Joseph Jefferson-Dust on how art helped him build community in jail

Client Joseph Jefferson-Dust works on drawings (Photo by Adam Sings In The Timber)

Montana Innocence Project client Joseph Jefferson-Dust has endured many ups and downs since his wrongful conviction in 2017. The one constant has been his art–something he hopes to turn into a career once his case concludes. 

Joe first became interested in art as a kid. 

“Growing up in the ‘80s, animation was pretty big,” Joe said. “I’ve always been enchanted by animation, and on top of that, my mom’s brother Frank was an artist. And he started me out.”

They shared a love for “Conan The Barbarian” artist Frank Frazetta. 

“It’s a certain type of style–an Americana style that’s original,” Joe said. “He liked it, and I fell in love with it. Ever since then, I’ve always tried to work on my own art.” 

At first, Joe practiced drawing cartoons.

“I grew up reading comics, so that helped because I had all these comic references in my head,” Joe said. “I always had to have a reference when I would draw. I had to look at something, and I could draw it pretty closely. I was happy with that for a while.”

Around the 3rd grade, Joe started taking art classes. His technique and personal style grew from there. He trained in pottery and acrylic and oil painting, but drawing is his passion. 

Client Joseph Jefferson-Dust works on drawings (Photo by Adam Sings In The Timber)

“I got into anime, and, of course, the American comic art style,” Joe said. “I just worked on it. Then I got to the point where I wanted to be able to draw something without looking at a reference, so I worked on that really hard. And I’m pretty close to where I want to be. I can pretty much draw whatever I want out of my head without having to look at anything.”

Joe has always turned to art to settle his mind. 

“In high school, I’d have my book that I was studying, and underneath the book, I’d have my drawing pad,” Joe said. “I’d be sketching while I was listening, and somehow I could listen better that way.”

While in jail for a crime he did not commit, his art was not only a tool for keeping his mind off of the injustice he was experiencing, but it also helped him build community in unlikely circumstances. 

“Everybody in jail loves an artist,” Joe said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of artist. Most people come in with a certain style that they stick to like graffiti, where they draw lettering or tattoo style. But I don’t think people were ready for someone who can draw anything at any time.”

Joe regularly received requests for drawings of various things from old cars to movie characters. 


first one in a long time. good practice for commission work maybe?

♬ original sound – josephjoeljeffers

“I wouldn’t mind just outright drawing it for them,” Joe said. “I’ve never expected people to pay for my art.”

His most memorable request was to draw the Marvel character Deadpool for his friend’s nephew. 

“Since I knew it was a drawing for his nephew, I wanted to do for him the same thing my uncle did for me,” Joe said. “When I would see my uncle’s drawings, I would just sit there and be stunned by how awesome it looked. It was so cool looking, and I tried my best to do that for this guy’s nephew. His nephew got the drawing eventually after he mailed it out. He really, really enjoyed the drawing. He sat there and stared at it for 10 minutes they said. I was like, ‘Yes!’ I think I accomplished it.” 

Joe is considering attending art school after his journey with the criminal legal system ends. He still takes drawing requests, but now through social media. 

“I uploaded a couple of my drawings on Facebook and TikTok, and I got some requests for other drawings,” Joe said. “I was completely flattered by that, and I’m trying to do these requests. I’ll do it for free, and maybe that could lead to something later on where I’m a commissioned comic book-style artist. I would love doing that.”