Lincoln inmate illustrates children's book
Andrew Westling, an inmate at Lincoln Correctional Center, recently illustrated a book for troubled youth while behind bars. Westling is serving 25 years to life for murder and the use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony. He painted the murals in the background last year after winning a prison art contest.
Story and photos by Teresa Lostroh, NewsNetNebraska
Only one word explains how a murderer at a Lincoln prison became a children’s book illustrator behind bars: serendipity.
At least that’s how Andrew Westling, an inmate serving 25 years to life at the Lincoln Correctional Center, and Mary Ingram, a juvenile programs director and new author, describe the way “The Fallen” came together.
First came the chance viewing of a news video, then the birthday gift that taught inmate No. 53325 about illustrating stories. Shortly after came the unexpected letter asking Westling to illustrate a book targeting young criminals.
Call it serendipity. Call it fate. Or call it coincidence.
The protagonist’s journey in “The Fallen” and that of Westling, 31, are intentionally parallel. In the book, a stick has been used all its life for violence and thievery. One day, the stick is used to beat an elderly man. After the attack, the victim forgives the stick and gives it the chance to change.
Westling says his mission “for years now has been that I just want to become more than I was. It’s about perpetual growth. That’s all I can do now. I just want to become more positive, more productive, more beneficial for myself and others. I’m trying my best to be the antithesis of what I was that night.”
“That night” was in March 1998. Westling was 18.
In a drug-induced stupor, Westling, two friends and the eventual victim got into an argument. The three beat the victim and shot him in the head with a BB gun. They then disposed of his body in a trash bin.
In January 2000, Westling was convicted of second-degree murder and use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony. He was sentenced to 25 years to life.
The brutality of Westling’s crime contrasts starkly with the pristine artwork and image he’s developed behind bars.
Last year, he started painting massive, lifelike sports murals on the walls of the Lincoln Correctional gym.
Westling’s work was featured in the Lincoln Journal Star and by ABC News, which at the time had a student-run bureau at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Ingram’s daughter had once worked in the UNL bureau. In December 2010, Ingram checked the website to see what kind of work new bureau students were producing.
Ingram saw the story about Westling’s murals.
She saw a man who was both a convicted murderer and a skilled artist.
More importantly, she says, she saw “somebody who was working really hard to be the best that he could be.”
“I didn’t really know if he would be interested in working on a project with me, but what was I going to be out if I didn’t reach out and ask?” Ingram says. “I was looking for an illustrator for my children’s story at the time. I wrote him. I got a letter back right away.”
Westling said he’d do it.
He had just received a book for his birthday about illustrating children’s stories.
Westling and Ingram exchanged letters and phone calls. The book, Ingram told him, would feature two boys, Sidney and Cleveland, who would teach readers about courage, service, selflessness and honesty. Ingram hoped to target young offenders who grew up in and out of the justice system.
Then Ingram met Westling in person.
“I was almost sick when I left that visit,” Ingram said. “I went to see ‘Tangled’ that weekend, there I am sitting in a movie theater with a bunch of kids and I am crying. It was about a person who had been locked away and wanted nothing more than to get out and be free. I came home, I couldn’t sleep. At 2:30 in the morning, I sat down and wrote ‘The Fallen.’
Westling says he approached the illustrations like a director would a movie. He thought about where the character would be sitting and what the facial expression would be before he started sketching.
Ingram hopes to self-publish the book by the holidays and sell it on Amazon. All proceeds will benefit charity – a victims’ fund if everything goes as planned.
“My heart goes out to (Westling’s) victim’s family. It really does,” Ingram said. “A part of our mission statement is that we hope that victims of violent crimes can feel the love behind this book.”
Westling has never communicated with his victim’s family. He once tried to send a letter, but it was returned because the family must initiate contact, per prison policy.
“Through our journeys we don’t always go down the right roads,” Westling says. “That’s all I can say for myself. We just have to figure out how to get back on path. It takes grace, forgiveness from others and the ability to forgive yourself to move past those mistakes.”
Westling says art keeps him busy and out of trouble.
Art, then, is serving its purpose, says Lisa Sample, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who has evaluated the state’s prisoner programs since 2003.
“These opportunities behind bars refocus energy so that inmates aren’t sitting around thinking about how hateful prison is,” Sample says. “Art is wonderful. (The inmates) can get out a lot of emotion, happiness, anger, frustration – all those things can come out in a positive way instead of coming out in fists.”
But it’s not just about keeping order behind bars, Sample says. More than 95 percent of inmates eventually leave prison.
“To the degree that you can help them develop empathy, use their imaginations for something positive, your hope is that art and other programs will structure the inmates when they get out,” she says.
Westling was eligible for parole in 2010. He went before the parole board for a review in April of this year and was denied. His next review is in April 2012.
Until then, Westling will focus on his art. He recently completed several family portraits, including one of a probation director’s children.
He’s also created Christmas greetings and cards for hospitalized children through CrossOver Prison Ministries, a Christian nonprofit in Omaha.
Eventually, Ingram and Westling will revisit Ingram’s original book idea, featuring the life lessons of Sidney and Cleveland.
Westling has lived in a 10-by-13 cell in protective custody since he was attacked on the yard shortly after he arrived at Lincoln Correctional. In that cell, on the 2-by-2 space he’s allotted to display personal items, Westling hangs motivational clippings.
In the space is a flier for an upcoming art contest he’d like to enter. There’s also a photo of a dairy goat. If he’s ever released, he says he’d like to live on acreage in the country, raising dairy goats and food while working as a commercial artist.
But, he realizes that day may never come. He says his faith tells him everything happens for a reason.
“Andrew is a good person who made a very bad choice,” Ingram says. “He will pay for that for the rest of his life.”