Chained to repetition

 Prisoner Jerome Washington, drawing still from the animation Moth and Light created by prisoners primarily in solitary confinement and based upon Bradley’s moth.

Chained to repetition

When Bo was released from prison, the guards took bets predicting as to how long he would last on the outside.   As a volunteer art teacher in the prison, I didn’t find these wagers among guards shocking; I was used to the insensitivity.   But it made me sad.  From what source does such skepticism rise?  Is it a lack of goodwill towards the prisoners or just a sense of realism in the guards’ belief that prisoners are bound to a cycle of repetition?

Bo was a fun member of the prison art class and although I was happy for his released, he would be missed. Bo reminded me of many art students I have known; quirky and imaginative with comments making me laugh.  He had a certain amount of talent for drawing – what I would expect in a high school student – suggesting good potential that could eventually be matured into something else. (I had encouraged Bo to think about art school when he was released.) Like high school students, prisoners are bound to an authority (be it parents or prison) that forces them to work within restrictive limitations. But unlike the high school students who have greater opportunity for exposure to things that can eventually break those limitations, prisoners do not have this opportunity. I’ve seen prison artists such as Bo draw the same pictures year in and year out; the endless repetition of something that gives them credit in prison, but does nothing to help them see beyond.

However, to the guards, Bo was less of an artist and just one more drug-dealing criminal. “He likes the stuff too much to stay away from it.” That Bo’s both parents are in prison does not diminish the guards’ assumption.

On this particular day, before Bo was released, the prisoner Bradley brings a moth to art class. He rescued it from other prisoners who were attempting to kill it. When Bradley says to me, “Come see what I found,” I follow him to a table where he opens an ornate marquetry box much like the box the prisoner Joe gave to me earlier in the day. Bradley, like Joe, made a fancy wooden box surprisingly from Popsicle sticks. That the box is made of Popsicle sticks is not obvious; the box looks like it is made of expensive wood cut into mosaic patterns stained with cinnamon that prisoners buy in the prison commissary.

The prisoners have been making these beautiful boxes over and over again for years; they are boxes for precious things, jewelry boxes. Some are very large; some are small. Some are made for wives, others for mothers, sisters, friends. Some of these boxes are lined with velvet compartments for rings or earrings. When Joe gave me the box, he said, “You can put whatever you want in it.”

However, inside Bradley’s jewelry box, the box he made for his mother and lined with violet velvet for her rings, is a very large golden moth. I didn’t expect to see a moth. I had been explaining complimentary color harmony to the class, and with that in mind, I comment, “Complimentary colors; ocher against violet.”

In this moth, I see a tan fuzzy face with brown eyes; the tan face is a shade away from the ocher wings and the brown eyes are in deep contrast to the tan. The moth reminds me of a barn owl — that very strange creature looking both human and alien. The moth’s eyes dart back and forth with what I take to be curiosity.

Prisoner Anwar Tapia, drawing still for animation Moth and Light

My second reaction to Bradley’s moth is, “We should draw this moth.” The most frequent comment I make to this art class of prisoners is, “Draw from life.” Drawing from life instead of the imagination presents the unpredictable. Things are discovered when they are drawn without preconception of what something looks like. Unfortunately, most imaginations have not been stretched enough to leave preconceptions behind, leading many to redundancy.

While the boxes are beautiful, making the boxes is predictable. The men follow a pattern and the mosaic arrangements are sequential, requiring much craft and concern. However, drawing a moth rescued from the prison yard does not follow a formula; it follows a personal visual conversation with the moth. As I tell my class, “Cézanne says the landscape spoke to him and because of that, he discovered the unknown through drawing.”

The drawings I typically see from prisoners are drawings rendered from photographs or from their imagination; clichéd hearts and countless big-bosomed women smiling at the viewer, copied from Playboy-like magazines. These drawings suggest habitual repetition; a retreat; like the perpetual skulls I see in Bo’s drawings. Or that pervasive woman with a red nose and scars all over her face that is repeated in so many prisoners’ drawings in prisons throughout the United States.

