The Light and the Dark

Meet Jacob Warner, an artist who found salvation behind bars

Warner studies a carving in progress.
Jacob Warner has to go to prison to discover what is in his heart.

In the joint, his talent gathers like a storm, and the drawings and paintings he began doing as a boy now blow out of him in great gusts.

But he doesn't just make interesting art. He creates an entirely new form.

He uses a black Bic pen to sketch images on cut-up bedsheets.

When he gets bored with black, he uses prison coffee to add shades of brown to his makeshift canvases.

At first, they're the only supplies he can get. At other times, he uses his toothbrush and smuggled acrylics to paint on bedsheets.

Day after day, he works and prays, works and prays.


Having a pen is against prison rules. Cutting up sheets is banned.

"They'd come in and search any time," says the artist, part Laguna and part Navajo. "I'd hear a door or keys, get up and check it out. If they caught me, they might take everything away, put me on LOP. Loss of privileges. I learned to draw quick, bro."

Susan Garland, of Garland's Indian Jewelry in Sedona, says artists often have their moment in time, a special period when they produce their most inspired work.

"Jacob found his in prison," she says. "He was unbelievably productive. And these sheet drawings are phenomenal. We had no idea how good he was."

She finds out when his contraband artwork arrives at her store in Oak Creek Canyon.

Jacob uses the mail to smuggle the pieces out of the hole. In cardboard tubes.

Susan keeps them in the back. When friends come in, she rolls them out and says, "Look at this."

They're the contents of Jacob's heart made visible.

But why does it take hard time in the Yuma pen for him to finally find the beauty he's walked with all his life?

In a perfect world, even a suitable one, the answer wouldn't begin the way it does.

With the horrific screech of steel on railroad tracks outside Holbrook.

With blood and mangled bodies. With the right side of his face nearly torn off.

It wouldn't begin with the wreckage he has brought to his life through alcohol.

But it does.

Jacob recalls nothing about the accident. It happens on May 26, 1999.

He's in a joint called the Arizona Tavern in Holbrook, 90 miles east of Flagstaff, playing pool, listening to music.

After that, a doctor is leaning over him. The doctor yanks out Jacob's breathing tube. It shocks him to coherence.

"Do you know where you are?" the doctor asks.


"Flagstaff Medical Center," the doctor says. "Do you know how you got here?"


"You were hit by a train."

When he leaves the bar, Jacob gets behind the wheel of a borrowed car. His passenger is a Cheyenne-Arapaho woman he knows from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Jacob is engaged to be married at the time. His fiancée, Maria, is pregnant with their son Isiah, who will be born Oct. 31, 1999.

The passenger is 36-year-old Rose Randall.

"I offered her a ride, and it was messed up after that," Jacob says.

The cause of the mess-up is a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train.

10:25 p.m. Almost a full moon. Jacob stops the little white Isuzu on the tracks.

Might as well paint a bull's-eye on it. Might as well stick a gun in your mouth.

Maybe that's his plan.

When drunk, friends say, a terrible shadow descends, and he talks suicide.

Years before in Grants, N.M., Jacob tries to hang himself with his shoestrings in the town jail.

The police report on the 1999 wreck quotes Jacob's mother saying she has heard him talk suicide-by-train before.

"Maybe have the train hit me," she quotes her son. "Maybe have it run me over."

It happens just that way. The train is traveling 70 mph when it hits the Isuzu.

The train pushes the car across Twin Wash Bridge, squashing it between the bridge railing and the train.

The impact severs Randall's right leg below the knee. The leg remains at the scene. The remainder of her body is propelled 40 feet away into a creek bed.

She is dead.

Jacob is in the creek bed, too, barely alive. A chopper rushes him to Flagstaff.

He has three broken ribs, a busted jaw, punctured lungs, cuts everywhere. The right side of his face is so mangled that doctors have to sew it back on. They even stitch inside his nose.

He'll have to learn to walk and talk again.

His public defender gets a great deal on a manslaughter charge. Jacob pleads guilty and gets four years of probation. He returns to life in Holbrook.

Wife Maria, a Navajo from Tolani Lake on the big reservation, pushes Jacob to apply for disability. So does brother-in-law Richard Gorman, also an artist.

He refuses.

"I felt it was a kickback," says Jacob. "I'd be receiving something I didn't deserve because somebody got killed, and I was the cause of it."

Repeatedly, they ask, "Well, what're you going to do?"

He sits at his kitchen table in Holbrook, most of his body still immobile, a canvas spread out before him.

With great effort, he lifts his right arm, a paint brush grasped crudely in his fingers.

He bends his wrist up and down, one of the few movements his nerves and muscles allow.

Jacob tells them, "This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to paint."

Some men have a spirit that shines. Jacob does.

