Artists and activists continue to organize as Keith LaMar’s November execution date draws near.

By Chelsea Lake Roberts 

I first meet Keith LaMar through “DIGEST,” an exhibition at the Michigan State University Broad Art Museum that I’ve been assigned to cover for the Lansing City Pulse. My beat is arts and culture, broadly defined, so I usually write about new restaurants, local theater, and profiles of people and businesses in our small community. It’s always fun, and I get the articles done in a day. So, when I walk into the museum on a cold Saturday morning in March, I figure I’ll need about thirty minutes to snap a few pictures, read some labels, and be on my way.

The first section of the exhibition featured a video-screen with two pairs of headphones and two chairs in the main hallway of the museum’s first floor. I sit down, take out my notebook and put on the headphones. As the video unfolds, I quickly learn that LaMar, the subject and creator of this story, is scheduled to be executed in Ohio for crimes he says he didn’t commit. My stomach sinks — how am I going to write about this? Ten minutes into the video, filled with music and LaMar’s spoken-word poetry, I find myself crying. I work through the video one more time, and then I move on to a sculpture.

“DIGEST” (Photo by Chelsea Roberts)

“DIGEST” takes the materials of our world and of the prison system — like bricks, bed sheets, metal siding, and legal papers — and crumples them, pushing the air and the water out, until what appears to have been an entire building becomes warped into an enormous, deflated, decaying, organic mass

“DIGEST” was created by Mia Pearlman, an accomplished, Brooklyn-based artist who has exhibited throughout the world since 1996. Her work has been featured in leading international and domestic press. Vince Aletti wrote for the New Yorker that Pearlman’s earlier works, “…dig into the connection between creation and destruction,” while Amber Bravo wrote of the artist’s cut paper sculptures, “Mia Pearlman’s work exhibits a level of dynamism and force that is somewhat unexpected in such a humble material.”

“DIGEST,” then, is Pearlman’s tour-de-force of destruction and the experience is reverent. Like walking around a sleeping tiger, I make my way around the sculpture and feel that I am witnessing absolute power- but I can’t find its origin or name. What could be powerful enough to fold an entire prison into itself like trash, compacting slowly? “DIGEST” looms before me, undeniable. And I know that were this invisible force applied to me, my body and mind would be obliterated.

I don’t think about all of this at the time, though. That morning, I’m curious and confused (and have recently been crying): Where is the anti-incarceration protest art I’m expecting with high-contrast, colorful slogans emblazoned on banners? Pearlman’s sculpture feels more like someone hit pause during the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz and I’ve been invited to walk up and closely examine a moment of the destruction. After my short article comes out, I get an email from Mia and, before I know it, I’m interviewing Keith LaMar from prison.

He tells me about the first time Pearlman showed him the sculpture.

“When she was able to walk me through, it was unnerving because I’m in here,” he says. Through the prison phone system I can’t quite hear if he says, “I’m in here,” meaning in prison, or “I’m in there,” meaning in the sculpture.

Then, he refers to sounds that are triggered by motion detectors and small videos of him embedded in a hollow part of the piece.

“To hear my voice, the disembodied voice as I move around inside this system … Once you start that thing going, it’s surreal,” he says.

Closeup of a video of Keith LaMar in “DIGEST” (Photo by Chelsea Roberts)

LaMar says he knew what to expect from the piece because he had seen mockups and had been talking with Pearlman for many months. Still, seeing it realized (through Zoom) affected him.

“I cried a few tears,” he says, “But I think it is a good way to start a conversation with someone who has never had any contact, direct or otherwise, with the prison industrial complex. Like, ‘What is happening to this person?’ And try to give people some clues as to what had to be done for me to hold on to myself — to resist.”

LaMar admits that he shot and killed his childhood friend in 1989 when LaMar, then 19, was being robbed. In the investigative podcast The Real Killer, he doesn’t mince words with journalist Leah Rothman, saying, “I wasn’t an angel.” His upbringing in the 1970s and ‘80s in Cleveland was difficult. And after the shooting he plead guilty to murder and was sentenced to eighteen years to life with the possibility of parole after twelve years.

