JOHNSTON CITY -- Making time count is something we all strive to do, but for Josh Hewlett, it literally has changed his life.
Hewlett was on a path to destruction that very nearly ruined his life.
"I made," he says, "some bad choices."
Josh was in jail when he saw another inmate drawing portraits. Always a doodler, Hewlett got interested.
"I asked him to teach me," he said.
Turns out that Hewlett was a willing student with talent. He began drawing his own portraits. While inside the Illinois Department of Corrections, he furthered his "education," finding another willing teacher who added to his knowledge.
Now, after paying his debt to society, Hewlett is set on making sure his life has a positive direction, one that doesn't include drugs or the criminal acts that landed him behind bars. His art has given him that direction.
"I do this to fill my time," he said, "so I don't think about doing anything I shouldn't."
Along with his art, Josh now works at O'Charley's in Marion and attends John A. Logan College, a far cry from his life before prison, something he says "was an eye-opening experience."
"I feel like I'm on top of the world," he said, "but also like I'm still vulnerable."
That's where the art comes in. "I draw instead of doing things I shouldn't," he said. "I never want to go back to being that guy I was."
Hewlett said that drugs were always a part of his bad choices.
"I was a pot smoker. I drank. I used party drugs," he said. He dropped out of school at 17.
"I think my mom was at the point of not knowing what to do," he said. He did lay off of drugs for a short time while training and competing in mixed martial arts. However, a divorce left him vulnerable.
"Then I met meth," he said, "and it was downhill from there." Josh used meth for five years. "I was kind of stuck," he said. "I knew I had a problem. I even spoke up to other people about it while I was using."
For Hewlett, going to prison was an eye-opening experience. He was picked up for stealing cars, and was sentenced to three years, He served 15 months, earning time off for good behavior.
"I no longer make excuses," he said. He said he still has flashbacks of his life on drugs, one that he then tried to glorify. He said that part of his life now is facing the future and knowing that he will always fight the impulses of drug use, something he works on daily, using his art as a tool.
"I feel like if you're not progressing or climbing, you're vulnerable," he said. "It still has its days."
Hewlett says he works hard to stay on track and protect the life he is building. "I know that even the thought (of drugs) could kill what I have," he said.
For Josh's mom, Kristen Howard, having her son drug-free, working to build a life, and discovering a talent, is something very special.
"It feels like being a first-time mother again," she said.
For Hewlett, his art skills have given him a new focus, especially since he's become "Facebook famous" for his portraits. He recently completed a portrait of Marlon Harris and his son, Kaizer, on the day of Harris' wedding to his wife, Sarah.
"I had Josh draw this a surprise gift for our eight-year anniversary," said Sarah. "He seriously hit the nail on the head didn't he? The details are absolutely amazing, I cried when I saw it, honestly."
Hewlett's talent has become so in demand, that he has now decided to begin charging, something many have urged him to do.
His Facebook page has examples of his work and information about booking his services.
Josh said he's still not sure what he was meant to do, but for now, he is developing his talent and working to better himself.
• Editor's note: I have a unique insight into Josh's story, having been one of his high school teachers for two years, who, with my colleagues, was unable to find the key that would help Josh find his path. I have followed his progress via Facebook since he was released from prison and a couple of chance meetings. When I saw his posts and drawings, I wanted to tell his story, a story I hope will include more successes for Josh in his new life.