‘Report From the Realm of Hell’

You can’t buy love, but in Portland, Ore. the city is throwing money at hate.

“GRANT OPPORTUNITY! Stand up against hate and create a more welcoming community for all of Portlanders” says City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s website.

The city of Portland is disbursing $350,000 in grants to organizations fighting hate.

Hate is very big right now in Portland.

In May, two men were stabbed to death on a commuter train when they intervened on behalf of a Muslim girl being ridiculed for wearing a hijab. Portland United Against Hate, a partnership of progressive groups involved in the hate grants, suggested a link between the election of Donald Trump and hate crimes. From its website:

“We hear the outcry of our communities. In recent months, many community organizations report increasing incidents of hate crimes and intimidation, including bullying and violence stemming from racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, islamophobia, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, stigma, and misogyny. This affects every area of our lives, including our workplaces, schools, places of worship, healthcare facilities, the marketplace, and more. We reject this hateful behavior.”

Some hate, though, is more acceptable than other hate.

For most of July, there was some creative and well-received hate on display at “Human Being,” an art show at Gallery 114 in Northwest Portland. This was art with some serious cachet – inmate art from three Oregon prison inmates – David Drenth, Jerome Sloan and Vernon Bernard Patrick (who signs his work b. pat).

Their names probably won’t immediately ring any bells in Portland and vicinity. The rough edges of their crimes have been smoothed over by time.

Here’s how Street Roots, a news weekly sold by homeless vendors, described Drenth and Sloan: “Both Sloan and Drenth are serving life sentences for their roles in murders that occurred decades ago. Drenth, 58, was 27 when he was sentenced, and Sloan, 42, was 20. Neither man pulled the trigger himself, but in Oregon, anyone in a group that commits a felony that results in loss of life is guilty of murder.”

Note the reference to “decades ago” and the assumption that both men are telling the truth when each says he didn’t pull the trigger. There are good reasons why the felony murder rule exists. First, when multiple killers are involved, they simply point their fingers at the other guy. Second, the crime might not have happened had the killers not helped each other. It makes no difference “who pulled the trigger.”

So who died? In matters of art, that is an impolite question and shouldn’t be asked.

In life, the question is crucial.

Drenth killed 46-year-old Thomas Erskine Elms and his 18-year-old daughter, Lorrina Kay “Lori” Elms at their ranch near Crow in Lane County. Drenth had been charged with two counts of aggravated murder but agreed to plead guilty to two counts of felony murder in 1984, after agreeing to testify against four co-defendants. He also pleaded guilty to being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm, which should tell you something about the life he led up until he murdered the father and daughter.

The motive for the murder? A car, gold jewelry and guns, according to news accounts of the day.

In his art on display at Gallery 114, Drenth used colored pencil on brown paper to show his life at Oregon State Penitentiary. One long mural called “Screw,” (prison slang for guard) “shows the tight-lipped sneers & glowers I experience every day.”

I wonder what the looks on the faces of the father and daughter were like right before they were shot. I’m guessing they didn’t sneer or glower.

“Prison is one mere wisp above death,” Drenth said in a statement accompanying his art in the gallery. Without art he could not have survived 34 lonely years.

You know who really hasn’t survived? The father and daughter he killed, especially 18-year-old Lori. She would be well into middle age by now. She missed a lot of life.

In another work, Drenth blended images of the state Capitol building with prison bars to represent what he called the whimsical world of Oregon’s “justice system.” (The scare quotes are his.)

Drenth gave an interview to Willamette Week and had this request: “Please write to my parole officer and tell him my art deserves to be seen.”

Jerome A. Sloan, the other felony murderer who does art behind bars, killed Radio Cab driver Roger B. Penn in 1994.

The cabbie had picked up Sloan and Robert A. Kelley in Northeast Portland and was later found shot twice in the back of the head. He was slumped over the steering wheel of his cab, the motor running, the windshield wipers moving back and forth in the rain, according to The Oregonian’s archives.

