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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Hart

The Art of a Serial Killer

Image painted by Shawn Grate.
Image painted by Shawn Grate

When I first set out to write Bullet Journaling for Serial Killers I knew exactly the aesthetic I wanted. The subject of serial killers is a controversial one, however, the true crime market is booming. Even mainstream platforms are creating increasingly more true crime content, but usually it is the same faces and stories that are focused on. Then on top of that there are numerous snake oil salespersons pretending to be experts in the mix, so there is a multitude of misinformation in the world of true crime.


I have always been interested in criminality, I wanted to know what the motivations of serial killers were and why they came about. I started what ended up being a huge project to answer some of those provocative questions. Questions we all have about violent offenders, and I used the numerous experts that are in the field to do so. I also started writing to offenders. I sent out a letter that stated what I was doing with the book, why I was doing it and would they like to contribute some artwork to the book.


Right from the start I wanted to include inmate art in my book as it fascinates me the things people create. One of the first people who responded was Shawn Grate. Shawn is currently on Death Row in Chillicothe Ohio, for the murder of 5 woman and for holding another hostage for 3 days.  I had no idea what to expect when I started corresponding with Shawn, but he is very honest about his situation. He has commented numerous times that he is where he should be. We mostly talk about how he ended up on Death row, not by discussing his crimes but by speaking about his childhood, his thoughts and feelings on the justice system, and many other things.


Shawn made Christmas decorations as gifts for other inmates during the 2022 Christmas period
Shawn Grate sharing one of his art projects

Shawn is classed as having a low IQ due to issues with his brain, but he is highly intelligent and logical in the way he approaches things. He is exceptionally good at explaining how he rationalises his decisions and how everything affects him. One of the things we spoke about was when he first had violent thoughts. At 8 years old he used to picture himself staring out of a jail cell, so it is safe to say he knew from an early age that something was not right.


People think by learning about violent offenders backgrounds you’re trying to excuse the acts themselves, but for me that information is crucial. The main reason being, that in all that information there are points when interventions could have been made, that would have created a different outcome. By exploring the effects neglect and abuse have on a person we can make sure that the support networks in place help, we can do this by learning from offenders.


By focusing on the offender and listening to the answers they have, this could stop someone else from becoming a serious violent offender. For me this is important and something I always consider, if we can reduce violent offenders that means we can reduce the amount of victims too. By talking with offenders, I get to see their viewpoint, I get to gain and understanding of how they reached that point and why. If you want to stop perpetuating violence then those conversations need to be had.


Shawn and I have discussed many different things but my favourite topic is what is he working on. Every time I talk to Shawn, he has a new project, usually something artistic but often it is something practical to use. Shawn does not just create things for himself he makes things for other inmates too as gifts. He recently received a new tablet to use so he created a holder for it out of popsicle sticks and then made one for everyone else on his landing. Shawn also paints and is always experimenting with new things and subjects. I once asked him if when drawing mountain landscapes, he copied images or made them up. His reply was that is what I think heaven looks like.


Image painted by Shawn Grate.
Image painted by Shawn Grate

Shawn has ADHD so is impulsive and needs to keep busy so for him art provides the perfect outlet. He gets to be creative, and he can also use his logical side to create things that not only pass the time but are also useful. He has not been in trouble since being on Death row, he has a job that gives him extra privileges as his behaviour is always impeccable. Shawn himself puts this down to keeping active and busy. I have included pictures and video of Shawn showing some of the things he has made so you can see how diverse and creative he is with the materials available to him.


 Rehabilitation is not on the cards for someone on death row, but I do think it helps the self reflection process and processing all the emotions that must be stirred by a death sentence. Shawn does have emotions, even though most true crime shows will tell you serial killers are devoid of such things. He spends a lot of time not only reflecting on his actions but also trying to understand why he committed them. He calls it doing his time, sitting staring at the wall, and trying to make sense of it all.


