In “We Are the Willing,” quilter Gary Tyler revisits his time in prison and explores his newfound freedom
Tyler’s quilts, which reflect on the time he spent at Angola prison, are on display at Library Street Collective in Detroit. Library Street Collective
During his time in Angola prison, Gary Tyler learned to sew.
He volunteered at the Louisiana prison’s hospice program, which raised money by auctioning off handmade quilts at local rodeos. While several relatives were skilled quilters, the activity was new to him. “My mother and grandmother both used to sew, and it made me feel good to be connected to them like that,” Tyler tells Hyperallergic’s Jennifer Remenchik.
After serving more than 40 years, Tyler was released in 2016. And now, he’s using his quilting expertise to a new end: his first solo exhibition.
“We Are the Willing,” which is now on view at Library Street Collective in Detroit, takes its title from the motto of Angola prison’s drama club; Tyler served as its president for 28 years. The show features quilted self-portraits of Tyler during his time in prison, as well as brightly colored quilts of butterflies, plants and birds.
“I wanted to do something that was provocative, eye-opening, where the audience, when they leave, they’ll leave with an impression that this individual, you would say he didn’t allow the conditions of prison to dehumanize him,” Tyler tells Essence’s Okla Jones. “He didn’t allow the prison to destroy his character.”
Tyler was arrested in 1974, when he was just 16. An angry mob attacked a bus carrying him and other Black students in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, where tensions over desegregation were high. Amid the chaos, a 13-year-old white boy was shot and killed. During the investigation, Tyler talked back to police, and he was “arrested, beaten and charged with the crime as a symbolic representation of what happens to a Black person who ‘steps out of line,’” as Hyperallergic puts it.
“As young as I was, I believed the truth would prevail,” he told the Bay State Banner’s Gus Martins in 2022. “They are framing you for something that you didn’t do, they almost murdered [me] by practically beating me to death in the substation. I still believed that the system was fair. And I believed that I was going home. I was wrong.”
Tyler would not go home for more than four decades, despite the efforts of many activists—including Rosa Parks—to secure his release, as well as several witnesses recanting their testimonies against him.
In late 1975, an all-white jury convicted him of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death and sent to Angola, a maximum-security prison. In 1976, after a court ruling declared the state’s mandatory death penalty unconstitutional, his sentence was changed to life imprisonment without parole. Another court ruled in the early 1980s that Tyler’s conviction was fundamentally unfair, though that ruling was overturned soon after.
Finally, in the spring of 2016, Tyler, then 57, was released from prison after agreeing to plead guilty as part of a plea bargain, Reuters’ Karen Brooks reported at the time. With his newfound freedom, Tyler has been able to look to the future, an idea he expresses in his vibrant butterfly quilts.
“I saw my time in prison as being almost like a cocoon; now that I am free, it’s like I’m a butterfly,” he tells Hyperallergic.
Still, the exhibition doesn’t shy away from the injustice that Tyler experienced for so long. One self-portrait, Captivity, 1974, is a quilted version of a photo taken when Tyler, then 16, was first arrested. Others show him peeking out from behind bars and working with a friend who was also incarcerated at Angola.
Tyler hopes that visitors will view these portraits of his time in prison alongside his hopeful images of butterflies and nature and remember that “if you maintain your focus, and stand on principles, you have a better chance of surviving whatever hardship, or whatever disappointment, whatever let down in your life,” he tells Essence.
He also wants to show that he isn’t letting his past define his future.
“I don’t want people to pity me,” he says to Hyperallergic. “I’m interested in what I am becoming.”
This was originally published by The Smithsonian