It was October 8, 2005. Everything was darkness, a blur. My mind shut down.
I had just arrived at jail, the Massachusetts House Of Corrections (MHOC) in Middleton, Massachusetts, an inmate, falsely accused. I wasn’t perfect, but I was a good guy. Now I was in jail, and what I was about to face filled me with dread.
From the start, I stayed awake all night and slept all day. I recoiled from the sounds of the clanking metal doors opening and closing. During one of those sleepless nights, I saw it. A light. Of all the cells where I could have been in that place, mine had a small beam of light shining all night from the corridor outside. I grabbed onto that ray of light and retreated to the thing that had given me comfort in the past: drawing.
I had an interest in art from an early age. Bullied as a child, I found my escape in drawing, comics mostly. I studied commercial art in vocational ed but after high school, it was the military for me, the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Drawing faded to a memory. Then, seven years of marriage spiraled downward. A painful divorce and spiteful ex-wife sucked the life out of me. Art was the last thing on my mind. Drawing got lost. Life got lost.
My first drawing in jail was Pamela Anderson, my cell mate, Kevin’s, dream girl. I worked on it all night from a photo that Kevin had received with a letter. In the morning, Kevin was excited about his gift and showed it to other inmates. News of the artwork spread like a wild fire throughout the block, and soon, I had a stack of commission work to do. “Verdi” had become MHOC bed 60’s portrait artist.
I sketched portraits on the back of intake forms, charging $5.00. In food. I would get bagged tuna, cookies, rice, ramen noodles, pepperoni, coffee… whatever food an inmate could get to pay for his drawings.
Time began moving swiftly. October to November, December and then January 2006, a new year. Ninety one dark days later on January 6, 2006, Carmen J. Verdi, Jr. was found innocent of the false accusations against him and released from jail.
Disoriented and confused but happy to be free, my then wife of two years and I settled in Nashua, NH where we still live today. A vindictive ex-wife was hell-bent on continuing to cause as much pain for me as possible. My two sons were taught to hate me. No matter how I tried to be a part of their lives, the only role I got to play was the one paying child support. Life wasn’t going to be an easy one, but we were determined to rely on our faith and persevere.
I started a business and worked long hours every day. We made it through start-up pains, growing pains, a terrible recession and, finally, the light at the end of the recovery tunnel. I dreamed of my sons knowing how much I love them. I had to follow their lives through their Facebook pages. And, I drew.
Through it all, the pull of the pencil and sketch pad remained strong. I returned home from work each day to draw until the wee hours before going back to work the next day. At the time, I had no expectations of becoming a professional artist. Drawing had become therapy, my medication, my refuge. I hid the names of my children in the artworks I drew. It made me feel close to them. Maybe they would see it in the future and know that I was always thinking about them.
One day, I was doing a job in the home of an artist/art collector. She and I struck up a conversation about my art and she asked me to bring by some examples. When I did, she was amazed, especially when she found that I was drawing all my pieces—even the very detailed and complex drawings I had started at that time—with free-hand straight lines. “Carmen, you need to get serious about this, to show and sell your work,” she said. “You have to start pursuing this as a career.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about that. I talked to my wife and we agreed to try it. It wouldn’t be easy. The art world can be a tough place; but I couldn’t really remember a time that hadn’t been “tough.”
I had no real formal training, but I longed to know more. I asked every artist I could find who might answer my questions. Some were kind and helpful. From their feedback, I grew and my work improved. Art became an addiction. The more I created, the more I exhibited my work, the more people loved it, the more I needed to do it. It became an obsession.
There was a time I drowned out the thoughts in my head by listening to music. Today, I’ve replaced listening to music with listening to my thoughts, thoughts that are all about my art: the story, the truth, the composition. I became an artist.
During my 91 day stay at MHOC, I experienced grace in a ray of light that would change my life. Thirteen years later, that experience remains a blessing that continues to change my life every day. My integrity is still intact; the client who first encouraged me became a fan and today, her family proudly displays one of my originals among their collection.
And yes, I still hide the names of my sons in my art.