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With each abstract acrylic, Pennsylvania inmate seeks to draw freedom to himself

Best known by the moniker Spel, Hernan Cortes is serving life without parole for a 1990 murder that he contends he did not commit. His supporters have been selling his paintings to fund his defense.

March 16, 2009|David Zucchino

GRATERFORD, PA. — Here comes the artist known as Spel, dressed in drab prison brown, relaxed and smiling. He strolls across the dreary inmate visiting room like he owns the place.

With his close-cropped black hair and stylishly unshaven chin, he looks younger than his 41 years -- and remarkably upbeat for a man who has spent nearly two decades in prison.

In the late 1980s, Spel was a legendary street graffiti artist in the North Philadelphia barrio. Now he's inmate No. 8058 at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, 31 miles west of Philadelphia, serving life without parole for second-degree murder.

Even so, he is a man with a vision. Spel's bold acrylic abstracts, painted in his 12-by-6-foot cell, have moved beyond the gray prison walls to exhibitions and one-man shows around Philadelphia. Prison visitors from China, Africa and South America have admired his work. His paintings were included in a show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and have been published in a British art magazine.

Patrons have paid as much as $4,000 for his paintings, which Spel says express both his inner turmoil and his faith in the future.

"He'd do extremely well in a gallery in New York. There's a tremendous raw emotion and passion," said Brian Campbell, director of exhibitions at the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

And it is this art, Spel believes, that will literally set him free.

His paintings have attracted a band of supporters who call themselves the Freedom Team. They contend -- as Spel does -- that he was wrongly convicted and have set up a website that shows off some of his paintings. They have helped pay for a lawyer, arranged art shows and pored over his voluminous trial record.

"I've been blessed," Spel says. "I always believed my art would be the way that the truth about me would come to light."

As a teen, Spel -- a name he adopted after seeing Hollywood producer Aaron Spelling's name in his little sister's Smurfs book -- was fined for defacing buildings and busted for selling drugs, he says.

"I was never violent, but I did my little dirt," he admits, including using drugs.

Then on June 30, 1990, a man named Martin Brill was shot to death during a street corner drug buy in North Philadelphia. Two weeks later Spel, whose given name is Hernan Cortes, was arrested.

During a one-day, nonjury trial in 1992, gunman Adam "Sasquatch" Colon testified that he and Spel had been trying to rob Brill when the shooting occurred. The only defense witness was Alex Alvarado, a local worker who testified that he saw Colon shoot the victim, but did not see Spel at the scene.

A Philadelphia judge found Spel and Colon guilty of second-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy. Colon has since recanted, saying Spel did not take part in the crime.

At the time of the murder, Spel says, he was in Colon's house doing drugs with a woman he had picked up on the street that day.

Among Spel's most ardent defenders is Patricia Freda, 72, a retired schoolteacher who encountered his work during a 2004 prison art tour. She has bought dozens of his paintings, and Spel has given her several more. She calls herself "Spel's Irish aunt" and has helped arrange exhibits of his art.

Paul Seligson, 64, an artist and retired hotel manager, fell in love with Spel's art when he saw his paintings in Freda's home. He has helped pay for a lawyer for Spel, and has studied court records in hopes of finding ways to prove the artist's innocence.

"He has a luminous presence," Seligson says of Spel. "He lights up a room."

Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program, is not involved in Spel's legal case. But she extols his art and has kept faith in it ever since she tried to lure the teenage tagger into an anti-graffiti program she ran. She saw "talent and energy" in his graffiti, she says.

Spel rebuffed her. Years later, Golden encountered him in prison and coaxed him in 2002 to join a prison mural arts program that her agency had founded.

"Good art challenges the viewer, and that's what Spel does," Golden says. "His work would be mysterious and engaging even if you didn't know he was in prison. When you know his story, it's even more intriguing."

Today, Spel earns 51 cents an hour painting in the mural arts program. He and other inmates paint on parachute cloth, and their murals are adhered to walls in Philadelphia neighborhoods with acrylic gel. They have contributed to a Healing Walls project, in which murals depict crime victims and inmates, and All Join Hands, a mural about urban violence.

Paintings by Spel and other inmates are on display in a gallery at Golden's mural arts program. Half of the proceeds from sales of Spel's art goes to the prison mural arts program and inmate welfare fund, Golden said. Spel and other inmates also donate portions of their proceeds to Golden's agency, which has suffered budget cuts.

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