Artist Moliere DiManche’s piece Hearing Aids depicts an exceptionally traumatic incident. The focal point of the piece — among the chaos of a large vintage microphone, a sadistic hellcat, a cape-wearing popsicle stick with a swastika tat, and a man in a tricorn hat clotheslining (WWE-style) an unclothed African-American male — is a stoic index finger pressing down on a protuberant eyeball.
Whimsically sinister as it is, DiManche says Hearing Aids is based on the experience of a friend who, while spending time in solitary confinement, refused corrections officer’s orders to come out from under his bed sheets. After the officers pumped poisonous gas into the cell, DiManche says the friend still would not yield to commands, even resisting attempts to physically extract him from his bed. The altercation ended when the inmate lost an eyeball.
DiManche has a lot that he’d like to share. The 28-year-old has filled the pieces for his new show, The Verdict, opening at St. Augustine’s Dos Coffee & Wine on Sunday, Aug. 14, with so much imagery and metaphor, the themes often seem as though they’re engaged in a unwinnable battle to escape the confinement of the young artist’s canvas. DiManche’s black-and-white, collage-style pieces are the kinds of illustrations that often benefit from some exaggerated scaling, with large canvasses helping to inundate the viewer. Turn over any one of DiManche’s works, however, and you’ll see why he didn’t have much choice in the matter.
“I did one of the pieces on the back of a canteen order form,” says DiManche. “If you flip it over, you’ll see a list with the prices of items like Snickers bars, cheese squeezes, and other stuff you can buy in the prison canteen. It’s really the only paper I could get my hands on.”
In April, DiManche was released from Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka, Florida. He was given a $50 debit card and a bus ticket back to his hometown of Orlando. Shortly thereafter, St. Augustine artist Wendy Tatter — who DiManche had began sending artwork to several years earlier — helped the young artist apply for a Pell Grant.
When Folio Weekly Magazine talked with DiManche in early August, he had just finished his first semester as an art major at St. Johns River State College in Palatka, earning all A’s. It’s roughly the 10th — and by far the best — institution he’s been admitted to since entering the state penitentiary system at 20 years old. With one of his SJR classes, DiManche recently visited a museum dedicated to the works of American painter-naturalist Walter Anderson in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. He then used acrylics (for the first time) to paint a piece (his first since being released from prison) based on the experience.
I ask DiManche if it feels surreal to be creating art based on a field trip to Mississippi, only a few months after being confined to a cell.
“Does it feel surreal?” he says, repeating my question. “It feels absolutely fake! Like it’s not even my life.”
“What really blows my mind the most is that the dean, my professors, and the students [at SJR] all know I’ve been to prison,” he says. “And nobody holds that against me. As an ex-con, I just figured all doors were closed to me.”
Growing up in Orlando, DiManche says he received a lot of encouragement for his artwork, drawing superheroes, “Dragon Ball Z” characters, and Mike Tyson (“chipped tooth and all”) for his elementary school friends and classmates. DiManche was enrolled in honors courses in high school, but he says that he didn’t see a clear way to make art a part of his life at the time.
“[Art] wasn’t really encouraged after middle school,” he says.
DiManche is forthcoming about his mistakes. He says he got involved in a scheme to sell stolen goods. He was arrested and took his case to court. A judge gave him 10 years.
“I didn’t really know what to do with myself,” DiManche says. “I went from really not doing any time, to being locked up for a 10-year sentence.”
DiManche says he was startled by the violence he witnessed in those first few months. The isolation — DiManche would spend nearly an entire year in solitary confinement — was also jarring. Needing an outlet to process his experiences, DiManche fell back on drawing.
“Murals and tattoos were big in prison,” he explains. “Whenever I wasn’t in confinement, I was doing tattoos, portraits and murals.”
DiManche’s experiences — which included extraordinary violence, degradation and isolation — are reflected in the artwork he created while incarcerated. The pieces have a manic energy, making use of allusions to the justice system — gavels, scales, and some explicitly Greco-Roman imagery — and references to the often-bipolar realities of daily life behind bars — Bibles and prescription drugs, as one example.
“I try to fit as much experience as I can into one piece,” DiManche says about his artwork. “I have a lot to talk about, so it’s a struggle.”
Taken as a whole, the manic imagery creates an atmosphere that brings to mind Dante’s Inferno, as DiManche has collected events that are all part of one, overwhelming journey.
“While I was in prison, I went to many different institutions. Each new place was equally crazy. I tried to capture the individual experiences, at each institution, all in one piece. It’s kind of like my own riddle. My own puzzle.”
DiManche is remarkably well-adjusted, in spite of what he’s seen and lived through.
“Every morning, I think about what it means to be free,” he says. “I know deep down that I’m a righteous person. I know if I stay true to my principles and beliefs, I can be comfortable with myself no matter what.”
And DiManche’s principled life and gratitude provide guidance for this next phase of his life. “At a certain point, I was sure I would die [in prison],” he says. “I’m still here, so I’m thinking I’ve got to make something of this.”
DiManche is also working on a book based on his experiences behind bars. With fall classes coming up, he’s got a full plate. He says he’s learning every day, trying new techniques and working in different mediums. Just like his fellow art students, he is dealing with the challenges of pushing beyond his inherent skillset, embracing mistakes in service of more meaningful art.
“You’re going to mess up,” he says. “The only way to deal with a mistake is to adapt to it.”
THE VERDICT by Moliere DiManche, Opening reception and meet-and-greet , 5-7 p.m. Aug. 14, Dos Coffee & Wine, St. Augustine, dosbar.com