PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — Aaron Capizzi lives deep inside the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in a tiny cell shared with another inmate.
He landed in prison at age 19 after an early-morning crime spree in Eugene. Intoxicated and high, Capizzi and three cohorts decided to rob a cab driver.
One of Capizzi's jittery companions pulled a knife and stabbed the driver. The men drove off in the taxi, only to be quickly arrested. A judge sentenced Capizzi to 23 years for burglary, assault and being an accessory to attempted murder.
His world behind bars is routine and muted.
Yet, somehow Capizzi's artistic spirit roams free here.
The 30-year-old artist recently started painting outdoor scenes on walls of the prison chapel. Capizzi isn't allowed to use scaffolding for security reasons, so he stays close to the floor, painting as high as he can reach from a footstool. In coming months, he will paint four scenes — a lighthouse, a covered bridge, a waterfall and a cabin in the snow.
This is the second time inmate artists have beautified the chapel. In the mid-1990s, several prisoners spent 18 months painting underwater, mountain and forest scenes. Over time, some of the scenes dimmed, becoming lackluster. Paint chipped. Capizzi, who regularly visits the chapel library, asked chaplain Lorinda Schwarz if he could paint over some of the less inspiring renderings.
"Let me see some of your work," she told him.
He brought samples. Most of the colored pencil drawings depicted fantasy creatures, striking and colorful. Schwarz realized Capizzi had talent, though his bent for sci-fi fantasy wasn't the best choice for chapel walls. He assured Schwarz he would stick to landscapes.
"We put together a cohesive proposal," Capizzi said.
EOCI Superintendent Rick Coursey looked over his four sketches, read the pitch and gave his blessing.
"He's a young man who's very excited about art," Schwarz said. "He has a drive to make his piece of the world better."
On a recent Monday, Capizzi, his long brown hair tied back, used short brush strokes to fashion a waterfall flowing over a rock cliff. A palette in his left hand held dabs of acrylic paints.
Capizzi, who sketched "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "X-Men" with crayons as a young boy, now uses colored pencils and art pads bought at the prison commissary to transfer his inner world onto paper. He must be flexible and innovative. The stepstool his roommate uses to clamber onto the top bunk doubles as a drawing table. He uses baby oil to take the place of mineral spirits, used by artists to dilute and soften the pencil strokes.
Somewhere along the way, art became a vocation he plans to continue when he gets out of prison.
"Now I can't even imagine not being an artist 24/7," he said. "It's integral to my life now. I honestly couldn't imagine my existence without it. It has helped me find a direction."
A state art program — One Percent for Art — paid for the first round of mural painting in the mid-90s. This time around, in a time of state budget woes, Capizzi's mom bought the art supplies delivered via an online art store.
Capizzi expects to spend two days every week working in the chapel, completing his original creations and touching up some of the existing pieces. He estimates completion in six months.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press