The Art of Michael Skakel

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

53-year-old Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel is now a free man. Skakel was released from prison in November, 2013 after over a decade stint for allegedly murdering his 15-year old Greenwhich, Connecticut neighbor, Martha Moxley in 1975. Skakel’s freedom resulted from a judge ruling that his attorney was negligent during his murder trial.  Michael Skakel / Photo courtesy abcnews.go.com

Skakel did not let any grass grow under his feet during his incarceration. In fact, Mr. Skakel discovered a hidden talent to fill his time behind bars. He was a prolific contributor to Connecticut’s Prison Arts Program.

Mr. Skakel took advantage of his situation and turned his sentence into an artist’s dream. He had one benefit most artists would envy: Abundant time to experiment with art.

Mr. Skakel’s artistic ability evolved from stick figures on the outside world to unique expressions of his imagination on the inside world.      

Jeff Greene, 45, was Mr. Skakel’s art instructor in prison and is the director of Connecticut’s Prison Arts Program. Greene boasts that Skakel produced “hundreds of artworks” during his incarceration. At least 18 of Mr. Skakel’s works have appeared in shows that Mr. Greene curates to bring inmate art to the attention of the outside world.

Mr. Skakel was introduced to Mr. Greene and his art workshops for inmates at the MacDougall Correctional Institution in Suffield during the fourth year of his sentence.

The only requirement for being one of the 200 participants of the workshops is a clean disciplinary record, and Skakel qualified.

The program began in 1978 and is operated by Community Partners in Action, a nonprofit organization that, in an earlier form, listed Mark Twain among its board members.    

Mr. Skakel confesses that creating art is how he survived the mundane world he was confined to during his stay in prison. It was a way to transform the label of “offender” that was placed on him and reveal his authentic inner world.    

It is no surprise Skakel is a talented artist because he has artists on both sides of his family going back two generations.

Skakel is no ordinary artist.  With the limited resources available in prison, he learned to be very resourceful with art supplies.  

With an annual budget that barely reaches six figures, $40,000 of which comes from taxpayers, Mr. Greene hands out supplies to inmates who are truly inspired to invent art projects out of ordinary items they can salvage. Canvases consist of cinder block walls inside the prison, poster paper, and common paper. Nondairy creamer, pulverized soap, floor wax and Jolly Roger candy are all used for paint.

First time students are greeted by a ballpoint pen and single sheet of paper. They are instructed to exit the classroom and return when the ink is dry. Mr. Greene promises the students that by the time the assignment is completed “something fascinating will happen.”

One of Skakel’s most fascinating creations is an acrylic on canvas from the popular “Food Pornography for Prisoners” collection. The colorful still life painting is a replica of a succulent looking shrimp cocktail on ice garnished with a sliced lemon and a bottle of Tabasco Sauce.    Image courtesy trutv.com

“Who Kidnapped the Truth?” as the 2012 piece is called, is one of the many paintings, murals, portraits and drawings that Mr. Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, quietly turned out in prison after being convicted in 2002 of the 1975 murder.  

The detailed colored pencil drawing, bordered with vibrant red and white reveals the side of a milk carton with an unusual advertisement for a missing person. A blindfolded Lady Justice is avoiding a sullen little boy huddled in the corner. The milk carton’s short six-digit bar code purposely matches the inmate number of Michel C. Skakel.  

Another expression of Skakel’s fears and concerns about being incarcerated was the watercolor he did in 2008 that portrayed death and wild animals encircling a boy who resembled his son. Hovering in the sky is an eye that seems to represent Mr. Skakel’s desire to help, and his feeling of helplessness from prison. The painting became part of the poster for the 2008 art show.

Skakel paid his gift forward to his correctional community by designing holiday greeting cards and painting portraits of his fellow inmates for their relatives. Charities received donated works for auction, some of which went to buy textbooks for former inmates attending a community college where one of Mr. Skakel’s prosecutors teaches.

At Mr. Greene’s request, Mr. Skakel collaborated with other prisoners in the program on a comic book for H.I.V. and AIDS awareness called “Beyond Fear.” Some 5,000 copies were distributed.

Mr. Skakel came close to quitting his freshly discovered hobby because of eye strain, until his cousin, who is also an artist suggested he turn the canvas upside-down. Skakel continues to paint this way, which fits his unconventional style.

Even though Skakel is no longer inside the walls of the prison, his art work remains on the flowery Corinthian columns in the prison library. Evidence of Skakel’s work during his detention at MacDougall Correctional Institution is also displayed inside the prison school and reception area in the form of acrylic-on-cinder-block murals and child-like posters. Balmy tropical scenes adorn the walls where inmates receive their dialysis.  

Hopefully, Skakel’s art will remain the only remnant of him on the inside because prosecutors still consider Mr. Skakel responsible for Ms. Moxley’s death and say they will press to have his conviction reinstated.

Mr. Greene proclaims, “In that dehumanizing world, where occupants dress alike, eat alike and follow the same regimen, their art does their living for them in the outside world.”

A framed poster by Mr. Skakel features a smiling Thomas the Train under the words, “Thank you soooo much for visiting!”