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The Innocent Man Freed From Prison Because Of His Golf Artwork Is Making A Career Out Of It

Valentino Dixon tells a story in front of a packed house for his first solo art show, and the crowd is enraptured. He went to prison in 1992, and after he was released in 2018, his daughter bought him his first smartphone.

“A couple of times I just want to take it and toss it,” he says. Then he shares a story. “I’m at a hotel, and I need a ride to the airport. But I don’t know how to download the Uber app to the phone. I’m aware of the Uber app, but I don’t know how to use it. You got people walking through the hotel lobby. So I picked a guy that kind of reminded me of a guy in prison. He was a white guy, but he looked approachable.

“So I say to him, ‘Do you have a minute? I need a favor, I need help to download the Uber app to my phone so I can get a ride to the airport.’

“He says, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’”

After Dixon shared his story—that he was imprisoned for 27 years for a murder he did not commit, then got out with the help of a golf magazine writer who had originally profiled him due to his hobby of drawing golf courses—with the approachable white guy, the man was more than happy to help.

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“Holy shit!” the man said, according to Dixon. “I will do whatever you want, guy… I don’t know how you did 27 years and you’re still laughing and smiling.”

In 2012, Golf Digest reporter Max Adler wrote a story with Dixon about how golf saved Dixon’s life. Imprisoned for a 1991 shooting that he did not commit—another man had even confessed to the crime—Dixon found peace in Attica (N.Y.) Correctional Facility by drawing golf courses. It started when the warden asked him to draw a picture of Augusta National’s famous 12th green. Dixon, who’d never played the sport, nonetheless became addicted to drawing serene golf scenes of famous courses, or ones drawn from his own animation.

Adler’s article attracted the attention of other media outlets, as well as the Georgetown University Prison Reform Project. A team of students began working on Dixon’s appeal. More attention meant more lawyers working pro bono on the case. Erie County, New York, got a new district attorney. The wrongful convictions unit looked into the case, and Dixon was freed last September.

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By nature, the prison system makes it hard to pick up other skills necessary to live again in society. But Dixon’s case—“a miracle,” Adler calls it, referring to how many things needed to happen to get him freed from prison—is different. He’s already an artist who has received national attention. Now, he wants to make this his career.

Since leaving prison, Dixon has already sold pieces, including seven commissioned ones. The U.S. Ryder Cup team commissioned him to do a piece for captain Jim Furyk; it was presented to him before the U.S. was demolished by Europe in last year’s competition. When Dixon talked to Deadspin at Wednesday’s show, he admitted he was eager for it to be over. He wanted to get back to work on a piece he was working on for the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard.

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Dixon makes intricately designed pencil drawings that have the quality of a painting. He began drawing in pencil because those were the only materials available to him in Attica; painting wasn’t allowed. Now freed, he’s continued to refine his pencil artistry, experiment with more colors, and create surreal scenes of golfers with golf balls for heads.

Dixon’s work has a serene, pastoral quality to it. He’s a non-golfer drawing an idealized version of a course, on a perfect day. There’s no one playing too slow, or any crummy weather. His drawings of famous holes appear better than the real thing. Though he never played the game until getting out of prison, he draws like he’s recalling a memory of an old round. And his stories add a lot more to them.

“I thought it was pretty compelling, especially knowing the history behind it,” says Andrew Edlin, who hosted Dixon at his gallery show and the Outsider Art Fair. “He’s a really good draftsman. And the subject matter is so unusual. But for the story of how he came to do golf courses, it could be interpreted as kinda kitschy. But the truth is it’s extremely well done. It has a compelling, naive quality to it.”

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Take Dixon’s drawing of Pebble Beach, which comes with an anecdote: “You have this point looking out into the ocean and this old wooden fence. I’ve drawn it several times. And not long after I got out, I actually sat on that fence after I got out.”

Dixon explains his process of how he picks courses for his pieces, and uses Augusta’s 12th as an example. “A lot of courses look similar,” he says. “A course that gets my attention is a course that has some type of character. If it’s designed with character, that’ll motivate me. I’ve drawn the 12th hole of Augusta about eight times just because of that bridge.”

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Dixon will hope to use other mediums to express himself, too. He says he’s looking to eventually expand into painting with oil or acrylic. He’ll also be a credentialed member of the Golf Digest editorial staff next month at The Masters. That should give him some inspiration.

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