I tell my class, “You are already inmates in the department of corrections. When you copy a photograph, you make yourself a double inmate. You become an inmate to a photograph.” Drawing from life enables the artist to discover new territories; like the high school student exposed to an outside world breaking parental shackles and learning to see the world through their own eyes. Noting this, I wonder why prisoners are so intent on working from their imaginations or from photographs keeping them locked where they are.

Furthermore, the camera can be a cruel, one-eyed guard who, unlike an artist drawing from life, does not make a meaningful distinction between a chair and a person; living and dead; happy and sad. And although a photo may “speak” to the viewer, it does not listen. It does not provide the reciprocal dialogue of which Cézanne speaks when he experienced landscape in the exploration of possibilities.

Despite my suggestions, Bradley has other intentions. He asks that I take the moth outside the prison. “Free the moth,” Bradley says, “He will be killed in here.” I don’t know if moths are gendered. I suppose neither does Bradley.

I agreed to release the moth, placing the moth into my box; the box that Joe gave me. When I tell the recreation therapist of the moth and my plans to free it, he reminds me that while the box has proper papers to leave the prison, the moth does not. To guards, the moth is contraband. The recreation therapist suggests releasing the moth inside the prison. I argue saying, “That is the whole point, the moth has no freedom in here.”

When I leave for the day, I take the box that Joe gave me containing the moth that Bradley gave me. With the recreation therapist, I walk across the large prison yard to the first set of gates. Like most prisons, this prison has two sets of gates; the gate from the inner prison to the administrative building; a second gate leading from there to the outside. I suppose the double gates protect the administration from revolting prisoners. It is the recreation therapist’s idea to free the moth between the administrative building and the exit building; beyond the point of any potential moth-killing prisoners and before the point of contraband-confiscating guards.

We open the box to free the moth. It flies out of Joe’s box, but to my surprise, the moth suddenly turns right and, in doing so, retreats circular, back to the inner prison.

The moth’s flight is portent. Months after Bo is released – I’m not sure what guard won the bet – he returns. When Bo pops his head into the art room with a hearty, “Hi!” I can’t help but wonder, “”home?” I heard that Bo was back, and this time, he will be here much longer.

How does anyone, not just prisoners, break out of the circle of repetition when we are given limitations that lead to the same conclusions? Limitations asking that we fall upon that which we did before; copying the same boxes, drawing the same pictures with that same skull or same big-bosomed smiling woman; drawn again and again into infinitum.

(Please take a view at the animation created by prisoners –  Moth and Light.)

 animation stills by Jose Villareal, Pelican Bay State Prison.

Prison’s noose of absolute truth

Anthony Washington’s drawing for the Dear Self/Dear Other project.

We seek truth in many things and demand absolute truth when someone has done wrong.

“Who did it?” is the first question asked after a crime, followed by “how” and “why; the primary questions determining identity, causality, and motive of a crime

Identification is a strange thing. It is a paradox of revelation and limitation. It seeks to enlighten only to cast the identified into a conceptual box — a thing with its individual particulars removed to fit into a universal. For most, being fitted into an identity is not totally destructive since we live in multiple identities, changing them with the fluidity of daily existence. I exist as artist, mother, wife, prison volunteer, friend, and so on.

However, in crime, once who, how, and why have been determined through the legal process, and who has been incarcerated, prison guarantees maintaining that determined truth through its insistence upon a single identity for the prisoner. The prisoner is an inmate 24-7. Being an inmate seemingly eclipses any other identity that may reveal a prisoner as a more complex individual.

This determined and absolute truth is further controlled by prison through limiting information. As a volunteer prison art teacher, it is illegal for me to ask who, how, and why regarding my students’ crimes. Likewise, it is forbidden for me to know the personal details of students’ lives and to share my personal information with them. This could essentially limit the exchange of personal information between myself and a prisoner to last names and the DIN number of the prisoner.

