Mediation on Justice by Formerly Incarcerated Muralist Now on Display
Battery Park City is home to a new piece of public art that is both poignant and provocative. “Justice Reflected,” artist James Hough’s installation of three stained glass panels, configured as five-foot circular medallions, was formally dedicated on the curved 90-foot-long granite wall overlooking Esplanade Plaza and the Hudson River on November 12.
The panels, which evoke themes of dejection and hope, confinement and freedom, speak to Mr. Hough’s personal experience. On the night of August 19, 1992, Mr. Hough, then aged 17, shot and killed 39-year-old Ronald Davis on the streets of Pittsburgh. The following May (three days short of his 18th birthday), Mr. Hough was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Several years after entering prison, Mr. Hough began taking art classes. His work soon attracted critical notice and a following, which led to commissions to produce art for public display in Philadelphia. For these projects, he would create murals in pieces, which were then shipped and assembled at the site. Mr. Hough never got to see any of the finished works, because he was not allowed to leave the grounds of the prison where he would remain for 27 years.
This began to change in 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional when applied to defendants who were minors at the time of their offense. This did not automatically lead to the release of prisoners like Mr. Hough, but it did mean that they were entitled to new sentencing hearings. That moment came in 2019, when a court resentenced him to life, but with the possibility of parole, making Mr. Hough eligible for release. In June of that year, he was paroled.
The world was waiting. Mr. Hough was almost immediately hired as an artist in residence by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office. Major exhibitions of his work followed at the Carnegie Museum of Art (in his hometown of Pittsburgh) and the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 outpost, in Long Island City.
The triptych he has created for display in Battery Park City is a study in contrasts: images of violence (such as daggers bedabbled with drops of blood) are juxtaposed with icons of hope (such as a dove soaring through sunlight). “I envisioned and created a visual journey—one forged by my experiences and observations,” Mr. Hough says. “I designed ‘Justice Reflected’ for the wall in Battery Park City so that others can take this journey as well.”
Abby Ehrlich, the director of community partnerships and public art for the Battery Park City Authority, observes, “James Hough’s art is rooted in history and also in powerful historic precedents. Like artists before him, he calls upon art as an agent of change.” She adds that the new work “communicates directly with viewers in color and composition beyond the reach of written or spoken languages.”
Asked at the November 12 dedication ceremony whether he would trade away the talent, vision, and success that his turbulent life have brought him, in exchange for being spared 27 years in prison, and the awful transgression that landed him there, Mr. Hough answered without hesitation, “if I could somehow change the past, I wouldn’t be here, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”