At Frieze LA, Gary Tyler Finds Resilience after Prison—in Each Stitch of His Poignant Quilts

Los Angeles–based artist Gary Tyler has been making quilts for close to 15 years but has yet to exhibit them in his hometown. This week, he will debut several of his intricate and emotionally packed pieces at Frieze Los Angeles, after having been named the winner of the fair’s Impact Prize. His quilts document the 42 years he spent in prison following a wrongful conviction of murder at age 17. His journey to receiving the prize may be unconventional, but for him, it is a reminder of the resilience of an artist.

“No matter where you’re at, that talent has a way of flourishing,” he told ARTnews in a phone interview. “There’s something good that could come out of prison, despite what an individual went to prison for, whether they’re innocent or guilty.”

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Being an artist was never something he imagined as a career. He started quilting in Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana as a hospice care volunteer in 2010. To raise money for the program that supports terminally ill men in the prison’s hospice care, the volunteers started making quilts out of old fabric, jeans, and shirts. At a certain point, the founding members need additional help and tapped Tyler to be a sewer. He was initially hesitant because of his machismo, but soon he was sitting in front of the sewing machine and learning new techniques.

His love for quilting bloomed. He found quilting to be a “manifestation” of life and connection to society. When Tyler learned the appliqué technique, in which swaths of fabric are overlaid onto a larger quilt, he explored deeper imagery in his work. He felt like he could show people who he was—his thoughts, feelings, and the injustice he faced throughout his life.

“People saw those quilts and felt that I had a talent, something that I shouldn’t just push to the side since I’m now free,” he said. “It’s something that I should be able to show people and continue to do and show them what I am worthy of.”

After his release from prison in 2016, he spent seven years adjusting to his new life before returning to quilting. Last year, he had his first solo exhibition at the Library Street Collective in Detroit, showcasing a series of self-portraits that depict his time in Angola, press imagery from his legal case, and the protests for his release. His works on display at Frieze share stories from his time being incarcerated and his transition to life after prison, often including motifs like butterflies and flowers that represent the ways life continues to bloom under times of struggle and duress.

“He’s expressing his world through art, and being able to have him show that to other people, I can only hope that is just a small step toward creating a more empathetic world,” said Romola Ratnam, a senior vice president and head of impact, inclusion and advocacy at the talent agency Endeavor, which owns Frieze.

A quilt showing a butterfly at its center with radiating lines and shapes.
Gary Tyler, One of World’s Wonders: African Giant Swallowtail Butterfly, 2023. Photo Tim Johnson/Courtesy the artist and Library Street Collective

Launched in 2020, shortly after Endeavor took ownership of the fair, the Impact Prize partners with organizations to honor artists who made a significant impact on society through art. Artist Jesse Krimes, co-founder and executive director of this year’s partnering organization, the Center for Art and Advocacy, came across Tyler’s work through his organization’s Right of Return Fellowship which supports formerly incarcerated artists like Tyler.

“These are artists who have lost decades and decades of their life but are in the best position to be able to talk about that experience, but to do so through a very elevated art form,” Krimes told ARTnews.

Krimes, who is himself also a formerly incarcerated artist, said he is fascinated by the creations people make in prison where there are limited materials and support. Art is a way to “hold onto the dignity and humanity within our identity in an environment that is literally designed to strip that from you,” he said.

A quilt showing a man poking his out from a prison cell.
Gary Tyler, Unwavering, 1988/1989, 2023. Photo Tim Johnson/Courtesy the artist and Library Street Collective

He hopes that the quilts not only enlighten Frieze patrons of Tyler’s story but also his talent and artistry.

“Gary is not a uniform—he is special and exceptional in a very unique way that makes him who he is,” Krimes said. “At the same time, there are thousands and thousands of other people just like Gary who are currently behind bars, who if given the opportunity and support would make very unique things and contributions to society.”

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