But legality is often a moot point in prison. In prison, disclosure of information is based upon power and not upon rights. So while I cannot ask anything of prisoners, guards often describe to me the details of a crime despite the prisoners’ rights of confidentiality: “Did you know that inmate X threw his wife off a cliff; inmate Y torched his victim and watched him burn to death; inmate Z murdered and raped three women?”

That the guards taunt me with crime details of my students is understandable. Beneath this antagonism, the guards are asking a valid question: Can I feel positive toward prisoners when I know the extent of their crimes? Can I reconcile the paradox between a violent crime and the accused who may be a very good student? For some reason, I am not concerned with these contradictory dynamics. I usually know the crimes of my students. It seems as though ignoring that part of the student’s life is a different kind of identity control.

Ironically, the first prisoner I met in any prison is an artist who received his MFA from the same art school I attended. Joe was in art school at the same time that I was, but I didn’t know him until teaching in prison. Years after first meeting Joe, I explained our connection to a staff person. This staff shrugged it off but suggested I not tell anyone else.

Joe is serving a life sentence. He accepts responsibility for his crime with a forthrightness that was probably a factor in getting that sentence. He says, though, that one person asked him about his history in a way that gets at his own understanding of why he is in prison. Instead of asking, “What did you do?” the person asked, “What happened to you?” For Joe, this best describes his experience because “I used to be just a real normal guy.”

He knows it’s crazy, but Joe feels as if his life became cursed — he can even pinpoint the moment of the curse. On a trip to Mexico with his wife, while climbing the Mayan pyramids, Joe mimicked the statue of the pyramid’s god. He realized immediately that he had committed an act of great disrespect. Joe says, “But it was too late. It seems everything after that went so wrong for me and my wife.” Rationally he does not believe in the Mayan curse, but emotionally he does; it gives him an alternative perspective, perhaps, one with hope.

Joe’s comments remind me of something the prisoner Richard said: “You know, how you get close to something and you know you shouldn’t get so close, but you do anyway, moving towards a cliff that is pulling you — and before you know it, it is too late?” He motions with his eyes at the imaginary cliff hovering in front of us, ready to pull whomever over its edge.

Such accounts of crime do not fit the determined absolute truth insisted by prison and the criminal system.   Instead, the accounts represent personal interpretations. To some people, these stories may appear as excuses; blaming invisible forces and creating havoc with causality; the “I didn’t really do it; I couldn’t help it.” Of course, how are invisible forces reconciled with personal accountability necessary for agency?

In a super-maximum security prison, the men do what they are told at all times — shower, eat, take recreation; nothing is left up to them. In art class, their emotional fragility is extreme. When they drop their pencils, they’ll often yell, “You made me do that!”  The prisoners forget that in blaming me and not being accountable, they relinquish control of the pencil and give me their last shred of independence. If we are victims of total causality and everything is determined through cause and effect, we cannot believe in the ability to make independent decisions.  I tell the class, “When you give up all responsibility, you will not be able to move your head to look at something on your own decision…..and when that happens…. you will be bemoaning for the good old days when you lived in the free state of the supermax.” They stop blaming me for the dropping of their pencils.

What is truth when all of us — not just prisoners — exist in constant paradoxes? Confronted by forces outside our control while being held accountable for those same forces is just one of many ontological contradictions to which our lives are bound. These paradoxes are then compounded by a prison system operating on the rightness of absolute truth.  How can it be possible to develop a compassionate accountability necessary for mitigating those paradoxes?

Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer tells us that while science (in this case, forensics and prison) seeks to present the truth of a single story, the experience of art tells us there is no single story. In art, there are only our stories, with no simple answers to whohow, or why. In art, none of us stand outside the circle of investigation – we are all involved.

Unfortunately, art also has the potential for losing its effectiveness in the social change business when it becomes one more platform for declaring specific truth with prescriptions for public moral improvement (the seemingly increasing need to link art with political change). But art’s strength is in declaring nothing, and by doing so, enables us to exist with non-prescriptive ambiguity in the multiplicity of stories that persists beyond every final answer that poses as absolute truth.

 Anthony Washington, drawing the stories.


