David Vega told me that he has been going to jail since the age of 19. He told me this behind a glass window while wearing a red jumpsuit.
Now, at the age of 30, David is waiting to see a judge again. It has become routine for the Silver City native who has spent more time than most behind bars.
“I have trouble being around people,” said David. He was describing the first time I met him, just over a year ago when an exhibit featuring inmate artwork was on display at WNMU’s Miller Library.
Someone quietly came up to me and pointed out that a newly released inmate was present for the opening reception. I was excited to see David and wanted him to approach the podium to say a few words about his distinctive pencil work.
One of his pieces was selected to be the main image for the exhibit flyer. It features an Aztec-inspired scene with faces of an indigenous couple and a ziggurat in the background.
As I approached David, asking if he could step forward, he chose to stay back. I don’t remember him telling me more than one or two words.
“I got pulled over one day at five in the morning,” said David from behind the thick glass window. Small holes on each side allowed us to hear each other. He did most of the talking.
“I had just dropped off my step-daughter at work,” he remembered. “I was out for only 90 days.”
As he shared his thoughts on law enforcement, crime, and policing, David held tight to a large sketchpad. In it, his latest work, most of them half done. Faces of glamorous women with long eyelashes. Almost all created with pencil and pen.
“I feel like I always get judged by my past,” said David. “They had told me to stay home unless I had a job.”
While David explained his disappointment in the system, as he sees it, I could only think of the life he could have had if he had never been introduced to gang activity just over a decade ago.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but I submitted a new piece for the next show,” said David. “It has a large eye, a time clock, and smoke.” All elements that David says describe his current situation.
“I’m trapped and I’m trying to explain myself, but there’s only so much I can say,” David elaborated. “I hear my girl crying over the phone, but I’m also very positive.”
Seeing him through the finger-marked glass, David was not the same man someone pointed out to me just over a year ago.
Constrained by walls, bars, and heavy glass, David was surprisingly talkative and open. He wanted to share his story, not just through an artistic pencil interpretation, but also through the most vulnerable method — with words.
“Every time I have gotten out, I always go back to messing up. I feel like I give up so easily,” he said. “I have to learn to be a man for myself.”
In the most difficult of positions, David is learning more than he has ever known, and hoping that the next time he is released, he figures out a way to stay out for good.
“I’ve got a big heart and I’m funny. I’m very wise. I just have a hard time expressing myself.”
David’s latest work, and that of many other current and former inmates will be on display in the second annual inmate art exhibit at Miller Library on the WNMU campus. The opening reception will take place on Monday, May 7 at 6:00 p.m.
“I just want people to see my dreams and thoughts. Every time I feel like getting away, I pick up that pencil.”
Just like the first year, the artwork will be powerful and eye-opening, but this time David won’t be there to see it.