Wrongly Imprisoned, Towler’s Art Displays Hope

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Speaking with Raymond Towler, one would be hard pressed to find any evidence of bitterness in him. That’s despite the unimaginable injustice done to him and the loss of nearly three decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, throughout which he steadfastly maintained his innocence.

How is he not angry?

“There were a lot of good people working for what I wanted for so many years. They took the time to grab my case,” he said. “When you get people who are like you, who are there to help you, it’s uplifting. I found a lot of people like that along the way.”

Convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the sexual assault of an 11-year old girl in Cleveland and pulling a gun on and assaulting her 12-year-old male cousin, Towler spent more than 28 years in prison before DNA testing proved conclusively that he was innocent. He was released from prison May 5, 2010.

Throughout that time, Towler, who has been interested in art in one form or another for most of his life, painted. He sent many of those works — which range from abstracts to more realistic pieces — home to family or trusted friends.

The Soap Gallery, which purchased some 200 of Towler’s works, is hosting Towler’s first-ever solo gallery show. During Saturday’s opening at the gallery, 117 S. Champion St., Towler will give a talk and perform with his band, The Exonerees.

Stephen Poullas, Soap Gallery owner, said he became familiar with Towler’s work through a classmate at Case Western Reserve University, a federal public defender who lobbied his superiors to display artwork from prisoners in offices throughout the state. The classmate encouraged Poullas to check out the work, and the gallery owner was impressed with the quality of Towler’s work.

“It looked super professional,” Poullas said. “It looked really refined. It had fine detail. It wasn’t rough or edgy.” He also was impressed with the number of diverse styles represented. When he learned the entire collection was for sale, he decided to purchase it and to give Towler his first solo gallery show.

Towler, in an interview Wednesday, said he began drawing at an early age, and teachers encouraged him.

“When you get attention for stuff, it sticks. It did for me,” he said. Had he not been wrongfully imprisoned, he said he likely would have pursued some form of art career. That could have taken many forms, including sculpting, music (before his conviction he was performing in cabarets and bars), poetry, writing or  working on theater sets.

“Being an artist has so many different facets. That is something that I never would have been tired of doing,” he said.

In prison, Towler focused on realism and doing portraits. “That’s what got me interested in being able to paint,” he said. From there, he decided he needed to learn to do backgrounds to make the pictures more interesting.

Painting provided Towler with a legal way to make money behind bars. In addition, it helped him to defy the image that his incarceration placed on him and to not be “the criminal that they were saying I was.” Instead, he was “leading the life of a guy using his trade to get by” and express himself, and not painting “rapes and murders and all kinds of weird stuff,” he remarked.

“I was naturally defying it because I was just being myself. I was doing what I would naturally do because you can’t fake it. You’ve got to be yourself,” he said. Behind bars, he said, the biggest challenge was “not falling into the trap of acting like everybody else to survive.”

He also was helped by staff who provided him tips for getting along as well as some fellow inmates, although he acknowledged he had to figure out who to listen to and who to trust.

Since leaving prison, one of the adjustments Towler said he has had to make has been to women, who are more aggressive and upfront about what they want than they were before his incarceration. “I’m still getting used to that,” he said.

He kept up on technology as much as he could – “I’m kind of a geek like that,” he acknowledged — and earned the computer language Basic while he was in prison. Although he was interested in pursuing more with computers, electronics and information technology, he was too detached while in prison. “There’s no way I could have been an IT guy. I kind of missed that,” he said.

Towler is impressed with the changes in his home community of Cleveland in the decades since his conviction, something he largely credits to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ star player, LeBron James.

“He’s done so much for downtown,” Towler said. Whereas years ago no one could open a bar “without some idiot shooting somebody outside,” the downtown is a safe, friendly place to visit for entertainment, he said.

“You’ve got the Indians going to the World Series, Cleveland [Cavaliers] three years in a row in the finals and the Browns doing as terrible as ever,” he says, laughing.

After getting out of prison he worked for two years in the mail room for Medical Mutual of Ohio, an experience he looks back on fondly. Now retired, much of his focus today is on his music. A jazz guitarist, is experimenting with several different styles and recorded an album.

He hasn’t painted since shortly after his release from prison.

“That’s something that I’m working through,” he said. “It’s kind of a mental thing where I’m uncomfortable painting right now.”

Among those who have been inspired by Towler’s experience is Kelly Gruscinski, a Youngstown native who lives in Cleveland. She has known Towler seven years. “I saw his story the day he was let out of prison, and I heard him say that he never once gave up hope,” she said.

Gruscinski was teaching at a community college and had “a lot of students that have defied all odds.” She decided to see if Towler would speak to her class.

“We became great friends,” bonding over hope and the drive to not give up, she said. “He made a comment once on the news that no matter what predicament you find yourself in, you still have choices. We both have always had a lot of hope.”

Pictured: Ray Towler’s paintings are on display at the Soap Gallery, 117 S. Champion St. in downtown Youngstown.

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