In the company of a door, a bed, and a toilet

 Arthur Tyler, “Door of death row,” monotype, courtesy of the artist

Volunteering in prison as an art teacher is hard, and I often ask myself why continue?  Sometimes I get the answer from the prison students.  A couple of years ago, a new student joined my class in a closed-security prison.  During class, I mention the through-the-mail art program I teach, which brings art projects to prisoners in solitary confinement nationally.  At the end of class, Arthur Tyler, the new student, asked if I know any prisoners on Ohio’s death row.  I think of participating prisoners on death row — Armando and Robert on California’s death row and others in various states — but I can’t think of anyone on Ohio’s.

When I draw a blank, Arthur quietly says he has just been released from Ohio’s death row, where he was held for 31 years.

Looking at Arthur, I imagine the freedom he must feel even in a freedom-less place like this high-security prison – leaving the room for the bathroom or drinking from the hallway water fountain.  This impact of freedom reminds me of John Berger’s essay, “Mouse Story,” in which the narrator describes a mouse leaping from the cage as only a mouse newly freed can leap; a prisoner realizing his dream of freedom, even if it is only freedom into a high-security prison.

I think of Robert Deninno at Pelican Bay State Prison, California, living in solitary confinement for 10 years.  After being released into general population of a maximum-security prison,  Robert writes to me, I have been smiling so much that my face hurts.  I write back, Robert, You may be the only person who thinks living in a maximum-security prison makes for smiling.  But that’s not true; several other men have been released from solitary, and for them, seeing the sky becomes a new experience.

 Robert Deninno, “Seeing the sky,” pastel drawing, courtesy of the artist.

But Arthur is not like Robert or the other men from solitary confinement, now living in general, relieved to feel the sun.  When the parole board voted unanimously for his release, Arthur anticipated going home — but Ohio governor John Kasich vetoed this vote.  I don’t know why.  Some speculated releasing Arthur from prison would have interfered with the governor’s re-election campaign.  Arthur’s next hearing was in April 2016 when Kasich was running for US President, and again, Arthur was denied parole. A third hearing is planned for this fall, 2017 and I can only hope that it will end better for Arthur.

Life on death row

In class, I asked Arthur if art might be a means to explore life on death row.  I don’t know what I mean by this question.  Yet I know drawing can be an excavation of what is seen, so I ask him to keep a visual journal, drawing whatever comes into his head, like visual free associations.

Usually, I hesitate to ask for words from prisoners.  In prison, where language can be misinterpreted and used in parole hearings, writing is reduced to platitudes.  Prisoners produce purple prose in which they exchange raw experience for the niceties a public or parole board wants to hear.  Regardless, I ask Arthur to write the words that come into his head while drawing.

I tell Arthur something I heard from another prisoner on death row: That despite having no future, this person couldn’t think without a future in his thoughts. This forward thinking is not from spiritual need or hope, but because our existence is ontologically structured with future. Walking down death’s row, we think of a future.  Arthur was released to this prison two weeks before his scheduled execution.

Arthur shows me his drawing and words. There are three images on the paper; a door, a bed, and a toilet — three constant elements of Arthur’s life for 31 years. The words are of hope and survival; sentiments not addressing what either could possibly mean on death row. The words ring hollow of a Hallmark card, albeit one from death row.

I tell Arthur this not to be cruel to his writing but to penetrate beneath the words’ veneer. Arthur looks at the door he has drawn and says, I had no window in the cell; only a door with a small window. And because the window is dark, I can only see myself.

This descriptive analysis is the beginning of what I seek. Not a could-have-been/should-have-been ideal state, but tangible elements upon which meaning is developed through a conversation consisting of a door, a bed, and a toilet.

It is strange that doors are metaphors for opportunity. Most doors are closed, and all doors present a barrier-entrance dichotomy. How does one exist within constant proximity of a locked door? Does the door become a canvas upon which all emotions are projected, thus absorbing the inhabitant’s persona? Or, is it a dark shadow upon the room’s landscape existing with a life of its own in total disregard to the inhabitant?