Then, four years later, LaMar was swept up in the 1993 Lucasville Prison Uprising. The eleven-day riot was widely covered by the media at the time and is considered one of the longest prison uprisings in American history. Nine inmates and one guard were murdered in the chaos, and LaMar was cast as the “leader of the death squad.” He was charged with killing five people, which didn’t include the guard. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in a neighboring county. Even so, he has steadfastly maintained his innocence since 1993. At the time of publication, his scheduled execution date is November 16, 2023.

Pearlman met LaMar through her husband, composer Albert Marquès, who has been performing in a concert series called Freedom First with LaMar since 2020. She says that during conversations with LaMar, his metaphor of describing prison as a digestive system just struck her like lightning.

“I felt electrified by the truth of his statement, the accuracy of the metaphor, and also how that is a physical thing that I could connect to as a sculptor,” she says. “As soon as he said that, it was just so tangible and evocative and abject and bodily. I thought, ‘There’s something there.’”

“It was important to me that people have an intimate, face-to-face encounter with Keith,” she says. She didn’t want a big video projection that turned him into something else. “I thought a lot about how the scale of his face had to be the same scale as it is in real life, or close to that, and how to create a situation where the viewer has to get close in order to hear him.” Pearlman’s sculpture is larger than the solitary confinement cell where LaMar has spent the last 28 years.

“DIGEST” came to Michigan State University through a chance encounter between Pearlman and the former director of the MSU Broad Art Museum, Monica Ramirez-Montagut, after the two met at an ice cream store in Barcelona, Spain, in the summer of 2021. Ramirez-Montagut had organized a few exhibitions on criminal justice reform and, after a studio visit with Pearlman back in New York, she asked the artist for a proposal­­. When Ramirez-Montagut left the Broad in June of 2022 (to go to the Parrish Art Museum in New York), the Broad promoted Steven Bridges to Interim Director. With the Broad since 2015, Bridges happily stepped into the role and quickly turned his attention to the work before him.

“There has been a significant investment on our part to bring this work into fruition,” he says. “This is not one of these situations where we’re bringing existing artwork from one place to another. This didn’t exist until we opened the exhibition,” he tells me over Zoom.

Bridges pride in the show translated to helping Pearlman submit nearly fifty proposals to galleries around the country — including one in Ohio— so that the show could continue. They began talks with a gallery in LaMar’s home state and for a few weeks it looked promising but, in the end, the curator declined to show the work. Politics may have played a part, but Pearlman and Bridges feel the Ohio gallery’s decision had more to do with financial resources, scheduling, and a lack of documentation for the exhibition.

Although it was delayed by the February 13 mass shooting on Michigan State University’s campus, “DIGEST” formally opened to the East Lansing community on March 4. Spartans visiting the exhibition for their classes in art or criminal justice provided thoughtful and complex reactions to this artwork just a month after a shooter murdered three students before killing himself across town.

“For me, it has become really hard to see the good in certain things in the world. It has become even harder to see what can be done to make a difference or change certain issues that have been deeply rooted in social constructs that have existed for such a long time … Although this exhibit evoked a lot of negative emotions, I was extremely moved by the compassion the artists have for Keith LaMar,” wrote one MSU student.

When LaMar first arrived on death row, he was 25 years old. Although defensive and closed off, an older inmate was eventually able to connect with him and teach him how to survive through study. LaMar says that they got to work — him learning and the older man teaching — about history, meditation, the legacy of slavery, the power of jazz, and “more importantly, how to process what was going on inside myself.”

After a quarter of a century in solitary confinement, LaMar believes that the only way to survive is through dignity. He’s become a teacher, steeped in strategies from generations of resistance fighters like Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Holocaust survivors.

Without thinking, I ask LaMar what it’s like to suffer in prison. I think I’m still attempting to intellectualize his experience because, deep down, a part of me feels that I could never understand it and that, without understanding him, I can’t empathize.

He says, “Being dignified is an intentional thing, something that you get up and you do every day. And through the utilization of your dignity, your agency, that is how you hold yourself together.”

