Art Opening

Into the Furnace

Stephen Wilson’s latest exhibition, Ultimate Justice, sheds light on the death penalty in Texas.

By Nick Esquer July 16, 2015

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The body of executed murderer Elroy Chester is displayed on a stretcher at the Grace Baptist Church in Huntsville.

In 2013, mentally handicapped death row inmate Elroy Chester was executed at the Huntsville Unit for his 1998 killing of a Port Arthur firefighter. Instead of focusing on the crime’s lasting effects on the victim’s family, artist Stephen Wilson chose to reflect on the family and community of the accused.

Wilson’s latest multimedia exhibition at Fresh Arts, Ultimate Justice, mixes photography with drawings, notes and videos and highlights his discoveries of the criminal and the crime. For a month prior to the execution, Wilson—who was a production assistant on the Dutch documentary about Chester, Killing Time—lived with Chester’s family in Port Arthur, a city where Chester committed multiple heinous acts, including four additional murders and three rapes.

"For me, this was a chance to take a look at a specific case in our state and apply it to a larger sociopolitical narrative," says Wilson. "I'm hoping to encourage imagination about the generational and familial affects of what Rick Perry calls the 'Ultimate Justice.' It's an abstract recording and presentation of crime and punishment."

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A family member of executed criminal Elroy Chester in Stephen Wilson's Ultimate Justice exhibition.

Even though previously being an inmate in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Mentally Retarded Offenders Program and scoring below 70 on multiple IQ tests, Chester was deemed legally competent to be executed based off his forethought and planning. Like the documentary Wilson helped with, the exhibition explores the realms of capital punishment and political theory within our state’s legal system. In light of the evidence and ruling, Wilson is reluctant to side with the state. "I don't think our legal system here is equipped with the type of accountability necessary for a system to justifiably hand out death sentences," notes the artist.

Wilson’s imagery reflects the effects of poverty and disenfranchised families in the featured communities and aims to explain how surrounding environments produce irrational behavior and violent outcomes.

"I felt intrusive, manipulated, vulnerable, depressed, entertained, awestruck, accepted and approved...I felt and witnessed a complex mechanism of unconditional love at work between [his] sisters, their children and their children’s children. Family came first."

Ultimate Justice opens at Fresh Arts (2101 Winter Street) this Friday, July 17, and runs through August 28.

Fresh Arts, 2101 Winter St., 713-868-1839,