The motive for the killing? Money. Sloan and Kelley had committed a series of armed robberies in two months, including one where a clerk was shot in the abdomen.

Sloan, an inmate at Snake River Correctional Institute, works in colored pencil and draws realistic portraits interspersed with clock parts and eyes. He uses the money he makes from his art to support his son, according to Street Roots.

Until Sloan murdered him, Roger Penn drove a taxicab to support his two sons.

The third inmate artist, Vernon Bernard Patrick or b. pat, gave the Gallery 114 exhibit its title, “Human Being.” This piece, a child-like painting, shows a brown face gritting his teeth in anguish, brown rivulets crawling down the side of his face and chin and “Human Being” written across his shirt.

Using a variety of media – everything from paint to crayons, magazine photos to cereal boxes – Patrick depicts various violent scenes. The words “Crime Scene on MLK Street” run vertically along a drawing of a man who’s been shot, and the words underneath are “One Bullet in the head but the dude ain’t dead.”

Patrick’s work earned a posted warning that it might be disturbing to some viewers. In his corner of the gallery “report on the realm of hell” was scrawled in purple on the white wall, the paint running down like blood.

“Self study of the wounded soul” shows a brown finger holding the word “hope.”

In an explanation of his art, Patrick wrote on brown paper “Cries from the Cage,” which begins, “I exist in a cage … for social, political and conscientious reasons my cage is called a cell. … The sad truth is: human beings are drastically rearranged by the experience of living in a cage .. the most provocative factor and horrendous reality of the cage is that … no matter how much, or how often the prisoner tries, the steel won’t bend, it won’t break. There is nothing human about the cage… My art is a rare report on my personal feelings, about human efforts and about the reach of pathetic expressions in the realm of hell. …”

To its credit, Street Roots – unlike other media that covered this exhibit – delved into Patrick’s criminal history. But it’s immediately clear why. This newspaper is sold by Portland’s homeless, and Patrick “made headlines in 2009 when he lured a homeless woman to a Portland motel room where he brutally beat her,” writes Emily Green.

Even that’s too sanitized for what Patrick did. According to The Oregonian’s archives, he struck the 38-year-old woman in the head with a pistol and wine bottle and ordered her at gunpoint to undress. When she tried to leave, he used the broken wine bottle to cut the woman on her face, arm and back.

She fought for her life, according to police reports, and tore down the motel room’s curtains. Officers found her standing naked and bleeding from the head at a MAX train platform.

Patrick received six years in prison and served his time. He could have made it to the exhibit except in May he was arrested in Washington County on suspicion of stalking, first-degree sexual abuse and parole violation. He remains in jail on $25,000 bail.

I had to miss the opening reception of “Human Being” in early July, which according to some media reports was attended by almost 500, but I made it to the last day of the exhibit. Several of Patrick’s works had “sold” labels next to them. Most were priced at $125, although a few were higher. Maybe he’ll eventually make enough to post bail.

While I was at the gallery a young man named Matthew showed up to claim one of Patrick’s paintings. I wish I had asked him why he bought it, and where he planned to display it.

Was the fact that it was painted by a prison inmate part of the attraction? What story would Matthew tell about the painting if someone noticed it? “Oh, I bought that at a gallery showing art by prison inmates.”

Does the prison connection add status to both the buyer and artist? By comparison, imagine saying: “Oh, I bought that at a gallery showing art by Costco employees.”

I don’t begrudge Sloan, Drenth and Patrick their art. I do find fault with political and community leaders and media who encourage inmates to cast themselves as victims – particularly in a city like Portland that makes a fetish of “hate,” as long as it suits the purposes of certain identity groups.

Two of the prison artists featured in this exhibit – Sloan and Patrick – are black. How many of their victims were white? Did race hatred silently factor into their choice of victims?

Weren’t all of the violent acts these three men engaged in a sign of hate towards someone else?

Perhaps Drenth, Sloan and Patrick can use their knowledge of hate to subsidize their art.

They could form an organization – Prisoners United Against Hate sounds good – and apply for a grant from the city of Portland.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

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