Inside every mass murderer, it seems, is a sensitive artist waiting to blossom.
Charles Manson wove his voodoo dolls, and John Wayne Gacy, before he went to his reward, painted his clowns. Other lesser-known serial killers also have taken brush or pencil in hand to cater to the ghoulish yet apparently inexhaustible market for their artwork. Now comes Houston's own Elmer Wayne Henley, whose first one-man show is to open this week at the Hyde Park Gallery in Montrose.
The artist, who resides at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, will be unable to attend.
Henley has been chasing his muse for several years. In an interview on KPFT's The Prison Show, he told host Ray Hill that he first discovered his artistic bent back in 1993 -- after the Harris County medical examiner finally identified the body of the 26th victim of the early 1970s killing spree Henley conducted with fellow teenager David Brooks and 33-year-old Dean Corrl.
The series of torture murders ended in August 1973 when the 17-year-old Henley killed Corrl, the mastermind of the slayings, after the older man refused Henley's request to untie two of the teenager's friends. Henley eventually led authorities to the bodies of 26 young men, some buried in a boat shed in southwest Houston and others interred under sand dunes on High Island.
According to what Henley told Hill, news of the identification of the 26th victim, a 17-year-old from the Heights named Mark Scott, caught the attention of a Louisiana art dealer who contacted Henley to inquire whether he would be interested in cashing in on his notoriety.
But Henley, apparently, is a serial killer with standards, and he told Hill he declined the dealer's initial entreaties.
"[Mason and Gacy] were pandering to their infamy," Henley said during the KPFT interview. "I kept refusing to do that. I told [the dealer] that wasn't me and that I wasn't interested in it. That it was kind of sick."
But Henley's would-be patron persevered, insisting there was money to be made off of Henley's efforts -- even if he just drew some stick figures.
Henley claimed he still demurred, although he had been considering ways to generate income for himself and his mother. So after "a little queen" who painted all the signs and lettering in the hallways and offices at the Coffield Unit offered to give fellow inmate Henley art lessons, Henley contacted the Louisiana dealer.
"If he could sell what I considered to be art," recalled Henley, "or something that was beautiful, or something that I really felt -- instead of demons and stuff -- if he could sell art, then I would do art for him."
Henley said he began spending time in the Coffield Unit's craft shop, where he was encouraged in his undertaking by a couple of inmates who specialized in airbrush art. Henley, however, gravitated to acrylics and graphite.
Henley's Hyde Park show is the result of a pen-pal relationship he developed two years ago with a Houston man who was a friend of Henley's cellmate. Henley sent the man some of his art, and the pen pal, who asked not to be identified in this story, set out to find a venue in Houston where Henley could show his work.
While driving through Montrose last fall, the man came across Hyde Park Gallery, a distinctive sight with its candy-cane columns and jack-in-the-box head overhanging its front porch. Gallery owner Larry Crawford, who says he specializes in working with artists whose works have never been exhibited, was immediately interested in what he saw. Indeed, Crawford claims the fact that the artist was Henley had no influence on his decision to exhibit the work. As a matter of fact, Crawford says, he only learned of the artist's identity after agreeing to stage the show. Ninety percent of the proceeds from sales are supposed to go to Henley's mother, with 10 percent dedicated to the Montrose Clinic, which promises to put the money "to good use."
Because the gallery is in Montrose, Henley for some reason worried that his art would be expected to be sensationalistic or rife with violent imagery, according to Henley's Houston correspondent. Crawford says he, too, was initially concerned.
"I will not put any art in the gallery that I don't like," says the gallery owner. "And I will not put violent art in the gallery. I'm not going to have art that I have to sit and look at seven days a week and not feel comfortable looking at it. But I love his work. I think he's great."
Henley's paintings and drawing aren't violent -- banal would be a more apt description. Nevertheless, there is something odd about his work.
Henley told Hill that he suffers from a severe color deficiency in his eyesight that makes it impossible for him to clearly distinguish reds and greens. To compensate, Henley said, he decided his portraits of humans would only be done in black and white; color would be reserved for still lifes and landscapes.
"[Critics] are more tolerant of colors in landscapes," Henley explained. "When I do people, I'm unsure of my color, so I do black and white. Color obscures form anyway, and I think people are pretty. You don't need color to see human form."
Among the dozen or so pieces available for preview prior to installation of the exhibit were two black-and-white graphite drawings. One is a rather unexceptional drawing of a woman clad only in a butt-thong; the other is a portrait of skeletal supermodel Kate Moss.
The invitation to the opening features a Henley oil painting of a broken piece of pottery. In another oil, a row of sunflowers looms up in a surrealistically vibrant yellow. Also featured are a series of seascapes: pre-squall scenes of almost electrically dark green grass growing out of sand dunes -- not unlike those where some of the victims of Corrl, Brooks and Henley were crudely buried. (Perhaps the viewer shouldn't read too much into that -- Crawford says he sent Henley books and magazines for inspiration, and one of the books contained seascapes.)
Henley's collected works, which are scheduled to be on display at the gallery through February, span the last three years and, according to Henley, document his growth as an artist.
"Hopefully, people will be able to say, 'Oh, he did this one three years ago,' " Henley said on KPFT. "Hopefully, I've progressed."
Henley, who is serving six life terms in TDCJ and has been repeatedly denied parole, also mused on how his life might have turned out had he not gotten involved with Corrl. He told Hill he could see himself as a Young Republican, and he said he regretted not having been able to experience collegiate life.
In lieu of mixers at the frat house or Young Republican fundraisers, the 40-year-old Henley now envisions fulfillment as an artist.
"If this thing is even moderately successful, I'm not sure I'll ever come down out of the clouds," he recently wrote to his pen pal. "I'll never be able to show you my true appreciation for all of this .... I wish I could be there. I would be easily recognized by the swell head and embarrassed look."
Of course, the critical reaction may be altogether different. A man who paid $20,000 to buy most of Gacy's paintings at a Chicago art auction planned to burn them. Hyde Park Gallery's Larry Crawford wouldn't care if Henley's works met a similar fate.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"If they come and put cash in my hand and buy the artwork," Crawford says, "and they want to take it out in the middle of the street and burn it, I'll go down the street and buy the gasoline for them."
You'll have to forgive Walter Scott if he can't comprehend the mindset of someone so eager to turn a dollar off of Elmer Wayne Henley. Scott is the father of Mark Scott, the last victim of Henley, Brooks and Corrl to be identified, and he still lives on 25th Street in the Heights, the neighborhood where the killers found many of their victims.
Scott was outraged, to put it mildly, when he learned of Henley's show.
"That man hit my son in the side with a pipe -- he busted his ribs. They pulled off his clothes and raped him, strangled him to death and threw him in a two-foot hole out there in the boat shed. He did several boys that way.
"My God," Scott asks, "how can they do this?