I first met Ronald Tackmann in an empty room in the abandoned wing of the old hospital on Rikers Island.
He was wearing an orange jumpsuit, handcuffed, and surrounded by nearly a dozen correction officers, all of whom were anxious to learn how Tackmann could have so easily eluded their watch. In the midst of serving out a lengthy sentence (for another prison escape), he had walked out of a mandatory court hearing unscathed, and disappeared into the rush of morning traffic in downtown Manhattan.
The secret to Tackmann’s ruses were works of art, literally.
A working class savant who was raised in the outer skirts of Queens, Tackmann’s non-criminal career had been devoted towards installing carpet. He was a craftsman, cutting and rolling carpet for homes and offices. He was so good with his hands that, while in custody, he began to fashion objects into sculptures. He had access to limited supply of materials, however, and used soggy pieces of bread, old pencils, and other found objects to create his jailhouse masterpieces.
The most prized piece in his collection of sculptures was a semi-automatic handgun, fashioned from soap.
Using dye he abstracted from food and shoe polish for color, a metallic part of an electric hair clipper (he worked in the Attica barbershop at the time) for the nose, Tackmann eventually used his fake pistol a la John Dillinger to commandeer a prison bus. His plan backfired. After locking up the correction officer drivers in the back, they cut a deal with inmates sitting with them, who then begged Tackmann to release them too. He did so, and they tackled him.
Banished to solitary confinement as an extreme escape risk, Tackmann spent his time in “the hole,” as they call it, making the most unusual and attractive pieces. He dabbled in watercolor, fashioning brushes from his own hair; he used pen and pencil to create other worlds that matched his desires and moods, interior worlds that were more pleasing than spending time in his cell.
“You can travel anywhere with the mind,” he told me. “I’ve been all around the world—in my paintings. I could do an ocean scene, and I wouldn’t do another painting for like three weeks, just so I could put it on the shelf and go there. Hawaii. California. I never been there before. In my paintings I’m there.”
He was patient. He had no choice.
After spending nearly twenty years in solitary, another opportunity arose. On a routine trip to court, he donned his only suit, painted his orange prison slippers dark, and waited for his chance. He was kept in a holding cell behind the court, then snuck around and down into a stairway when the guard looked the other way. Banging on the door, the bailiff opened.
Tackmann complained about a missing client, and the bailiff opened the door and let him pass, oblivious that he just let one of New York’s most notorious inmates loose out the front door of Manhattan’s criminal court.
He was finally free, but not for long.
Tackmann struggled to stay away from the authorities, a saga documented in full here, and with his drug addiction found his way back to state prison, where the artwork has resumed, but under limited conditions.
Tackmann’s understanding (and appreciation) of time is heightened, and perhaps best explained through some of his works here. We plan on releasing more them of later this year, but as the New Year begins we wanted to share a few of these pieces with you.