Friends say when sober, he's a beautiful person--innocent, charming, generous, tender-hearted.

After his release from prison in June 2006, he returns to Holbrook for six months. When probation ends, he moves to Sedona.

He lives in a trailer along Oak Creek.

The property belongs to the Garlands, Susan and husband Alan. They help Jacob through his legal trials, through prison, and now in freedom.

He spends his days searching the forest for cottonwood bark on which to carve.

He does exquisite carvings of Laguna maidens. Like his paintings and drawings, these fly out the door when customers see them.

"I sell them faster than anybody else's," says Susan.

He carves and paints on the porch of her store. Tourists adore him.

This is entirely new to Jacob. For the first time in his life, he is not shunned, not pushed aside.

As a youngster growing up at New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo, neither of his parents wants him.

His mom drinks too much to care for her kids. In Jacob's clearest memory of his father, the tribal police are hauling him away.

This happens when Jacob is 3 years old. He never sees his dad again.

He is raised by an aunt. His sister Gloria is raised by another aunt.

But Jacob's mixed background is beneath his Laguna friends. They ride him mercilessly because of his Navajo blood.

"I didn't like being Navajo," Jacobs says. "I wanted to be full Laguna and accepted."

One of his aunts, the late Regina Pino, is a successful potter.

As a boy, he collects shards for her and grinds them up to make the perfect clay.

He sits outside St. Joseph Mission Church, sometimes all day, selling her pottery to tourists.

He hates the work and dreams of playing football instead. He loves the Pittsburgh Steelers. His hero is running back Franco Harris.

But this early exposure to art lights a flame. Amid his longing to belong, amid his pain, he begins to understand beauty, and wants to create it.

At age 7, Jacob begins to paint. It's his escape.

"Nobody wanted me at Laguna," he says. "I was on my own by 13. But I think I was alone all my life."

He doesn't make it out of 10th grade. He begins drinking and drugging.

As an adult, he has predictable run-ins with the law.

A DUI in 1991 in Apache County, Ariz.

In 1995, he's ticketed for driving on a suspended license and not having a child in a restraint seat.

Three months later, he's arrested for stealing a kachina doll from a shop in Holbrook. Three months after that, he's busted shoplifting cigarettes from a Safeway.

He enters alcohol treatment. He goes back, and back again.


But in Sedona in early 2007, his jail time complete, he finds a place, and it's the front porch at Garland's.

For the first time, no one steps wide to avoid him. He's actually ... wanted.

The experience fills him with a glee he has never known.

When tourists gather to shake his hand, this hulking, tattooed, thickly-set 38-year-old, now with a hideous gash across his face, moves in for a hug instead.

No one blanches. Not one.

But every footprint he leaves in this world bears evidence of his opposites.

The light and the dark.

After the train wreck, he goes to physical therapy for two months, then quits.

His recovery plan doesn't involve doctors. He wants to find his way back through art--painting, drawing and carving.

The plan begins to work. He sells a carving at prestigious Garland's for $1,300, another for $1,100.

Then life goes black again.

On Feb. 11, 2003, as he's driving to Sedona to sell another carving, police pull him over. He's still on probation from the wreck, his license still suspended.

And he's drunk. He blows a .17, more than twice the limit. Aggravated DUI.

He spends a week in the Coconino County Jail. While there, Jacob does pencil sketches of himself.

The images are tortured, the perfect renderings of a man crucified by his choices.

After release, back in Holbrook, a letter arrives ordering him to report to his probation officer. He knows this means prison for violating parole.

But he doesn't submit. Instead, he buys all the beer he can carry and spends two straight days drinking, further compounding the mess.

This time, the law shows no mercy.

Jacob is tossed into the pen at Yuma for three years, right where he belongs.

"I took freedom for granted," he says. "I let people down. I deserved what was coming to me."

His misery deepens in Yuma. He's doing time with lifers, in complete lockdown, every movement watched.

He's allowed to walk in the yard, but it measures only 12 by 20 feet. It's mostly beach sand. He walks in circles in the 120-degree heat of June.

The soles of his slip-on shoes are so thin, he develops blisters, walks with a hobble.

Yuma presents the perfect opportunity for a broken man to disappear.

To simply succumb and blow away.

Instead, Jacob undergoes a spiritual awakening. This spiritual awakening spurs his artistic awakening.

He finds Jesus Christ. He stares at his own reflection in the mirror, and hears the voice of his savior.

It happens in May 2003, the day he walks into his cell for the first time.

"I touched the walls, the floor, my bed," Jacobs says. "I touched everything, because I couldn't believe I was there. I used the toilet and flushed it. I had to know it was all real."