Life without intimacy

What does a bed say?  Does it speak to an intimacy or to a lack? Does it speak to a family or partner long gone?

I don’t know the prisoners’ intimate lives; they don’t tell, and I don’t ask. Once, however, a guard told me, These inmates care more about their bitches in here than their wives.  When I asked if this prison intimacy enables compassion that would be missing had the prisoners found no intimacy at all, the guard’s stare tells me my question is stupid, but I am stupider.

Looking at Arthur’s drawing of a death row bed void of any context, I can’t help but wonder how life continues without intimacy; not just sex, but love, hate, frustration, sharing, anxiety, disappointment, joy — feelings demanded in relationship to another person.

What does the toilet suggest? A reminder that no one is self-identical because constant change in daily life flushes away old aspects of self to be exchanged with new? Or that in prison, the plumbing system of change does not work to accommodate a changing self? The prisoner is made to be self-identical, an inmate 24/7. When I ask prisoners if they ever think of themselves not as inmates, the most common answer I get is: When I am sleeping.

I don’t know how these basic elements — a door, a bed, and a toilet — of Arthur’s landscape spoke to him for 31 years. But now that evidence cannot justify Arthur’s years on death row, do they suggest a life wasted?



Lighthouses, guard towers and the collapsing spatial places of prison

 Lawrence Smith, prisoner, drawing of Tehachapi prison, California, courtesy of artist


A few years ago, my friend suggested a particular meadow I might want to draw. This friend, who is not actually an artist but with whom I draw on a regular basis, often suggests things to draw.

No, I said, the meadow is picturesque but not interesting enough — visually dynamic enough — to create a composition. I said it would be more interesting to sit on the side of the highway and draw the overpass of one road over another road: they offer light, shadow, and diagonals. The meadow merely offers nostalgia, nothing visually compelling.

Having made this distinction between the picturesque and something upon which to create a dynamic composition, I contradicted myself and suggested a road trip to draw lighthouses in Maryland and Virginia. The lighthouse seems to be the most picturesque image ever reproduced in photographs, paintings, and prints, running the gamut from the kitsch of Thomas Kinkade to Piet Mondrian’s early paintings of the lighthouse at Westkapelle.

 Piet Mondrian, Westkapelle

On this road trip, which developed into a kind of scavenger hunt of lighthouses, I was struck by the interesting names given to lighthouses, particularly the dislocating name of a lighthouse called Point No Point. What is a point without a point?

Identifying the point

Ambiguity surrounding lighthouses became more evident when I brought my drawings into the studio. I was working on a particular lighthouse painting and inadvertently placed it next to another working landscape. This other landscape was a nebulous scene of sky and water with just a suggestion of the horizon. When placed side by side, the paintings emphasized the lighthouse as form against the sea as non-form; the intersection of the tangible with the intangible.

On a clear day, the sea-sky nothingness is visually organized by the horizon; the irony is that this visually organizing horizon is an illusion.

Regardless of its illusion, the horizon works in conjunction with the vertical to create a world in which we understand. Our world is made up of horizons and verticals — with an occasional dramatic diagonal — and it is not surprising that Mondrian in his later works reduced his marks to lines signifying these two directions. While most creation myths of any culture begin with this horizontal line dividing earth and sky or heaven and hell, it is not until the vertical line is inserted that the world becomes inhabited. All landscape artists know this. Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea is a strong example of this inhabitation.

 Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea

Collapsing planes of prison

I see many lighthouse drawings from my prison students. They are lumpen lighthouses; lighthouses for the spatially dispossessed. The sky is drawn on the same picture plane as the sea, the sea on the same plane as the lighthouse, the lighthouse on the same plane as the foreground, and the foreground on the same plane as the background.

There is no space in these drawings — as if the prisoners know what we do not – that measurable space does not actually exist. For what is measurable space in prison where 100 miles from home is equal to a single mile from home; a single mile is equal to never and nowhere from home; time and space collapse into each other? What purpose can distance and time have in prison?

