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Since entering prison for a petty crime as Michael Gordon Peterson – from which he later changed to Bronson – he has obtained the infamous reputation as being one of the most ruthless and unpredictably violent inmates to ever carry a prison sentence in Great Britain.
There have been many books about him, and even a critically acclaimed film starring Tom Hardy (of Dark Knight Rises and Inception fame) that really seemed to capture the nuance of his character.
I confess, he intrigues me.
He has been in prison for over 40 years, with only one 69-day stint outside its walls during which he became a bare-knuckle boxer.
Despite this lengthy sentence, longer than some who have murdered, Bronson was originally arrested for petty theft, and had never assaulted or killed anyone outside the prison walls. Even inside, attacking and injuring many, he never killed anyone.
His prison history is rife with taking workers and inmates hostage, and numerous violent outbursts and attacks. He even tried poisoning one inmate.
He is currently serving a life sentence after taking an educator hostage for –ironically-critiquing his art. For some time after receiving this final sentence, he continued to act aggressively and violently against a number of people for a variety of perceived slights and offenses.
He has spent considerable time in solitary confinement and acute mental health units. He was even placed in one prison’s “Hannibal Cage”, named for the character Hannibal Lector. You can imagine what that looks like.
He has staged several protests, one on the roof of the forensic psychiatrichospital where he was sent after deemed insane.
He had also been on the receiving end of many attacks, from inmates and officers alike—himself included. Once, after a lengthy situation in which he took two Iranian terrorists hostage, he carved up his arm with a razor blade just before letting the hapless inmates go.
He is also one of the most divisive characters.
Some say he’s extremely dangerous to his environment; others have argued that he is a miserable product of the same. Some have claimed that his being locked up and confined for so long caused his impulsive, violent, aggressive and unpredictable behavior. Others have argued that is just who he is.
A recent petition to have Bronson released from such deplorable conditions has garnered more than 10,000 signatures. Others would like to see him end his days in prison.
There is simply not enough space in this brief blog to underscore all that he has been put through and all that he has put others through.
So what does the most violent inmate do? Naturally, he turns to art.
Almost 20 years ago, he picked up pens and pencils and started drawing.
And what images they are. On the surface, they appear to be whimsical line drawings and colorful cartoons. Take a closer look*.
Some are just what they appear to be—amusing but well contrived sketches.
Yet some are indictments of the very environment that imprisons him.
Some still are humorous self-caricatures that are simultaneously self-deprecating and horrifyingly perverse, giving us a glimpse of the struggles he may yet endure.
From an art therapist’s perspective, the images are controlled, carefully executed and well organized. They do not appear to be completed by someone overly aggressive and out of control, let alone a reflection of emotional turmoil. And, that may be their strength. The very act of completing these images may in a sense provide him a semblance of control and mastery over the very environment he feels forces him to lose control.
This in no way implies that I excuse his behavior, his poor decisions and his uncontrollable fury. I am neither championing him nor condemning him. I am simply pointing out that he has perhaps, maybe, found a more productive means of expression.
Granted; I recognize that he remained quite ruthless even when making these images. However, and I understand there is no way in telling, might he not have been even more out of control if he didn’t find this outlet? I don’t know.
Another question– are these genuine expressions? Or are they more like John Wayne Gacy’s work—a cynical attempt to take advantage of society’s fascination of violence and murder to market sub-par and sophomoric imagery to make money?
I don’t think so.
For one thing, his work is quite good. He has talent.
And the money he has made from selling his work has been used to help his mother or donated to various charities.
To peruse his website, one gets a sense of humor coupled with a message of just how potentially mad he may
Granted, the website is protecting the brand Bronson. Perhaps the art may indeed provide a glimpse of the man Bronson.
So, who’s Charles Salvador? Twice he changed his name. He became Bronson when he began to bare-knuckle box, to embody the strong, aggressive, don’t f@&^ with me persona that he carefully honed.
Now, giving credit to the art, he now sees himself as a peaceful man, a creative, artistic person. Thus, he changes his name to Salvador to symbolize the change. He even has a new website to herald this transformation: http://charlessalvador.com. Perhaps this is simply another marketing ploy. Maybe it is. However, I’d like to think that the art does indeed provide him a means to channel and focus his anger and aggression.
Maybe he has indeed found peace, become peaceful. I hope so.
Because, wouldn’t you rather be attacked like this:
Than like this:
*Special thanks to Henry Boxer Gallery and the Charles Bronson Art website for allowing me to use images from their sites.
Author: David Gussak, PhD, ATR-BC, professor and chairperson for the Florida State University Department of Art Education