Golf artist Valentino Dixon is a special guest at the ongoing Dubai Desert Classic
Photo by Shihab
Art can be liberating. For the imprisoned Valentino Dixon, it was also his ticket to freedom.
Dixon languished in a notorious American prison for 27 years for a crime he did not commit. Then a painting he did while behind bars got him out.
Today, Dixon, 54, is a special guest at the ongoing Dubai Desert Classic.
Khaleej Times caught up with the renowned golf artist whose remarkable story of resilience, sport and artistic talent has inspired millions around the world, while also endearing him to fans such as Tiger Woods and Barack Obama.
Dixon was 21 in 1991 when he was arrested and wrongfully convicted for a fatal shooting at a nightclub in his hometown of Buffalo, New York.
Multiple witnesses and a confession from the real killer could not save him from being sentenced to 39 years in prison at the brutal maximum security Attica Correctional Facility in New York.
Escape into art
In his 6X10 cell, Dixon found escape in art. “I was in prison in my eighth year when my uncle sent me some colored pencils and paper and encouraged me to draw,” Dixon recalls. “Uncle Ronnie said, ‘if you can reclaim your talent, you can reclaim your life’. I loved to draw as a child. Uncle Ronnie’s advice reignited my passion for art. I told myself, I can’t waste my life, even if I’m in prison.”
Photo by Shihab
Over the next 20 years, Dixon made hundreds of paintings, often drawing up to 10 hours a day.
As his reputation grew in Attica, he received a request from golf enthusiast prison warden James Conway to draw the legendary 12th hole of the Augusta National Golf Club for him.
Unknown to Dixon, his cellmate was also an avid golfer. “He subscribed to the monthly magazine Golf Digest. One day he threw a magazine at me and said, ‘You need to draw more golf courses, pick what you want’.
“At first I balked at the idea. I said to myself, ‘Why should I draw golf courses of all things. But as I flipped through the pages of the magazine, I felt a strange sense of peace. It looked beautiful. photographs of lush golf courses from around the world. Looking at the rolling landscapes of sylvian splendor inspired me to recreate them,” says Dixon who went on to draw more than 130 golf courses, including many from Dubai. His artwork finally attracted the attention of Golf Digest who titled a story about him Golf saved my life.
The story, which questioned the flimsy nature of Dixon’s trial, went viral. Before long, Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative took up his case.
After their efforts, Dixon was acquitted of murder charges on September 19, 2018. He came to court in handcuffs, but walked out free after the man who confessed to the actual murder pleaded guilty in court to manslaughter.
Dixon, who changed his name to Tariq Ramzan Abdullah after converting to Islam in 1999, said he had no bitterness.
“If I was angry, I wouldn’t be at peace with myself. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy life. That’s what my faith has taught me,” said Dixon, who will sell some of his artwork at a silent auction on the sidelines of the Dubai Desert Classic this week.
A portion of the proceeds go to his prison reform foundation called the Art of Freedom, which campaigns against wrongful convictions.
“It’s a great feeling to be in Dubai and visit its famous golf courses that I sketched in my darkest hours,” he said, holding up a drawing of the Montgomerie Golf Club at Emirates Hills.
The Dubai Creek Golf Course and Yacht Club, Emirates Golf Club, Al Bada Golf Club and the Arabian Ranches Golf Club are among seven Dubai golf courses that feature prominently in his collection.
“Drawing these golf courses while sitting alone in my little cell, I never thought I’d be touring there one day. But look, here I am — in Dubai, the most beautiful place on the planet.”
Obama shares Dixon’s story on Instagram
In December 2020, former US President Barack Obama shared Dixon’s story to his 34 million Instagram followers, posting a photo of him receiving the master artist’s artwork from Michelle Obama for Christmas.
“This is an incredible piece, but the story behind it is even better,” Obama wrote in the caption.
The story so far
1991: Valentino Dixon is sentenced to 39 years in prison for the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Torriano Jackson after a late-night fight outside a restaurant in Buffalo, New York. Valentino, then 21, had a six-month-old daughter at the time.
1999: Dixon’s uncle Ronnie Brown visits him at Attica Correctional Facility in New York and gives him some colored pencils and paper and encourages him to draw.
2011: Retiring prison warden James Conway requests Dixon to tee the 12th hole of the legendary Augusta National Golf Club. Encouraged by a cellmate, Dixon goes on to recreate more than 130 golf courses.
2012: Golf Digest features Valentino in its Golf Saved my Life column. Subsequent articles conclude that he was wrongfully convicted
2013: The Golf Channel has a story on Valentino’s case that is getting national attention.
2018: Dixon walks out a free man after Georgetown University’s Prison and Justice Initiative reinvestigates the case and pleads guilty to the real killer
2019: Dixon receives a gold medal from the Vatican while American golfer Jack Nicklaus compares him to Nelson Mandela
2020: Former US President Barack Obama shares Dixon story after receiving his artwork as a Christmas gift from wife Michelle Obama
2022: Dixon publishes a book: The Soul of an Unfreed Man: Drawing my way to Freedom
2023: Dixon visits Dubai Desert Classic as a special guest