During our conversation, I start to wonder if empathy is not just the process of connecting with another person, but if it comes about from realizing how little we know of our own selves. I was nervous to talk to Keith, not because he’s a death row inmate, but because I wasn’t sure what our conversation would reveal about the parts of myself that I keep locked up. It’s so easy for us to think that we know who we are, or that we could predict with any amount of confidence the actions of our hypothetical selves. But we do not know what we would do in any situation until we’re in it.

Prison life is violent, but the metaphor of digestion is organic, quiet, and subtle. Keith says that “DIGEST” is a meditation on solitary confinement, which he refers to as “a prison within a prison.”

“They drop you off in this cell, turn around, and leave, and you are the one who is going to do the punishing of yourself,” Keith said, ”They plant a seed, ‘You’re a bad person. You’re worthless person,’ and so on. And you take that on, and it picks up a life of its own. And when you come out on the other side, you basically don’t. I’ve met people who don’t even remember their name. I’ve seen guys take their own feces and smear it all over their face. They cover themselves in shit because they are now one with that.”

As part of “DIGEST’s” exhibition programming, a group of jazz musicians, led by Marquès, give a Freedom First concert in a small hall on campus. The affair is friendly and lowkey, with Pearlman and Marquès’ young children in attendance and jazz professor Rodney Whitaker’s daughter on the drums. About fifty people are in the audience, and I recognize a few of them from around town. I make small talk with Pearlman, and she cracks a joke about the glamourous, behind-the-scenes life of an artist while feeding her kids sandwiches. They’re unphased — too young, I think, to understand much of what is going on. During the concert, her daughter sits carefully at Marquès’ feet as he plays the piano while her son passes out entirely in her lap.

Then, for the next hour, Keith LaMar performs live from death row.

When I interview Gabe Pollack about a Freedom First concert he saw last year at the Bop Stop in Cleveland, he says, “It’s one of the most powerful shows I’ve ever seen, period.”

Pollack managed and directed the nonprofit jazz club from 2014 to 2022, before being appointed director of performing arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art last summer. He says, “I’ve been to a lot of spoken-word performances, but this was the first time where the featured artist isn’t physically in the space. I think it does force you — or it did force me — to really listen.”

He also notes that the show is different from other political art in its message and style and he did not consider the show to be political.

“I hope I’m not missing something,” he says, “but it’s not really pro or against the death penalty. It’s about his personal situation.”

LaMar is from Cleveland, and viewing the concert in an audience of people who know him adds another level to Gabe’s experience.

“He’s on the phone, and people are shouting, and he’s able to hear the audience’s response,” Pollack says. “He’s not there, but it really does feel like he’s there, somehow.” The Cleveland Museum of Art is currently working to solidify a Freedom First performance in early November.

Three MSU Jazz Faculty perform in a Freedom First concert (Photo by Chelsea Roberts)

Keith LaMar has memorized the lyrics of all the songs he performs, so during the concert he closes his eyes and imagines the details and the feeling of the space. He says, “It brings me near.” He describes the experience as floating on cloud nine, and, sometimes, he gets to speak with attendees and musicians after the show. “It’s an opportunity for me to be free for a few minutes. That’s a gift I give to myself.”

But as the evening closes, he comes back to Earth, “I open my eyes, and I’m back in this prison cell, and it’s jarring. I mean, jarring is the only word I can think of to describe it. But I keep doing it over and over again because it’s worth it. Not just ultimately, but immediately, it’s worth it,” he says.

At the MSU concert, the performers close out the show by asking the audience to sing along to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” repeating the phrase again and again at the end of the final number. Slowly, the music quiets and the audience continues singing, whispering the words like a mantra in the darkened auditorium. The phrase shifts as it travels on our voices, first becoming a prayer, then a demand, then a humiliation, and finally an assertion of solidarity — I hope.

When I speak with Albert Marquès over Zoom from his home in Brooklyn on a Saturday morning, his sleepy son wanders in for a few minutes at the top of the call. After kindly redirecting him and closing the door, I ask what his kids think about all this. He answers, “Keith is not his situation, he’s a human being. We talk about him as a member of our family. But we have not talked about the death penalty.” He describes visiting LaMar in prison with his nine-year-old daughter Aviva, who asked LaMar, “Why don’t you come out with us?” and “Why are you chained to the floor?”

