Civil libertarian expresses himself through “Instant Karma” at Firefish Gallery

Civil libertarian expresses himself through “Instant Karma” at Firefish Gallery

When John Whitehead drew the monsters and violent scenes from his imagination as a child, his teachers deemed his demonic drawings as “bad” and would snatch the offending doodles from his notebook, ball them up and toss them in the waste can.  “I was always going to the principal’s office because of my drawings,” Whitehead notes.

Now that he is a grown-up civil liberties attorney, he gives himself permission to paint out his feelings despite anyone else’s opinions. The first formal showing of a collection of his work, “Instant Karma,” is happening now through October 25th at the Firefish gallery.

There are two distinct styles represented in the exhibit; colorful water colors (his more recent medium) depicting everything from blood dripping flowers to a peace sign and a more sophisticated set of expressionist portraits in oil. Whitehead produces about 60 water color paintings at his “studio” (his kitchen table) annually, manipulating the water color paints by using little water to manufacture an effect closer to the look of oil paintings. Then there is the glitter. “It gives it three dimensional depth and some of them actually glow in the dark,” says Whitehead. The use of glitter in Whitehead’s in addition to dimension, gives a childlike quality that mocks the ever present sinister element in each painting. The renderings are sophomoric but the concepts are clearly grappling with bigger issues. “Its my human rights message,” says Whitehead. “My whole life I’ve just been trying to get people to think.”

Whitehead’s percentage of the proceeds from the show all go to The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit he heads to provide free legal services to people who are fighting for their civil liberties.

“Instant Karma” runs through October 25th at Firefish Gallery, 108 2nd St. NW, Charlottesville.  More information at