I mention their spatial dilemma to my prison students and suggest to them; maybe you are living in a Gothic painting.

 Simone Martini, Madonna of Mercy

I tell them that in a Gothic painting, a mountain could appear the same size as a man, or the Madonna may be 18 feet high sitting on a two-inch donkey. Space is collapsed to the foreground.

I tell them that in Mondrian’s later paintings, space also appears collapsed. Vertical and horizontal lines are painted on a white background. In neither the Gothic paintings or in later Mondrian abstractions are there any reference to perspectival space.

But the prisoners are not living in a Gothic or Mondrian painting; they are living in the antithesis of that. In a Gothic painting, space is not destroyed but is superseded with spirituality; this experience has no need for spatiality and, therefore, space becomes ambiguous.

 Piet Mondrian, Composition

Mondrian understands it is the ambiguity of space that gives meaningful dimension to experience. In Mondrian’s later paintings, ambiguous space is disclosed — space that cannot be identified by the grid of his lines or the whiteness upon which he paints this grid. This is the space between the lines and the whiteness; it is space not seen, but experienced; it is ubiquitous and mysterious space where the intangible intersects the tangible.

Without ambiguity, all is dead

There is no mysterious space in prison and its collapse of space is not replaced by meaning; all meaning is destroyed. Distance and time do not become irrelevant – they are totally nuked.

Where is the horizon in prison? Why do I, anyone, need to see the horizon – a mere subjective line moving as I move; existing but not tangible, an illusion steadying me upon earth?   My students do not know and neither do I. When a student hopefully interjects that he is living closer to home than ever before in his incarceration, I ask if this has made a difference in his life. He answers sadly: No, it doesn’t matter; no one ever visits me.

We do not live in measured space, and we cannot live in the annihilation of space. Ultimately, we can only live in ambiguous space; space that is not dictated to fit a means or end. Mondrian knew this as well as the Gothic painters. I live – thrive – in subjective ambiguity to space. If I had to run the mile to my neighbor for help, I could do it; that same mile to a person in a wheelchair could mean a death sentence. Without ambiguous space and the horizon, the fluidity of meaning is destroyed and life becomes insignificant.

The lighthouse called Point No Point compels me. Unlike the other lighthouses that mark a specific point in space, this lighthouse makes no assumption. It is a lighthouse built upon water on which no permanent marking can be recorded; placed upon an everchanging medium. Like Mondrian’s space between the grid and the whiteness, Point No Point Lighthouse occupies ambiguous space facing an intangible horizon where meaning is full, always changing, and never reduced to absolutes; the lighthouse offers no clichés; it offers no false clarity.

I imagine this ambiguous space with an intangible horizon, and on this moving horizon I imagine prisoners are walking, leading an eighteen-foot Madonna and her two-inch donkey.



Falling leaves: letters from prison

 Armando Macias, prisoner on death row at San Quentin, drawing for the The Circle Show, Philadelphia City Hall, 2014

                “But now you get the gist,

                 of what my letters meant.

                 You’re reading them again,

                  The ones you didn’t burn”    

Leonard Cohen


The letters seem to accumulate indiscriminately on the furniture surfaces of my home. At first, they were restricted to my son’s old bedroom, the room I use as a study. But in time, the letters began to gather on my piano, table, and chairs; albeit in piles – this one to answer first, that for later, and the largest pile looming as a question mark for which there is no ready response.

It’s hard to throw out these letters from prisoners received through the Prisoner Express program; a program that develops distant learning for 4500 prisoners throughout the United States. Some are simple requests to participate in the program and are not difficult to put in the recycle bin. It becomes more difficult to toss out letters in which I am directly addressed or where the writer seems in need of a listener. Throwing out these letters, even when answered, feels like stamping upon the writer’s hope. So I keep them.

