LOUISBURG — Four years ago, Will Hinton opened a letter from a convicted killer in Pennsylvania, a middle-age man who painted pictures in his cell by night.
Hinton tossed the letter at the trash, but he missed the can. So he laid it on his desk in the art department at Louisburg College, where it sat untouched for months - waiting, like the jailbird who wrote it.
Three years and a dozen letters later, Hinton drove over the Susquehanna River to the looming, Gothic-style prison that looked straight out of "The Shawshank Redemption."
Hinton can't say why he wrote to Joe Aulisio, who'd spent 30 years behind bars, who'd shot and killed a pair of children when he was 15. The idea of speaking to such a man bothered him, and he wrestled with it for a long time. His best guess for why he wrote back: curiosity.
But now that he'd traveled 450 miles to Hunlock Creek, Pa., Hinton followed a guard through seven locked doors to meet the bearded and balding prisoner who'd mailed him 150 paintings.
Aulisio hugged him.
"Who knew I would be friends with this Italian guy who's killed these two people?" said Hinton, a longtime art professor at Louisburg. "Give me a break. That's strange."
Aulisio had blanketed the country with the same letter he sent Hinton. He got four responses. Out of them, he sent art only to Hinton, who had written, "Peace be with you, Joe."
Paintings started arriving in Louisburg packed in toilet paper boxes, 15 at a time, all of them in bright acrylic paints, each with a paragraph of narrative on the back.
Hinton flipped through them, stopping at Aulisio's depiction of wildfires in California, streetcars running again after Hurricane Katrina, firefighters picking through wreckage at ground zero - images he recreated from newspaper clippings.
A surreal world
More compelling were the self-portraits. In one, Aulisio appears holding a book titled "Worthless People," and he asks, "Am I in it?" In another, he is shown on a framed photograph at a yard sale, where a woman in sunglasses selects him from the pieces of junk.
Much of his work is dreamlike, distorted and surreal. In one painting, Sarah Palin appears alongside a cowboy and a leopard. Howdy Doody is partnered with a skeleton.
In one painting, Aulisio paints cartoonish figures surrounding a shaggy yellow dog. They smile and extend their exaggerated nose toward the dog's coat. The painting's title: "Smelling Ralph."
Hinton: "He told me, 'There's nothing but dogs in heaven. You know that? You know that, Will?' "
In another work, Aulisio paints a polio victim who lived for decades with an iron lung, then died when the power cut off at her house. Her name was Dianne Odell, and Aulisio found her in a newspaper story. For his painting, he gave her a new middle name: Fortitude. He congratulated her for a life endured rather than lived.
"I paint the world I can't live in," he told Hinton.
Youth on death row
Thirty years ago, Aulisio's case drew international attention. His victims were 4 and 8, and the residents of Old Forge, Pa., were horrified when firefighters found the children's bodies in a coal dump.
No motive was ever established. Aulisio didn't confess, maintaining innocence. He was chewing gum when jurors convicted him, according to news accounts at the time, and he raised his fist and yelled, "It's party time!" His father yelled at him to shut up.
Aulisio was the youngest criminal on Pennsylvania's death row before the courts commuted his sentence. In a recording made for Hinton, he speaks of the certainty of dying behind bars, about having only a "dirt nap" in his future.
But he didn't speak with Hinton about the crime, calling it a closed chapter in his ruined life.
Hinton displayed his work at Louisburg College and shared the paintings with his students, many of whom come from homes where having family in prison is familiar.
"Everybody's got someone in their family that's been locked up," Hinton said. "Everybody's got some crazy Uncle Henry."
Beyond the cell walls
Hinton searched Aulisio's work for signs of anger or a plea for forgiveness. He doesn't find anything like that.
Aulisio described his work as cave paintings from hell, soaked in 30 years of solitude and regret.
"From all the tragedy and suffering agony of my life, finally something beautiful has risen to the surface," he wrote to Hinton, "and I want to share it."
The convict had one request for the art professor:
"Ask your students what my paintings look like in a gallery," Aulisio said. "I've never seen them further than 12 feet away."
Staff researcher Brooke Cain contributed to thiscolumn.
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