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Face off The Guardian Thursday September 27, 2007
What do an executed prisoner from Texas, a former UN official and an eccentric Cornish aristocrat have in common? They've all had their death masks made by sculptor and Alabama 3 member Nick Reynolds. By Duncan Campbell
This is a story about a lethal injection, a body in the back of a hired car, a cabin in the wilds of Texas, a gallery of death masks, the theme song of the TV series The Sopranos, the son of the mastermind of the great train robbery and an artist baroness from Chiswick who wears a bra made out of latex pigs' heads.
Last things first. John Joe "Ash" Amador, a 30-year-old American, was executed last month in Huntsville, Texas for the 1994 murder of a San Antonio taxi driver. He went to his death, still protesting his innocence, with an armful of lethal sodium pentathol and the words, "God forgive them, for they know not what they do" on his lips.
During his final weeks as a resident of Texas's death row, he had been in touch with Baroness Von Carrie Reichardt, a ceramicist who operates out of a studio called the Treatment Rooms in Chiswick. She also performs in spectacular costumes (viz, that bra) with the band Anarchist wood, who often open for the Alabama 3, the London-based group who gave us the Sopranos theme song, Woke Up This Morning. "The Baroness", as everyone seems to know her, has long been campaigning against the death penalty in the US and has been in correspondence with Amador for the past year or so. When it became clear that all his appeals were likely to be turned down, Amador asked her if she would join his wife and family as one of his five witnesses when he took the long walk.
The Baroness is a friend of Nick Reynolds, harmonica player with the Alabama 3, former Royal Navy diver during the Falklands war, son of Bruce, the great train robber, and, most relevantly, a sculptor who specialises in death masks. So when she said she was going out to witness Amador's death and make a film about it, he suggested coming along and making a mask, so that the person whom the Texas justice system was about to snuff out would have a sort of life after death.
Reynolds became interested in the lost art of death masks about a decade ago. Mary, Queen of Scots and Napoleon, Stalin, Ned Kelly and many of the aristocrats who lost their heads during the French revolution have all been immortalised in this way, but the art has, as it were, died out, its function replaced by photography and, more recently, videos of departed loved ones. Reynolds decided to continue the tradition, using a mixture of the old materials and modern technology - plaster of Paris and alginate moulds. "I really like doing it," says Reynolds, over a plate of sea bass in a Clerkenwell cafe. "I get a great deal of pleasure in giving something to someone that is a memory of the person. They're not forgotten, not underground, not in a jar full of ashes."
His first subject was George "Taters" Chatham, once the best-known thief in Britain and a man with a big gambling habit; if he ran out of money during a poker game in the West End, he would ask to be excused for half an hour, slip up the drainpipe of a nearby Mayfair house and return with enough jewellery to stay in the game. Chatham's sister had initially not wanted a death mask done but finally agreed because Taters, a notoriously grumpy individual, died with a sweet smile on his face. "It was due to gravity, to be honest," says Reynolds. "The weight of his cheeks made it look like he was smiling."
Others have followed: Pat Castange, the composer of the national anthem of Trinidad and Tobago ; a veteran UN official; and, most recently, Lord Jago Elliot, the performance artist, surfer and all-round good guy who was a friend of Reynolds and who died last year after suffering an epileptic fit.
"In most cases, the people I've done have been dead for a while and they have about as much personality as a bit of clingfilmed chicken on the cold counter at Sainsburys', so generally I can detach myself," says Reynolds. "But in the case of Jago, it was tragic because he was so young - he was only 40 - and a friend of mine. He had told a friend that, if he was to die, he wanted a cast made of his body which would be taken to all the places in the world he never got to see."
Reynolds has seen quite a few places in his life. As a boy, when his father was on the run and living under an assumed name, the family hid out for a while in Mexico and young Reynolds went to school there. Life in the Royal Navy then took him with the Falklands taskforce to the south Atlantic in 1982, and a few other seas besides. Anyway, he was happy to go to Texas to make a death mask of Amador.
"They didn't let me meet him, but he spoke to me by phone from what they call the hospitality room just before they executed him," says Reynolds, "and he was saying that having a death mask made was a real honour because it was something normally reserved for kings and people like that. He was really up for it. I've looked into his case and I really do believe he is innocent, and that the odds were stacked against him because he was black and Hispanic. He told me in that conversation just before he died that it's called capital punishment because it's for people with no capital - there are no rich people on death row."
