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Keith Fountain draws portraits to pass time in jail. You may be surprised by the people helping him do it. 

Sketch Artist

When Keith Fountain sees people start with the ears, he shrugs in resignation. You always draw the eyes first, he says, for balance. He'll show anyone how to do it: left eye, right eye, nose, lips, jaw, ears, hair. He demonstrates. In seconds, he sketches a perfectly proportioned face. In 12 minutes, he'll replicate any picture you give him.

Fountain, 36, is spending three months in the Richmond City Jail for breaking probation — for a second time — following a yearlong sentence in 1993 for possession of cocaine. Neither of the probation violations that put him in jail this time is drug-related. Fountain is scheduled for release Dec. 16. And while he says he's eager to travel the country when he gets out — he says he has never been out of Virginia — Fountain can't help thinking jail has done him good, opened his eyes a little.

But some say his stay has done more than that. They insist he's brought art to life at the Richmond City Jail.

What Fountain can do with a mechanical pencil, a piece of typing paper and a piece of tissue paper has astonished attorneys, law enforcement officers and inmates at the jail. So much so that many have commissioned Fountain to draw celebrities, girlfriends, wives, even their children.

He's drawn more than 50 portraits in two months. His left hand, he says, gets more connected to the pencil every day. He draws every night from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. It's the only time the jail doesn't hum and rumble, when the other 114 men in his section are asleep and he has a table to himself. He charges $15, or the equivalent in barter, for each portrait. And, one way or another, he gets paid. Every inmate has an account. When Fountain's sentence started in September he had no money in his account. Today he's got more than $200. He often works for money from another inmate's canteen, to get items like food and toiletries. He'll always work for supplies.

Fountain keeps his sketches in discarded beige folders given to him by classification officers. He pulls out portraits he has completed of Missy Elliot and Beyonce of Destiny's Child. Each took him about an hour; each looks remarkably like a black-and-white photograph. Fountain most enjoys showing off the posters he has done of Tupac and Aaliyah. The depth and detail, the shadows and light, spring from the page. "It just drives me crazy if they don't look absolutely real," he says. They do. Someone has offered Fountain $600 for the one of Tupac.

That kind of price tag doesn't surprise those who've seen his work.

"He told me he was going to show me some of his artwork and I was like 'Yeah, whatever,'" recalls Assistant Public Defender Christine Cestaro. "Then he came down the hallway holding it up and people were turning around. It really makes you stop and look. He's amazing."

Amazing enough that inmates who usually fight to keep magazines for themselves tear out pictures they think Fountain should draw. Amazing enough that a sheriff's deputy asked Fountain to design his tattoo. And amazing enough to be singled out by Lt. D.J. Jones of the sheriff's office.

At Jones' request, Fountain has been drawing posters for the sheriff's public relations department.

"We display his work upfront," says Jones. "People ask about it and we tell them it was done by an inmate. We provide pencils, pens, poster board — whatever he needs. We allow him to use his own concepts."

Fountain drew a Halloween poster for the sheriff's office, and soon he'll do a Christmas one. But right now he's worried about what to come up with for Thanksgiving. He's spent hours thinking about how to make it meaningful, he says, especially after Sept. 11.

"I don't want it to be tacky like a cornucopia or pilgrims," he says, scornfully. "I'd like to show a multicultural family sitting down at a table with their heads bowed giving thanks."

Fountain seems gripped by a special kind of reverence when he draws, as if years of trying to explain it are finally past. Years ago, his grandmother and Mrs. Poulos, his high-school art teacher, were the only ones who encouraged him.

He grew up in Chesterfield County when it was still considered rural. Because he was the next to youngest of 14 kids, vying for attention was difficult, he recalls. As a child, Fountain thought everybody could draw. It wasn't until he was 10 that he realized "something was going on inside me" when he picked up a pencil.

"My grandmother used to tell me God gave me this gift, nobody showed it to me," he says. "And Mrs. Poulos was astonished I freehanded everything, that I could draw people in 12 to 13 minutes."

He spent hours as a teen-ager and young adult going to sports bars, outdoor festivals, restaurants and beauty salons. He'd study people and draw them, again and again. Some paid $20 for a drawing. Others "looked at it for 10 seconds" and walked away.

Fountain wrestled with why he had this talent if he couldn't make a career of it. "Everybody used to ask me how I draw like I do," he says. "And I really felt bad and stupid because I did not know." Eventually, he started selling drugs and put his pencil aside.

Sitting at a small table in a tiny visitor's room, Fountain is acknowledged by inmates toting mattresses and sheriff's deputies clutching clipboards — everybody walking the hall waves to Fountain. He waves back.

"I want to take pencil drawing to a new level," he says. Here at the Richmond City Jail it appears he has.

In less than a month his time in jail will be up. He plans to spend Christmas in Louisiana, he says, pencilling images of the bayou.

"It's a possession, like an itch," he says. "Everything I look at, I wonder if I can draw it."

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