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Prison Letters exhibition comes to Hatton Gallery

Ahead of two extraordinary musical performances due to take place in Newcastle next week, David Whetstone talks to artist Lyn Hagan whose correspondence with death row prisoner Tony Hernandez provided the inspiration

Artist Lyn Hagan with Tony Hernandez in San Quentin State Prison, California
Artist Lyn Hagan with Tony Hernandez in San Quentin State Prison, California

Artist Lyn Hagan corresponds with a death row prisoner, has a gangland tattoo on her foot and got a kick out of firing a 44 Magnum handgun at a California shooting range.

Rarely can embroidery have been anyone’s route into such violent territory.

But what began with embroidery – an artform seemingly comfortable and unthreatening – has led to an opera project and a short film to be shown on Channel 4.

This is a story that could run and run – possibly outliving the main source of Lyn’s inspiration. Tony Hernandez, who sports the insignia of the Mexican Mafia on his skin, is currently embroiled in the legal appeal process designed to postpone – and possibly negate – death by lethal injection in California’s San Quentin State Prison.

It all seems a world away from Lyn’s studio at Newcastle University where she is nearing the end of a two-year research fellowship.

Here the Chelsea College of Art graduate tells me about her meetings with Tony and his family, his talent for art and the bizarre love affair which lies behind the fledgling opera called Prison Letters, of which an extract is to get a first public performance in Newcastle next week. First, though, she explains that it all came about because of her last major project which involved filming a cat and two mice in conditions of zero gravity.

She had wanted to do it through Nasa but their “bio-ethical principles” ruled it out.

She turned to the Russians who said it would be OK but with one condition.

“They were concerned about the mice getting loose inside the aircraft so they had to stay inside the container I was given in the pet shop,” explains Lyn.

Back home in the North East, Lyn had bought a cat which she called Major Tom. Finding out that it would cost �3,000 to get him into Russia and effectively into space, she was forced to change tack.

“Just by chance I sat next to a man on the Moscow Metro whose parents used to be in the circus.

“Next time I went out there he provided a cat.”

This was Porculpa, whose weightless dance with the mice in the plastic box can be seen on Lyn’s website.

Was it cruel? Lyn says none of the animals came to any physical harm.

In any case, the space programmes in Russia and the US wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for animals paving the way.

There was one very tangible outcome of her Russian project.

“Afterwards I was absolutely broke. I had no money whatsoever and I was exhausted. I turned to embroidery because I needed something affordable and small-scale – and something that I could sell.”

One of her embroidered creations had a picture of Anne Hathaway’s cottage (that’s Shakespeare’s wife rather than the film star). It said “There’s No Place Like Home...” and underneath, in smaller stitched writing “for a murder”.

Lyn Hagan may do embroidery but, as I quickly come to understand, she doesn’t do twee.

She had the idea of embroidering tattoos – not the little butterflies or flowers you see increasingly on female bodies, but the gangland markings sported by prisoners to denote their underworld allegiance.

It led her to Tony Hernandez via an American website called WriteAPrisoner.com, which is based in Florida. It was set up in 2000 to give prison inmates the chance to acquire pen pals on the outside. It claims to have reduced re-offending among released prisoners.

“I’ve had pen pals since I was seven years old,” says Lyn who was born in Gateshead and grew up in Sunderland.

This was something a bit different, though.

WriteAPrisoner.com, for all its good intentions, is “like a dating agency for prisoners,” Lyn says.

She tells me some of the most notorious and vicious criminals – those whose crimes are literally stomach-churning – get thousands of letters from women.

Lyn, who says she has a “very understanding” boyfriend who’s a video artist, wasn’t after romance.

But perhaps part of her motivation is explained by the very candid biography on her website, in which she says: “The emphasis of my work is on experimentation and chance; meaning and rationality are less important to me than having an adventure in which I find out or experience something intense.

“Most of my work is borderline when it comes to ethics, but I am trying to establish where the line is, or should be.”

To me she says: “It intrigued me that you could narrow down who you wanted to write to in prison.

“I decided I didn’t want to write to anybody who could get out and I didn’t want to write to anybody who had hurt women or children.

“I ended up with a shortlist of about 20 people. I was going to say to them that if they could send me drawings of their tattoos, I would send art materials and books. The first person I wrote to was called Martin Robles and he was in Texas.

“By the time my letter got there he had been executed.”

Lyn turned her attention to Tony Hernandez in San Quentin. On death row since 2010, he was arrested after a gangland killing – but his case attracted attention in America for what happened afterwards.

In San Quentin, Lyn told him about her work as an artist and he told her about his love for Angela Parks, a sheriff’s deputy he met on remand before he was sentenced.

It doesn’t sound like much of an affair. Apparently they never even kissed. But Parks’ fiance found some of Tony’s letters in her bag.

In them Tony didn’t only express his affection for Angela. He also asked her to arrange for witnesses in his case to be killed.

The result was that Tony was in even deeper trouble than before and Angela was arrested for conspiracy to murder and is now serving a 19-year sentence.

Lyn acknowledges that he is “a good-looking guy”. He was also “really happy” to help her with her art project. “He’s in a cell for 23 hours a day and he needs art materials, books.

“His family can’t afford to see him very often and he doesn’t get much contact with the outside world.”

The pair are close in age – Lyn is 36 and Tony is 37 – but whereas Lyn is free to indulge in her artistic adventures, Tony has been in trouble off and on since he was 17 and has hardly ever been out of prison. As for his incarceration on death row, “he’s really, really unfazed by it. He said to me when I went to meet him, ‘I can hear people in the night-time screaming because they can’t handle prison’. But for him it’s what he’s known most of his life.

“In some senses, because it’s isolated, death row is a much more comfortable place to be. But although he has a TV, he’s not allowed to be part of any work or education programme. He’s going to be killed so why would the state spend money on that?”

Tony’s dad is a tattoo artist. Tony suggested Lyn ask him to give her a tattoo, which he did. Tony’s dad also took her shooting on a range where she filmed herself firing his 44 Magnum. S

he also had a go with a Beretta which another woman was firing and admits she found it exciting.

Tony gave Lyn some of the love letters exchanged by himself and Angela and also sent him drawings of the pair of them in imagined romantic poses.

Lyn decided to have some of the sketches animated and asked Newcastle University composer Agustin Fernandez to write a soundtrack. She showed him the letters.

Agustin says: “Normally I would take four to six months to compose something this complex so I should have said no. However, I was captivated by the story and this project is just too interesting to resist.

“You can tell from the letters that these are two people who really care about each other. When there are words to work with it is easier in some sense, but also harder as you have a responsibility to do justice to those words – to carry their emotional state of mind into the music.”

Lyn says: “Tony’s crime is not unique but the story is. At its core it’s a love story and everyone can relate to that.”

Prison Letters, which last about 15 minutes, will be performed at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle University, at 7pm and 8pm on August 23 with players from the Royal Northern Sinfonia, the Voices of Hope chamber choir and soloists Bonnie Shaw and Rob O’Connell.

Worn during the performance will be a wedding dress on to which Lyn has stitched Tony’s drawings.

For tickets, which are free, email Lyn.Hagan@gmail.com

The animated film, Tony and Angela, will be shown on Channel 4 later this year as part of Random Acts, a series of 10 short films commissioned by Channel 4, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and Northern Film & Media.

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