The art of a friendship: A letter from a North Carolina prisoner led to an exhibit in Putney

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PUTNEY — It's about 650 miles by interstate from Halifax County, North Carolina, where Jeffrey Reddick is an inmate in a medium-security correctional facility, to the Putney Public Library, where his lively and colorful paintings are on display through February.

Reddick has spent more than half of his 68 years behind bars, serving a life sentence for larceny, assault with a deadly weapon, and other crimes. But his artwork has found its way to Vermont — and that story starts with a magazine article written by nationally recognized garden designer Gordon Hayward of Putney.

In October 2009, "Traditional Home" magazine published a story by Hayward about a garden he designed in Peterborough, New Hampshire. "And at the end of this 10-page article was my contact information," Hayward said.

The librarian at the prison had a subscription to "Traditional Home." Reddick saw the article and wrote a letter to Hayward, and the two have been corresponding regularly ever since.

Reddick, who studied horticulture at North Carolina State Agricultural Institute after graduating from high school, has been including artwork — paintings in acrylic and other media — with his letters. The envelopes are themselves works of art.

"He would send a painting with illustrated envelopes, and long letters of 8 1/2 by 11 pages taped together to make a long scroll," Hayward said. "So I would have to unroll the letter. Even the way that he writes is copperplate, decorated with flourishes."

Reddick paints directly on the envelopes, and those illustrations and even the stamps often directly complement the envelopes' contents. Hayward said receiving an envelope from Reddick at the Putney Post Office brightened his day.

"Mr. Reddick is African-American, and the stamps on the envelopes depict African-American cultural figures," Hayward said. "Seven stamps on one envelope feature Maya Angelou and this quote: `A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.'" That particular envelope contains a bright painting of a bluebird on a branch.

Nancy Storrow, the volunteer curator of art exhibits at the Putney Public Library, said she learned about Reddick's work this fall in an email from Hayward.

"Here was this work, and here were some images of it, and they looked fabulous," she said. "Gordon left a box of all of Jeffrey's work, and I took it home and laid it out all over the living room floor, and was overwhelmed by the beauty, the color and the immediacy of his self-expression."

Storrow said she and Hayward met at the library and chose about 15 works, plus some envelopes, including the one with the stamps of Maya Angelou.

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Stefan van Norden, a gardener and filmmaker from Hanover, New Hampshire, has aired a podcast, "Jeffrey Reddick - A Painter Without a View" as part of his "Nature Revisited" series.

In the podcast, Reddick said, "I think when it comes to nature, even being in here, I have a thing I want to share. Even being in here, I have an appreciation for nature and its beauty."

Reddick has shared his artwork not only with Hayward, but also with other gardeners. In the podcast, he tells van Norden that Katharine Hepburn had some of his paintings in her Connecticut home.

His brightly-colored works give no hint of his troubled family history, or his criminal convictions. In 1984 he was convicted of breaking into a pair of homes, shooting the occupant of the first house with a handgun loaded with pellets, causing injuries from which she recovered, and attempting to handcuff a second person before stealing jewelry, a handgun, and a car. Rather, the paintings reflect his love of the natural world. Some of the paintings recall the farms of his grandmother and aunts where he spent much of his childhood.

"I think that those things that a person has encountered during his upbringing stick in his heart," Reddick said.

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Many of his paintings feature flowers.

"A flower the most well-loved art in the world," he said in the podcast. "I used to spend a lot of time in the woods. It's a vision; it is a thing that I can relate to, interact with, and I think a lot of people in the world can communicate on that level."

In a letter to Hayward, Reddick said creating art helps him deal with being in prison.

"I'm able to block out the frustration and the anger that appears from time to time because conflicts are an everyday occurrence," he wrote.

Reddick also writes poetry in his highly decorative handwriting; his poems express the same loving relationship with nature and art that is reflected in his painting. A portion of one poem reads:

On a Sunday afternoon

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On grandmom's farm,

Watching the bluebirds dancing in the rain

Suddenly overwhelmed by nature's wildflowers blooming

Ah, this is where I'd rather be

In the midst of life's everlasting serenity.

At the Putney Public Library, Storrow said she looks for art that connects the library's programming and the community. While the work of a man sentenced to life in a North Carolina prison may seem distant, Hayward sees particular relevance for Reddick's work in Southern Vermont, with its many artists.

"I think this is important for the Putney community and the community of southeastern Vermont, where so many artists are working," Hayward said.

He finds inspiration in Reddick's ability to focus on nature's beauty, even in prison.

"Incarcerated as he is for life, though he and his family will testify at a parole hearing on February 4, he remains in touch with the natural world through his imagination, and though his writing and, of course, through his art," Hayward said. "Every day of our lives we are searching for ways to express ourselves, to share who we are — and Jeffrey, shut off from the world, has found a way to express himself and then to send that expression to other people. I find that very humbling. He's come to term with what his life has become. He's not looking back in anger."

"Even in the most dire of situations, he finds, through his imagination, links to the natural world, links to gardens, links to things that we so take for granted that we don't even see them in front of our own noses," Hayward said. "We take the natural world so for granted, when it is the source — it's where we came from — and Jeffrey knows that because he can't have that, yet we have it every day of our lives."

Maggie Brown Cassidy contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Putney.


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