- Associated Press - Saturday, June 3, 2017

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) - Rickey Lee was 18 when he took another man’s life. He spent the next 35 years in Angola State Penitentiary for manslaughter.

While incarcerated, Lee had a chance to “talk to God.” He also picked up woodcarving - and over the years became a master carver.

“I was the only inmate in Angola who was allowed an exacto knife,” Lee, now 60, recalled.

On a late afternoon in May, Lee was bouncing his 4-month-old daughter Zera on his knee outside of the Pamoja Cultural Art Center in Shreveport, where he has more than a dozen carved creations on display.

What allowed the former inmate to turn his life around?

Prison provided the raw material: confinement, wood, a chisel, and an exacto knife. Carving itself came naturally to Lee and gave him an outlet. And God gave him the answers he needed, Lee said.

“I heard Him say, ‘You are here because this is the only place on this side of the grave where I could get you to sit still enough to listen’,” Lee said. “God set me down with a piece of wood and set me free.”

Lee said he was 18 years old when he had an altercation that resulted in his arrest for murder.

“It was a racial issue one night,” he said. “I reacted the wrong way.”

He was convicted of an amended charge of manslaughter- a sentence that still carried 35 years of prison time.

Lee entered prison when he was 18. He left when he was 55.

Alone in his cell at night, watching the days of his life pass by, Lee would often ask God: Why do I have to spend the most productive years of my life in prison?

Lee said he received an answer on one of his soul-searching nights. He said he heard the voice of God tell him prison was needed to give him the time and space to think through his actions of the past. Lee said he had to “come to realize a lot of things” - including that he needed the time he spent incarcerated.

“I was guilty, and I needed to give account for the things I’d done. I thank God that he brought me through that,” Lee said. “This helped me come to myself. God and I talked as I worked. The time I started carving was the time I went on a spiritual quest.”

He also learned how to take control of his life- and his emotions.

“I learned that you can’t allow others to be in control of your emotions. We can’t allow outside influences to control us,” he said.

Lemuel Rudolph Lockett, a mentor in the prison system, introduced him to carving and gave Lee the only instructions he ever received for wood-working.

“He said, ‘As long as you have wood, you haven’t messed it up,’ and also ‘You haven’t gotten good until you break something,’” Lee recalled.

Another friend, Quentin Blackstone, encouraged Lee to work in the Hobby Shop, where he was allowed use of a chisel, mallet and Exacto knife.

The first piece he carved depicted a human child developing in a room, which he refers to as the “Embryo” piece. The carving won first place in a Louisiana arts and crafts festival.

“They never bothered me or took my tools after that,” he said, smiling. “When they came in, they saw me working, and they knew I was serious, so they let me keep my tools.”

Lee met his wife Christina after he left Angola in 2012. At the time, Lee was struggling to re-adjust to life outside of the prison’s walls.

Christina Lee remembered her reaction when Lee tried to tell her he wanted to go back to the penitentiary.

“I told him, ‘God didn’t let you out of captivity so you could go back in,’” she said.

In December 2015, Christina asked Lee to marry her. He took off his hat, kneeled down and said, “God, do you hear what this woman is asking me?” And then he told Christina “Yes.”

The couple moved to Shreveport last year. Christina Lee said her husband’s gift is a “blessing.”

“I didn’t realize how talented and ambitious he is,” she said. “It’s challenging but amazing to be the woman beside him.”

Lee said people will now bring him materials- bits of wood they can’t “do anything with” or that they found lying around.

He keeps them all.

“I never throw anything away. I will always sit with the wood, it doesn’t matter how big or small,” Lee said.

His favorite wood is Walnut, but he also crafts pieces out of cedar and sycamore.

Lee often uses a “visual aid” - a photograph or already created image - to inspire his work. His sculpture “Tasha” is modeled after a photograph of his oldest daughter.

The famous “The Scream” composition by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch inspired another piece of Lee‘s, titled “Echo of a Scream.”

Religious figures, such as Jesus, and historical figures, such as Malcolm X, figure prominently in many of Lee’s pieces. Other pieces, such as “Cell 2,” stem directly from his prison experience.

His carvings will be on display at the Pamoja Cultural Arts Center through June 30.

One of his favorite pieces, however, is “Conquered” - showing an African American man, shackled and kneeling. It was the first piece for which he didn’t use a visual aid of any kind, Lee said.

“It came from within and it came together,” he said. “I conquered that wood. I conquered that piece.”

His life is still challenging, but he considers himself a blessed man.

“For years I’d watched people go (out of prison) and come back. All I ever wanted was a chance to get out,” Lee said.

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