Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Art, Therapy With a Profit Motive


Collectors, film poster
Collectors, film poster

In a documentary by Julian P. Hobbes, Collectors, killer Elmer Wayne Henley says that art is an act of appreciating nature, which "proves to me there's a God." He's one of many characters featured, because his charcoal sketches are among those that the central subjects collect. (Interestingly, the 1963 novel by John Fowles, The Collector, inspired numerous serial killers.)

Louisiana mortician Rick Stanton is one of the "collectors," and he's made a name from his active encouragement of incarcerated serial killers to produce pieces that he could sell. He developed three successful "Death Row Art Shows" for such exhibitors as Henley and Henry Lee Lucas, and had a mailing list of several hundred interested parties. He found some of the killers obnoxious, though he did send a photo of his son to John Wayne Gacy to do a painting. Admittedly, serial killers fascinate him. He acquired pieces from Richard Speck, Ottis Toole, Lucas, Gacy, Manson, and Henley, which he considered the best. His companion and business partner, Tobias Allen, developed a serial killer board game, which has been banned in Canada. In a real life rendition of Kalifornia, these two were featured in the documentary collecting items from infamous crime scenes, such as a brick from the home where Sharon Tate was murdered.

Joe Coleman poses with his art.
Joe Coleman poses with his art.

Also featured is Joe Coleman, whose "outsider art" is in demand by such celebrities as Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio—and Coleman also owns the infamous letter written by child killer Albert Fish to Grace Budd's mother. Expelled from New York City's School of Visual Arts, over the years he has collected medical oddities and torture devices, and has devoted himself to rendering the visages of the outcasts of life—including serial killers. His artistic themes include violence, dementia, decay, and antisocial behavior. For example, he once depicted the life of Carl Panzram, one of the most angry and brutal killers America ever produced, as a graphic art comic strip (which cane bee seen in Schechter's book). Coleman has said that such painful and disturbing things "compel me to try to calm my fears of it." In an interview with Gates of Heck, posted on his Web site, Coleman discusses what this form of expression means to him.

"That's the stuff I can relate to and understand," he says about outsider art. "Because that's the stuff where the feelings are everything, where the person is everything... They're not concerned with trends, or with sales in the art world, or making a sophisticated statement in our history... They're desperate to put these things down on paper."

Now a cult figure himself, Coleman appreciates controversy and searches continuously for the sordid dimension of American society: an 11-year-old female psychopath who killed two boys; a self-flagellating man who raped children and stuck needles into his groin; a self-appointed prophet who sent his disciples out to slaughter "whitey." These are Americans, too, Coleman seems to say, and he's willing to explore what it means and offer that to others, even at the expense of being reviled.

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