He tells this story as he sits on discarded wooden pallets at a football field in Flagstaff. He has come here to watch his then-7-year-old son, Isiah, play a Saturday game.

It's a beautiful fall day. A cool wind blows off the San Francisco Peaks. He talks about the torture of those first hours in the hole, and the beginning of redemption.

"What did God say?" you ask.

Jacob speaks rapidly, the words colliding as they rush past his lips.

"He said, 'I told you. This is what you get when you don't listen to me. But remember, Jacob, I'll never forsake you. Keep seeking me.'"

When the voice of God stops, all his regrets bubble up. He sits on the bed and weeps.

"I was hurt, confused and bitter," he says. "But I had to let all that go. I had to face the fact that I was doing time for the crime I done. I told God, 'I can't get through this without you.' I had to submit to the Lord."

Two weeks pass. Jacob doesn't draw anything. He can't. "I didn't have it in me," he says.

He goes to a chapel meeting run by inmates. No guards or administrators around.

A prisoner holds up pieces of cut-up bedsheets and says, "Anybody here draw?"

Jacob takes two. He's thinking, "If I feel the urge, at least I'll have them."

It comes over him the very next day.

"I laid a sheet over a book and drew one of my faces," Jacobs says. "After I was done, my cellie said, 'Hey, chief, that's pretty good. Who's that for?"

"Nobody. I just done it. You want it? Take it."

Cellie says, "What do you want for it?"

"Nothing," Jacob answers. "Everything in there has a price. But I had it in my heart to tell him nothing."

Cellie, an Indian originally from the Northwest, takes the drawing and hangs it on the wall above his bed.

"I knew word would get out in the yard," Jacobs says. "Another Native American guy saw it and asked me to do one for him. This is how it started."

He paints with one eye on the sheet, the other over his shoulder in case a correctional officer (CO) comes around.

They always come around.

Jacob finishes a drawing for his daughter. Her birthday is in one week.

He hangs the piece on his locker. He senses a presence beyond his cell door.

"I felt him," Jacobs says. "All this time, he was outside admiring my work. It was a CO doing count. He waved to the control, and the door popped open."

Too late to hide the sketch, Jacob just sits there.

Guard says, "You did this, huh? That's real nice."

"It's for my daughter's birthday."

Guard has a daughter, too. They talk about their daughters.

Long pause. Jacob thinks he's home.

"I'm going to have to take that," guard says.

"Come on, man," Jacob pleads. "I'll put it in an envelope right away and send it. Nobody has to know."

Guard doesn't budge. His heart going to pieces, Jacob says, "Go ahead, take it."

"I'll have to write you up for destroying state property," the guard says. "I'll have to give you a ticket."

A week passes, no ticket arrives. Another week and still no ticket. It never comes.

"You know what happened?" Jacob says. "He took it home for his own daughter. The way he was admiring it, I'm sure he took it home."

The bedsheet drawings begin Jacob's salvation.

When more supplies arrive, he branches out to do drawings with paints and pastels. The work becomes his business, his lifeline, his identity, his protection.

Cons come to see him. They need a drawing for a girlfriend or wife.

"Three days," the con says.

Jacob knows he has to deliver. This deadline, he can't blow.

"In there, if you owe somebody, you have to pay," he says. "If you don't, they have a way of getting it."

He asks for nothing as payment. But over time, a barter system develops. In return, he gets stamps and envelopes to send his pieces out to Garland's.

He draws for cinnamon rolls. For potato chips, shampoo, refried beans.

Everything arrives on the down low.

He hears a knock at his cell window. A con is there holding a paper bag.

"Hey, chief, here it is," the con says, setting the bag down.

"Some of the things I got were banned," Jacobs says. "I didn't ask no questions. But you know what? Those guys looked out for me. I showed respect and got respect in return."

He works feverishly, something entirely new.

Before Yuma, brother-in-law Richard, himself a successful carver, urges Jacob to get busy, to nurture his talent.

But nothing works until Jacob lands behind bars.

In this crippled, contorted world, his creativity explodes. When he runs out of bedsheets, he draws on cut-up file folders, the back of his court papers.


When every scrap of paper is gone, he eyes the walls of his cell, thinking they might make a canvas.

Those walls are plain white, ugly. He dreams of what he could make of those walls with colors.

That's how he sees his world--in the explosive reds and tender, sun-washed pinks of his New Mexico birthplace.

In correspondence with Susan, he describes his need for color, his desperation for color.

He begins his barely literate letters the same way: "It's only me, Jacob."

"Oh, man!!" he writes. "Guess what? I tryed to get my colored pencils through but they found them. Oh, man, Susan, that really disappointed me. But really, it hurt. Because colors is my rainbow."

But he gets more colored pencils via the prisoner network. And he gets pastels, more bedsheets, paper, whatever he needs.

