Wrongly Incarcerated Activist Gets Honorary Degree from Art Academy of Cincinnati

In 1994, Tyra Patterson was arrested and ultimately incarcerated for murder and robbery — both crimes she did not commit. She was wrongly imprisoned for 23 years and released in 2017.

click to enlarge Tyra Patterson at the Art Academy's commencement in November - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
Tyra Patterson at the Art Academy's commencement in November

In 1994, Tyra Patterson was arrested and ultimately incarcerated for murder and robbery — both crimes she did not commit. She was wrongly imprisoned for 23 years and released in 2017.

Now, Patterson is a social justice advocate who works as the Community Outreach Strategy Specialist at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, and is an ambassador for Represent Justice.

She also helped in the creation of ArtWorks' 200th mural, "Time Saved vs. Time Served."

The mural gives a platform to the voice of returning citizens — formerly incarcerated people — who are often stigmatized and given fewer opportunities than others in the community. 

A few years ago, she was in Philadelphia for a speaking engagement and was struck by the city's murals. She met artist Russell Craig, a returning citizen involved in the Philadelphia mural scene, and asked him to show her around the social justice murals.  

“It inspired me,” Patterson says. “I said ‘This needs to be imprinted everywhere.’ ”

click to enlarge "Time Saved vs. Time Served" - Photo: Louis Rideout
Photo: Louis Rideout
"Time Saved vs. Time Served"

Patterson approached ArtWorks with her idea. She also specifically requested that all hired artists be returning citizens. She and Craig co-directed and developed the design concept together.

“Time Saved vs. Time Served,” delivers a powerful message with multiple layers. On a building at 235 W. Court St., portraits of five smiling women — one of them Patterson herself — sit beneath the scales of justice, circling an Ohio-shaped clock marked by fives to represent prison sentences. Each woman in the mural is a returning citizen, and each is deeply involved in social justice causes. 

And the Art Academy just recognized Patterson for her commitment to social justice and the arts during the school's 151st Commencement Celebration, held at The Carnegie in Covington. Patterson was the commencement speaker.  

"I'm so humbled to be your commencement speaker. But I have to admit my imposter syndrome kicked in," she said. "I dropped out of elementary school when I was only 11 years old. I went to prison, not knowing how to read or write. I'm good at a few things, but I don't consider myself an expert in anything. But there is one thing I know better than almost anyone, and that is to...never give up. 

"People typically ask graduates to go out and accomplish their goals and make the world a better place. While that is still true, today, in 2020, the plea for you is a little bit different. In a time of segregation, both mandated and self-imposed, we need you to be emboldened to change the world. We need artists unlike ever before," she continued.

For her work and activism, Art Academy President Joe Girandola awarded Patterson a Bachelor of Fine Arts Honoris Causa and the 2020 Creative Perseverance Award at the commencement event.

"When Tyra Patterson enters a room, the Earth stands still and listens," Girandola said. "Tyra speaks wisdom from the depths of sorrow and sadness to the heights of sheer joy and social justice. The ability to express that everyone on this planet breathes the same molecules of life, connecting us together, enables us all to move forward with compassion and creativity, is Tyra's gift to humanity."