As an artist, I immediately experience the physicality of the letters; what in art school we referred to as “marks upon the paper.” Most prisoners’ letters are written by hand; although some are written on old-fashioned typewriters. The marks make evident the writer’s hand and, in doing so, convey something personal about the writer; sometimes even more personal than the actual meaning of the words. I feel Jerome’s hand holding the pen so tight and heavy that the reverse of his paper is embossed, creating its own beautiful surface.   Or the tidy block lettering of Jimmy’s letters. I have boxes of letters from Clarence who writes almost daily. I’m drawn to his letters not so much for content but for the intensity and frenetic intent of the letter’s numerous pages, front and back, augmented by diagrams, pictures, and numbers referencing a religion of which Clarence knows or has developed for coping.

  Clarence’s letters

In the letters of the prisoners, I feel the hand that is rushed and the hand that has all the time in the world; writing slow and deliberate. I experience the smudged ink from the pressure of the hand or letters written upon stained paper – coffee, blood, whatever. Some letters are folded into tiny squares. Many letters are on cheap lined paper. Some letters are on recycled printed materials. Jeff writes from a California prison on the reverse of his in-prison offense notice sending him back into solitary confinement.

With 4500 prisoners in the program, it seems that correspondence would get lost in the avalanche of letters, and yet, there is something so personal about the marks on these letters that I often recognize someone’s letter upside-down from across the room just from their handwriting.

And so these penmanship marks can be more personal than the meaning of the words – at least the opening salutations which tend to follow a similar litany; “Hope you are in good health, hope your dogs are well, your husband is well, your son’s ok,” and if the writer were to know my neighbors, they, too, would be blessed with good health. Leon always begins his letters with a variation of his holiday season letter:

“Dear Treacy,

Greeting! Good day to you and everyone else. I hope you enjoyed the holiday season and Happy New Year. It’s a brand new year to start off on a good note. I hope you find yourself in the best of health and happy spirits.”

 Yet, no matter how redundant the salutations may be, the opening greetings immediately express the writer’s hope for acceptance and to be taken seriously.   I recognize this hope – thinking of letters I have written to galleries hoping they will like my art.  But it is hard writing to an unknown person asking for validation of my worthiness, knowing more often than not, it is futile.

 I’ve received letters from prisoners with no written message. Derwin’s letters are often scraps of paper upon which he renders a drawing I sent to him. It may be Derwin doesn’t read and write. Some prisoners, like Jerome, learned to read and write in prison. Despite the limitations, Derwin’s letters testifies to the US postal service’s diligence. A letter from him, addressed with only my first name and zip code, successfully found its way to me.

Not all the letters seek acceptance; some seem to be a way for expressing remorse. Joe wrote about murdering his wife and the regret he experiences not only in murdering her, but the loneliness he feels without her. One could read this and become cynical – like well, what did you expect when you murdered her? But cynicism is quickly replaced by spending time in prisons and learning murder is a very complex phenomenon. I am convinced that anyone is capable of it but very few people who do, live without regret.  I think about James who before murdering his girlfriend high on drugs never had a single violation – not even a driving ticket. Or Fred, who says until he murdered his ex-wife’s boyfriend in anger, “I used to be just a regular guy.” Tom writes of murdering his best friend who was also the father of his son’s best friend while high on bath salts and the pain and horror it caused everyone in his life. I experience genuine grief in these letters or statements made by prisoners in prison. The words do not seem to be statements to evoke my sympathy or said just because the individual ended up in prison, but explicit expressions of regret for what they did.

I haven’t experienced sexual advances or disrespect of any kind from prisoners while conducting workshops face to face in prison. Likewise, it is very rare to experience sexual references in the letters, although it happens.   Some are comical. Logan writes imagining me as 20-year old with slinky blond hair covering one eye. I published a photograph of myself in the next newsletter to establish that, in fact, I was not a 20 year-old blond with a come-hither look, but a middle-aged woman. It didn’t matter. I could have published myself with big floppy ears and a single eye in the middle of my forehead; fantasies still occur.

Jonathan’ s three letters to me were in the style of a poem. In the first two letters, his verses expressed sexual desires toward me. His third letter, however, seems to offer an apology for his first two letters:

I’m sorry for writing you.

I’m just bored. 

I’ve tried your program.

