Murder convict sketched Dubai golf courses in prison. Then, his paintings got him out

Golf artist Valentino Dixon is a special guest at the ongoing Dubai Desert Classic


Mazhar Farooqui

Published: Fri 27 Jan 2023, 4:40 PM

Last updated: Fri 27 Jan 2023, 7:36 PM

Art can be liberating. For jailed murder convict Valentino Dixon it was also his ticket to freedom.

For 27 years, Dixon languished in a notorious US prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Then a painting done by him while he was 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, sports and artistic talent has inspired millions around the world while also endearing him to fans like Tiger Woods and Barack Obama.

Dixon was 21 in 1991 when he was arrested and wrongfully convicted for a fatal shooting at a hangout in his hometown in Buffalo, New York.

Multiple witnesses and a confession from the real killer couldn’t save him from being sentenced to 39 years in prison at the brutal maximum security Attica Correctional Facility in New York.

Escape in art

In his 6X10 cell, Dixon found escape in art. “I was in my eighth year in prison when my uncle sent me some coloured pencils and paper and urged me to draw,” recalled Dixon. “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 rekindled my passion for art. I said to myself, I can’t waste my life even though I am prison.”

Photo by Shihab
Photo by Shihab

Over the next 20 years, Dixon made hundreds of paintings, often drawing for up to 10 hours a day.

As his reputation grew in Attica, he got a request from the golf-enthusiast prison warden James Conway to draw the legendary 12th hole of the Augusta National Golf Club for him.


Unknown to Dixon, his cell neighbour was also an avid golfer. “He subscribed to the monthly Golf Digest. One day, he tossed a magazine at me and said, ‘You should be drawing more golf courses, pick what you want’."

"Art first, I baulked at the idea. I said to myself, ‘why should I draw golf courses of all things. But when I flipped through the pages of the magazine I felt a strange sense of peace. It had stunning pictures of lush golf courses from around the world. Looking at the rolling landscapes of sylvan splendour, inspired me to recreate them,” said Dixon who went on to draw more than 130 golf courses, including many from Dubai. His artworks eventually caught the attention of Golf Digest which ran a story on him titled Golf Saved My Life.

The story, which questioned the tenuous nature of Dixon’s trial, went viral. Soon Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative took up his case.

Following their efforts, Dixon was exonerated of murder charges on September 19, 2018. He came to the court wearing shackles but walked out free after the man who confessed to the actual killing pleaded guilty to manslaughter in court.

Embracing Islam

Dixon, who changed his name to Tariq Ramzan Abdullah after embracing Islam in 1999, said he has no bitterness.

“If I were angry I won’t be at peace with myself. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy life. This is what my faith has taught me,” said Dixon, who will be selling some of his artworks at a silent auction on the sidelines of Dubai Desert Classic this week.

Part of the proceeds will 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 which 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 figure prominently in his collection.

“Drawing these golf courses while sitting alone in my small cell, I had never imagined I would be touring them 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 picture of him receiving the master artist’s artwork from Michelle Obama for Christmas.

"It's 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 following a late-night brawl outside a restaurant in Buffallo, 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 gifts him some coloured pencils and paper and urges him to draw.

2011: Retiring prison warden James Conway requests Dixon to draw the 12th hole of the legendary Augusta National Golf Club. Encouraged by a cell neighbour, 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 had been wrongfully convicted

2013: The Golf Channel runs a story about Valentino’s case drawing national attention.

2018: Dixon walks out a free man after Georgetown University’s Prison and Justice Initiative reinvestigate the case and the actual killer pleads guilty

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 getting 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

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