notes collected from the prison cell of David Lee Powell, who at the time of his execution in 2010 had served 32 years on death row, a record for Texas inmates.
Menjivar’s book is spare on words and context, beginning with a newspaper clipping of a color photograph showing a tornado touchdown. The next pages show an index card inscribed with “Sentenced to DIE 9/11/78,” followed by a newspaper photograph of Powell being embraced by his mother, and an exterior image of the Huntsville prison where he served the first 21 years of his sentence.
Other pages show notes about his court cases, dreams, recipes, flowers, names of 1980s bands, and one intriguing note listing simply, “Birds / Rats / Roses,” that gave Menjivar his exhibition title.
An avid birder, Menjivar said birds represent a notion of freedom directly in conflict with lifelong incarceration, while the term rats suggest “animals that survive despite whatever conditions they find themselves in, and even begin to thrive in those settings.”
Powell was noted for his studious good behavior as a prisoner, teaching law to and advocating for other prisoners, while studying philosophy, math, languages, and music.
Together, the images reveal Powell’s “wide range of interests that went from mathematics to yogurt making to origami,” Menjivar said.
Death row was moved from Hunstville to the Texas State Prison Pelunsky Unit in Livingston in 1999, with inmates subject to Supermax prison conditions including 23-hour daily lockdown in their cells, solitary confinement, and limited human contact. Powell was able to keep his notes and other materials, Menjivar said, finally leaving his collected archive to friends with the intention of having it made available to the public.
After Powell’s execution, his belongings were collected in six red onion bags and given to a group of friends that wanted to maintain his memory, Menjivar said. They eventually donated the archive to the Texas After Violence Project (TAVP), an Austin nonprofit dedicated to restorative and transformative justice, for research and preservation. Menjivar became a TAVP artist-in-residence in 2015 and has since drawn on the Powell archive for several exhibitions.
At Blue Star, Menjivar displays a photograph of the archive in 17 cardboard banker’s boxes, along with simple lists denoting their contents. The lists portray Powell as a normal person with everyday needs and wants, one noting a range of common comfort items like baby powder, gourmet instant coffee, vegetable juice, a can of sardines, and ranch dressing.
On the concrete floor is a 6-foot by 9-foot rectangle drawn in black tape, which represents the size of the cell Powell was confined to for 23 hours each day. While Powell was “deeply, deeply affected and debilitated by the conditions,” he managed to compose a musical score, remarkably without access to any instruments.
Titled Palindromic and Invertible Canon, the piece reads the same way both upside-down and backward. The piano score might represent Powell’s reflection on his fate, with his future inscribed by a single moment from his past that could never be lived down or forgotten.
Powell received his death sentence after being convicted of the 1978 murder of Austin police officer Ralph Ablanedo after a traffic stop. As with so many capital crimes, the story is complicated, read differently by those in favor of Powell’s execution, and those who had worked to save his life.
In learning about Powell’s crime, his life, execution, and his victim, Menjivar said he mourns the conditions that create violence and hopes to generate dialogue about the effects of crime and capital punishment.
“What happened with Ralph Ablanedo is absolutely tragic,” Menjivar said. “He had two young sons and his family is forever changed, and it was traumatic for so many people.” Menjivar said Powell, a high school class valedictorian with no history of violence before his crime, expressed deep remorse for his actions.
What Menjivar hopes to shed light on is the complicated humanity behind those actions, believing that “none of us is as good as we think we are, or as bad as they say. Life is not lived in black and white.”
Menjivar said, “there’s no arguing that he suffered from severe mental health issues” that ran in Powell’s family, and also from a fateful drug addiction that fueled the murder of Ablanedo.
Still, the humanity re-emerged during Powell’s incarceration, evident in the soundtrack Menjivar commissioned for Birds, Rats, Roses that plays on speakers in the Sala Diaz front gallery, and the framed copies of its handwritten score hanging on the walls.
Visitors are invited to respond to the exhibition by writing their own sticky notes and sticking them to the gallery walls, in imitation of Powell’s frequent activity. Each visitor may also take two free copies of DLP Wall, “one for themself and one to give to another person,” Menjivar said, to help the artist in his ongoing quest to extend dialogue on capital punishment.
Exhibitions at Sala Diaz are free, currently scheduled by appointment through its website due to the coronavirus pandemic. Visits to Blue Star Contemporary are free with a requested donation, and must also be scheduled in advance.
A free public event is scheduled for International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 at 5 p.m., when Menjivar will lead a walking tour from Blue Star to Sala Diaz, while engaging in discussion about capital punishment.