A man was wrongfully jailed for 46 years. Now he's supporting himself with his art.

Artist starts over after wrongful conviction

Detroit — When you hear him talk, you'd think Detroit artist Richard Phillips is some kind of highly trained master. But at 72, he held his first exhibit.

He is America's most unlikely art phenom.

"I'm just a young kid from the ghetto that's been through hell and high water and still here," Richard said.

Richard was incarcerated before becoming celebrated. In 1971, he was arrested for murder — a murder we now know he didn't commit. To pass the time and temper the injustice, he painted.

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Richard Phillips CBS News

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

That's how it was for 46 years until he was exonerated last March. He served more time than any other exoneree in U.S. history.

Unfortunately, after all that, the state just sent him on his way without so much as a bus ticket.  

Now he has nothing but prison time on his resume. No one's going to hire a guy like that. In addition, the money he was supposed to get for wrongful incarceration is tied up in the courts.

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

But then Richard thought of something he hadn't before. Maybe there was a way for him to make a living. Maybe he could sell his life's work, hundreds and hundreds of watercolors. 

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Some of Richard Phillips' artwork. CBS News

But Richard said it's "painful" to sell them, saying "they're like my children."

His lawyer and good friend, Gabi Silver, said that's the real crime here.

"Those paintings — that is all that man owns that represents his life," Gabi said.

Which brings us to the most impressive thing about Richard. Despite mistreatment after mistreatment, he has actually found a bright side in all this.

"I can take my artwork and still make it in this world," Richard said.

His paintings are now selling for thousands of dollars and it's all because after nearly half a century of wrongful imprisonment, Richard said there was no time left for self-pity.

"If you own one of these, you own a piece of history. I have to get that in there because that's very important," he said.


For more information about purchasing art, contact info@richardphillipsartgallery.com.

To contact On the Road, or to send us a story idea, email us: OnTheRoad@cbsnews.com.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.