As a young man, Marquès was active in the leftist movements of his native Catalonia before moving to New York City to pursue jazz. He tells me that the Freedom First concerts are his first project that combines his personal history of political activism and his profession as a jazz musician. He’s so … Brooklyn. And I mean that affectionately. But when I tell him that I’m writing a piece for a magazine about the Midwest I’m surprised when he jumps in to say, “I don’t like how people in New York talk about the Midwest. I’ll do my best to defend you for the rest of your life.”

What now?

He continues, “I don’t think we’re aware of the virulence — the violence — for anybody that defends the ideas that here in New York City, we casually talk about all day long. Being an activist (in the Midwest) requires a bravery that we are not aware of.”

Marquès understands the nuances of activism across race and class. And The Freedom First concerts reflect this understanding as they change their lineup to include musicians and guests who are grounded in each local environment. In Akron, Ohio, the day after a grand jury decided not to charge police officers in the shooting of 25-year-old Jayland Walker, Marquès and LaMar performed at the BLU Jazz+ club and Marquès gave the microphone to local Black Lives Matter activists to speak about Jayland Walker.

During a Freedom First concert in Chile in 2022, Marquès says that people who lived through Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973 approached him after the concert in tears.

“They’d say, ‘My neighbor was executed. My husband disappeared.’ You would go to the police station, and the same officer that had killed them would say, ‘I don’t know where they are. I don’t know.’ Even now, they don’t know,” he says.

This year’s concerts in Ohio have been a homecoming after more than a year of touring around the world. But why take the show to other countries, I wonder aloud, when Lamar is in Ohio?

Marques says, “It’s not only about Keith and his exoneration. Keith himself says this goes beyond us.”

Like Marquès and Pearlman, LaMar’s new lawyer is based in Brooklyn. According to his professional website, Keegan Stephan was a political organizer for almost a decade before finishing law school in 2019 and joining his current firm in 2022. He practices in the areas of civil rights and discrimination, police and government misconduct, and wrongful convictions, among others.

Amy Gordiejew lives in Youngstown, Ohio, and has been organizing with Lamar for twelve years while running the nonprofit organization Justice for Keith LaMar. Speaking briefly about LaMar’s new lawyer, she tells me, “Keegan read Keith’s book and got to thinking about him as a human being first.” According to Gordiejew, Stephan was in the audience at a sold-out Freedom First concert at Joe’s Pub in New York.

“He experienced Keith in his art before even saying yes,” she says.

Gordiejew and I talk over Zoom from her high school classroom where she teaches English.

“A lot of the kids at my school have come from pretty deep poverty or trauma,” she says. “Keith has provided me with tools to help kids that are a lot like how he once had to live.” Gordiejew helped Lamar write his book, Condemned, after meeting him through Alice and Staughton Lynd- an acclaimed author who has written widely on the Lucasville Prison uprising. Now, she talks about Lamar all the time with her students, who even sport “Justice for Keith LaMar” hoodies and make posters of him for Black History Month.

“It’s really hard for me not to involve them because so many of my big lessons in life have come through Keith,” she says. “I often find myself advising students, ‘Be gentle with yourself.’ That’s something Keith says. ‘Your worst moment — that’s not who you are, that’s not all that you are. That’s a moment. It’s a blip on the big screen.’”

Amy and Keith in 2014 (Photo from Justice for Keith Lamar Facebook Page)

I ask LaMar if he is planning a future past November 16. He says, “If I survive, I’ll continue the work.” He imagines that he’ll still be in prison, and his goal is to have his case retried.

He continues, “But if you’re asking me what I intend to do once I find myself on the other side of this situation- I intend to continue with myself. I know who I am. I know what my life is about. And I know a lot of young people who could benefit from what I’ve learned. So, there’s a place for me.”

Correction: Amy Gordiejew helped Keith LaMar to publish his book, Condemned, she did not help with the writing. This story states that Keith viewed DIGEST over Zoom, but that is incorrect. He viewed the exhibition on a laptop camera over a GTL video visit. 

Chelsea Lake Roberts is a professional writer from Michigan.