This is one of the reasons that Shawn is remarkably interesting to talk to, He is very curious about his diagnoses and what that means for him. When diagnosed with ASPD and other things, none of it gets explained to the inmate so they hear all these terms but do not know what they really mean. I have given Shawn numerous pieces of information from experts about his diagnoses so he can understand how his brain operates and how he can control any urges he feels. He once said something that stuck out to me. He said

“In my life I had maybe 10 or 20 bad days and on 5 of them I killed someone, and I will only now be judged on those bad days, none of the good I ever do will cancel that out” Shawn Grate

Shawn was not asking for it to be cancelled out, so you have context to the conversation, he was talking about how he spends his days now trying to understand himself, creating art and just being himself.


Below is a video of Shawn showing a garden wind ornament he made



In Chillicothe many other inmates also paint, some crochet small cuddly toys, people make different things to fill the time. I cannot help but think that more should be put into art projects for prisoners. Especially the more violent as it is shown to help with processing emotions, encouraging further education and providing an expressive outlet. I have included further reading for the science regarding art and prisoners if it is of interest at the end.


For me personally victims can only recount their stories which is a traumatising thing to do, I know first-hand. Recounting traumatic experiences for a person recovering from something like abuse is painful, emotional, and often difficult. For me, the perpetrators are the ones that have the answers I was looking for in understanding violence and its origins. I am fully aware of the details of Shawn’s case for example, but we do not discuss those aspects. Shawn knows what my interest is in violence, so we talk about how he thinks he ended up acting on those thoughts. We talk about how his childhood affected him and his relationships. For me that is interesting to learn about because it shows how much damage something like neglect for example can do.


I volunteer with young offenders, so it also helps me help them. Something like ASPD presents differently in children, it is called Conduct disorder instead mainly because at that point you can change the outcome with the right intervention. Shawn was just labelled naughty because of his ADHD that is the point he starts feeling like an outsider and it begins to fester till he becomes an adult. I cannot help but wonder in Shawn’s case if the right intervention could have changed his course.


The reason I always ask that question is because if we could prevent these things 6 lives and many others would not have been shattered by his actions. Prevention is better than cure they say but, in the world of violent sexual and nonsexual predators until they become perpetrators, they are not on anyone's radar. I asked Dr Eric Beauregard PhD in criminology when I first started researching what was the answer when it comes to preventing sexual violence? He explained that the main problem is until someone offends, we do not know they exist. Once they offend then they can start addressing the issues but there is already a victim.


These are complex issues that Dr Beauregard and many others are trying to find answers for and some of that work also includes talking to offenders. No matter what you think of writing to inmates there is so much that can be learned by both parties so for me it is an endeavour I intend to keep up. I also intend to go back to school to further my knowledge so I can pair the practical and theoretical. I know first-hand from speaking to inmates an outlet is important for their mental health and wellbeing.


Prison is not the holiday camp that the media like to make it out to be, serial killers are high profile inmates that are always a target. They live in a perpetual state of unrest and inmates like Shawn also must deal with the fact that they could be executed at any time too. Having an outlet allows inmates to process all those feelings in a positive way instead of using violence.


Reference


Brewster, L. (2014). The impact of prison arts programs on inmate attitudes and behavior: A quantitative evaluation. Justice Policy Journal, 11(2), 1-28. http://www.cjcj.org/uploads/cjcj/documents/brewster_prison_arts_final_formatted.pdf



Kumar, Sandeep (2020) "Reflective writing in prisons: Rehabilitation and the power of stories and connections," VA Engage Journal: Vol. 8, Article 5. Available at: https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/vaej/vol8/iss1/5


Urie, C. E. (2006). The beat: Behavioral change in juvenile detention center writing workshops.



Vacca, J. S. (2004) Educated prisoners are less likely to return to prison. Journal of Correctional Education, 55(4), 297-305. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23292095


Imagining more than just a prisoner: The work of Prisoners’ Penfriends Jacqueline Hodgson and Juliet Horne APRIL 2015




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