‘Lord have mercy!’
No one has to sell Leonard 'Rusty' Medlock on the idea of giving people second chances.
The same situation that threatened to marginalia him in society - a prison term for drug-related felonies - liberated him in a Texas prison.
"When I got locked up" for the last time, Medlock told The Dallas Morning News of a 12-year stint that ended more than a decade ago, "I was thinking and praying. I knew I had to get out a different way. I'd always say, 'Lord, have mercy'."
Those three words, 'Lord Have Mercy', are the title of his signature artwork - a gripping piece that also reveals how he turned his life around.
Medlock, whose paintings now fetch upward of US$1,000 each, was spotlighted at the opening of the recent National Prison Summit on Mass Incarceration in Dallas.
The event, sponsored by the United Methodist Church, was aimed at training churches in how to support ex-convicts and their families.
"In general, felons are stereotypically defined as being dangerous and unworthy of being restored," said Fred Allen, the Nashville-based national director of Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century. "That's not the case in my experience. These men and women ought to be viewed as valuable human beings able to contribute to the community."
Medlock is a good example. His signature drawing depicts a man with his head bowed, tattered-sleeved elbows resting on both knees, hands clasped, deep in prayer.
Beneath it is a verse from the Bible, 1 Thessalonians 5:17: "Pray continually."
"Even in my darkest hours, I was praying," Medlock said. "I was the only one sitting in a drug house, using drugs and praying out loud. I'd say, 'Lord, please don't let me die in this sin'."
His hard fall from grace - as a gifted track athlete at Roosevelt High School who played two years in the old United States Football League - can be traced to the drug epidemic that wrecked many lives in the '80s.
"I figured out I could make more money selling cocaine than I could playing football," said Medlock, now 55. "I was around the wrong people and got some bad advice."
He eventually crossed the line and began using what he was selling.
twist of fate
Next thing you know, he's on the lam, hiding from drug dealers he owed and stealing from his own mother to feed his habit.
"My life spiralled out of control," he said.
In a twist of fate, prison saved Medlock. There, he rediscovered his first passion in life - art.
"When I was in elementary school, my art teacher told my mom I had a real talent," Medlock said. "And Mama said, 'I know. He's doing it all over my living room walls'."
Behind bars, he started sketching again. He learned how to strip the bright colours off of Skittles candy and turn it into brilliant paint. He even used toothpaste to paint.
But another creative idea - drawing portraits of those featured in newspaper obituaries - got him noticed. He mailed them to funeral homes and asked them to pass the images along to survivors.
"All of a sudden ... I started getting money on the books," he said, referring to the cash - as much as US$150 - that folks sent him.
He also got heartfelt letters from strangers encouraging him to change his life and use his God-given talent. His art touched people - and gave him hope.
When he left prison, he went knocking on the door of Golden Gate Funeral Home to pitch his idea of painting obituary portraits.
"I knew he had something in him," said John Beckwith Jr, owner and CEO of the Oak Cliff-based funeral home.
Medlock began painting quick-turnaround portraits that earned him about US$250 each at first.
Now, Medlock can set his own price. He and his wife of six years have a lovely home in DeSoto, and they attend the historic St Paul United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas.
"Lord, have mercy," Medlock said. "It's amazing what God can do."
Editor's note: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Dallas Morning News.