He can't stop. He knows if he stops, he dies.

The only time he breaks is to watch TV. His favorite show is Law and Order.

"I love that cop guy," he says. "What's his name? Jerry Orbach. Yeah."

The COs start to like Jacob, as everyone does. They feel the force of his will, and it changes them.

Jacob starts leaving his drawings and pencils out in plain view. The COs give up.

Now when they come to search, they pretend not to see what's right before their eyes, turn around and walk out.

"They knew I'd just do another," he says. "Even if they cut my hands off, I'd still be drawing in my head."

Throughout his time in the joint, he's an outlaw artist, a rule-breaker.

He credits Jesus, history's best-known malcontent, for helping him learn what's in his heart.

"I kept my belief in him," Jacob says. "If I didn't, I wouldn't have been able to do anything. Jesus said, 'I'll be a brother to the fatherless,' and I grew up fatherless. I prayed. I kept my head up. The Lord carried me."

The lifelong outcast has a following now.

Susan Garland can't keep any of his stuff in stock. She has a list of buyers who want to be contacted when he does anything new.

"People are so attracted to his work," she says. "There's such sincerity in it. But I don't know if he'll ever really make it. Native artists who become good business people do very well. But Jacob is such a ... dreamer."

Of all his work, the bedsheet drawings attract the most attention.

Without fail, art lovers are startled when they see them. And when they hear the story of their creation, their jaws drop.

Susan doesn't want to sell them.

"But people kept coming by, saying they wanted to buy them, so I let them," she says. "I sent the money to Jacob when he needed it."

Interest in them is so high that when Jacob moves away from bedsheets and begins sending out traditional paintings, Susan and Alan say, 'Gee, Jacob, can't you ask for a new sheet?'"

Christopher Cates, of Albuquerque, N.M., who wholesales the work of Indian artists to museums and galleries around the United States, as well as in Europe and Japan, sees the bedsheets as he passes through Sedona.

He's floored, too, declaring Jacob among the best new Native artists he's seen in 10 years.

"For somebody to be incarcerated and to create this great, new form of artwork on bedsheets, oh, I was very surprised," he says. "He has a great eye. It's so refreshing to find somebody so new and so talented."

If Jacob stays sober, if he gets exposure, if he keeps producing, Cates predicts the art world will throw its arms around him.

You visit Jacob on Oak Creek. Early summer, 2007. Evening.

Evidence of his continuing work is everywhere. He has carvings inside his trailer, paintings propped on his patio couch.

But his backpack is there, too, packed, ready to go.

Jacob sits in a chair and speaks over the rush of water. "When I got out, I had a tail," he says. "They still had paper on me."

He means probation.

"But Arizona don't own me no more. I've been on foot for a while now, and I can get up and go any time. I used to hitchhike from New Mexico to Arizona in one day. I need to be a rambling man."

He rambles.

Now he's back in Holbrook with his family. He wants to be a dad for his kids, something he never knew.

Jacob has two teenagers by a former girlfriend. They live in Holbrook with Gloria and Richard Gorman.

His third child, Isiah, is the only one he and Maria have together.

But Jacob and Maria care for four other kids, two of these fathered by another man with Maria while Jacob is in prison.

The couple has no home, no car, almost no money. They survive entirely on money earned from Jacob's artwork.

They live during the week with relatives. On weekends, they pack up and move to yet another home.

"The family situation is tough," says Richard. "Gloria and I try to help out when we can. But Jake has it in him to be a successful artist. I know he has the imagination. He was born with it."

Booze? Jacob says never again and maybe in the same paragraph.

The light and the dark.

"If I were ever to drink, I'd do it wise," he says. "It would be a noble choice, as long as I don't have a vehicle to drive. But the thought doesn't enter my mind. I'm not like that anymore. I'm thinking about work all the time."

This fall in Flagstaff, he tells you he's finishing a carving of a Laguna Crown Dancer. He wants to sell it fast. His kids need pants, shoes, warm coats for winter.

"Christmas is coming, too," he says. "They'll want presents. Maybe an Xbox."

He turns to the football field where Isiah is playing, proud as can be.

Jacob looks like a con. He's wearing a UA hoodie, black pants, black shoes, a black knit cap, his long, black hair falling beneath it to his shoulders.

But nothing about him poses a threat. The opposite, actually.

He's welcoming, so much so that it comes across as slightly desperate, as if he can't understand why anyone would want to hear what he has to say.

You ask, "What do you want as an artist?"

"I want to be content," Jacob says. "I want to be satisfied knowing my paintings and carvings are out there. And admired. They'll always be out there. As a memory. They stand for where I've been and what I went through to get here."

That's it. That's as big as he can dream.

It's only me, Jacob.