Detroit artist wrongfully imprisoned for decades becomes unlikely art phenom

It would be easy to mistake Detroit artist Richard Phillips for a highly-trained master of his field. But the 75-year-old man only had his first exhibit in 2019 and might be America's unlikeliest art phenom.

Phillips, who was featured on CBS News in 2019, was arrested for murder in 1971. He was exonerated in 2018, but for 46 years, he was wrongfully incarcerated.

To pass the time and temper the injustice, he painted.

"It was something to do, (to) occupy my mind," Phillips said. "I could get off into one of my paintings and just be in there for hours and hours and hours."

Once he was exonerated, though, he was sent on his way without so much as a bus ticket, leaving him wondering how he would survive.

Art by Richard Phillips.  / Credit: Steve Hartman/On The Road
Art by Richard Phillips. / Credit: Steve Hartman/On The Road

"I thought maybe I was going to have to stand out somewhere with a cup and beg for nickels and dimes," Phillips said.

Once again, though, art saved him. He realized he could take his artwork — hundreds and hundreds of watercolor paintings — and use it to make a living.

Four years later, Phillips has used his art sales to buy a new house, a car and even a dog.

Now, he's enjoying what he was denied for nearly half a century.

"It's not done yet. I'm still involved in social reform. I'm still involved in criminal justice. I'm still involved with the Innocence Network," Philips said. "I'm just trying to stay active."

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