After they had finished chatting, and less than an hour after the US Supreme Court had predictably turned down his appeal, Amador was spread-eagled on a gurney and given the last rites and a lethal injection. He made his fi nal statement: "God forgive them, for they know not what they do. After all these years, our people are still lost in hatred and anger. Give them peace, God, for people seeking revenge toward me." To which he added, as he slipped away: "Freedom ... I'm ready," and, finally, "Wow."
The Baroness, who is 41, sat with the family watching him as he died. Her title, by the way, has a connection with the last tsar of Russia, who made her grandfather an honorary general for helping the allied forces in the first world war; her grandfather was 80 when her father was born, and the family changed its name to Richards because Germanic names were not a good idea in Britain at the time: thus Carrie Richards. Her connection with death row goes back to a small ad she saw in the Big Issue in 2000 that asked for pen pals for blokes awaiting execution. Her first pen pal, Luis Ramirez, who has also been executed, had put her in touch with Amador.
"It is very hard to put into words what it's like," she says of the execution. "It is totally surreal. You have to try to smile for them and he was trying to smile for us. It's very hard and it took him nine minutes to die, but when he said 'Wow', he was looking so serene, it was as if he was looking at the angels."
The version of his last words that appeared in the local press included the phrase, "God forgive me" which, says the Baroness, was inaccurate. Reynolds says that Amador's family "were really angry because it made it look like he was finally saying he was guilty, which he never did". He was the 402nd person to be executed in Texas since the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1982.
Once Amador had been certified dead, his body was taken to the local undertakers, but they were not too receptive to the idea of a cadaverous Englishman making a death mask on their premises, despite the wishes of the family. "They were dead against it," says Reynolds. "They thought we were freaks, twisted. Also, there's a law there that you can't be near a body unless it's been embalmed."
So Reynolds and the family carried the still warm body out and placed it in the back of a hired car for a one-hour trip to the woods near a town called Livingston, where Amador's widow, Linda, had a small cabin. "We just put him on the back seat, unzipped the body-bag and took his arm out so that his wife could hold his hand," says Reynolds.
At one point, the three-car convoy was stopped by the police for speeding, but fortunately, the car they examined was not the one with the corpse on its back seat.
At the cabin, Reynolds set to work. "It only took about two hours because we were paranoid that the police would arrive and ask what we were doing with the body," he says. "So there we were, hiding out in this little wooden bungalow in the middle of the woods, like a Friday the 13th movie. I don't normally talk to the bodies, but I did on this occasion. He looked so young because, although he was 30, he had hardly been outside for the past 12 years."
The journey to the woods was not the last trip Amador - or at least his death mask - would take. The Baroness brought the mask home with her and placed it on top of a specially designed and decorated truck, the Tiki Love Truck, with "In memoriam JJ Amador" in lettering down the side - which was duly entered in last week's inaugural Art Car Parade in Manchester.
"Ash knew what we were going to do with it," the Baroness says, "and he was very pleased because he said that he used to feel he was real trash, but having a death mask made him feel he was somebody." The spectacular truck drove off with one of the main prizes. It was quite possibly the first time that a vehicle with the death mask of a recently executed Texan had been driven down a Manchester thoroughfare.
The mask will get further exposure in an exhibition planned for the new year in London's East End. It will sit alongside those of Chatham and the others, a s well as some of Reynolds' masks of the living, including a rogues' gallery of villains such as "Mad" Frank Fraser, Freddie Foreman, Peter Scott, and his father, Bruce, plus that of Andy McNab, the bestselling author of Bravo Two Zero. The exhibition will be called - in light of the numbers of those executed in Texas - 402 and Rising. Reynolds' company, Memorial Casts, is also off ering anyone a chance to have their loved ones cast in bronze, and will throw the ashes into the mould if requested.
That's not all Amador has waiting for him. The Alabama 3, who found fame when Woke Up This Morning was chosen for the opening sequence of The Sopranos, as Tony Soprano cruises through New Jersey with murder in his heart, have taken a big interest both in miscarriages of justice and the death penalty. So there will be a song about Amador and death row on their next CD.
"We have a lot of Alabama 3 fans on death row in Texas and they are sending us lyrics of the songs they have written," says Larry Love, who writes some of the band's songs, although he is from Merthyr Tydfil rather than Alabama. They have just released a new album , called MOR. "We have one song [on it] called Locked Down and Loaded but I Love You, which is written from the point of view of a spouse," says Love. "In fact, Woke Up This Morning was written after I read about the case of Sara Thornton and how she had killed her husband. It was meant to be about female empowerment, and it ends up becoming a gangster anthem. "
From Mary, Queen of Scots' beheading in 1587 to John Joe Amador's lethal injection in 2007: the styles in execution may have changed, but the death mask, it seems, lives on.