But I’m bored with it.

Likewise Garry’s letters contained sexual fantasies towards me. I write back telling him I know he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by being disrespectful and that he will need to edit sexual material from future letters. Garry follows my request for a while, but then slips back to the sexual matters. I stop writing to him.

Reading Garry’s or Jonathan’s letters, I think about Mr. Warner, a 93-year old patient for whom I was responsible working as a nurse’s aid in an understaffed nursing home. I was 12 years old. It was a severe job forcing me into responsibilities no sane adult would have asked of anyone so young – bathing, dressing, nursing and administering medications to old, sick men. On occasion, I even had to wash and prepare bodies after death for the undertaker. One evening, while getting a roomful of men bathed and dressed for bed, it became apparent Mr. Warner was dying. “He’s probably good for an hour or two,” the head nurse said. Dying alone in a nursing home with just a 12-year old witness is so bleak that I wanted to provide something more dignified than the ice cream the nurse suggested me to feed Mr. Warner in his last hour. I found a Bible and holding it in my left hand, read, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” Instead of dignifying his dying, I was shocked to find Mr. Warner’s hand trying to get up my skirt, forcing me to repeatedly swat away his sexually active hand with my free hand and, thus, making his sad death even more pathetic.

Manuel Gonzalez, III, prisoner at Tehachapi Prison,  drawing for The Circle Show, Philadelphia City Hall, 2014

Was it terror of impending death – the seemingly ultimate isolation – that reduced Mr. Warner to the biologic response of sexual aggression? I think about what Eric said, the program director at a prison where I teach. As we watched guards leading a young prisoner in handcuffs across the yard to the hole – his punishment for publicly masturbating – Eric said, “Some of the young kids who end up here are so reduced to terror and anxiety that that is all they can do. It’s ironic that the punishment is putting them into even greater isolation and terror.”  But the prisoners in my class are less generous with their assessment, suggesting, They’re not anxious – they raised themselves and had no one to tell them to keep it in their pants.” Whichever way one chooses to see it, do these acts of sexual aggression mask a state of terror?

More often than sexualized is the potential for the prisoner to idealize the writer.  But pen pals are pen pals and when real limits are exposed, can be devastating to a prisoner. The prisoner Jackey had a Cornell student pen pal for the years she attended the university. When the student graduated and no longer wrote, Jackey became depressed. Although I didn’t fill the gap left by the student, Jackey continued writing to me deeply hurt by the loss of his pen pal:

“It is ridiculous that me, a 60 year-old man, would fall in love with a college student pen pal who I never saw and knew I would never meet. But I feel so bad and just can’t get over it.”

 Jackey’s drawing.

 It’s probably not surprising that there are fewer women than men participating in the programs – there are more men prisoners than women prisoners. But it may also be how women prisoners experience their abilities. Katherine finished the Drawing from Life, a through-the-mail drawing course. It is a challenging course asking the artist to work from life instead of copying photographs. When I wrote to Katherine congratulating her on being the first women prisoner to complete the course, saying she deserved a prize, she wrote back,

“I’ve never won anything in my life, was never first at anything…. always last. I am so thrilled!” And then asked, “Could you give my prize to my daughter. It’s her birthday and I don’t have anything to give her.”

I sent sketchbooks to both Katherine and her daughter.

Some prisoners write letters pontificating their incarceration with clichés heard on the prison yard. Reading these, I remember as a teenager yelling at my dad when he’d repeat, as truth, clichés heard at truck stops or bars, That’s just crap you learned from your beer buddies – why don’t you ever think for yourself?”

 Perhaps, I was a bit too harsh on my dad. Can anyone express clearly an experience of living without falling back on tidy slogans to describe that life?   How more difficult is it for prisoners, who live in a world of controlled information and identity, to observe their experience without resorting to overused words and concepts? The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben says it’s words themselves making us disabled communicators; disabled, because words are trapped in historical redundancy and cannot express the vibrancy and ambiguity of the presence.   Somehow, Agamben suggests, we have to find a way to “say the unsayable.”  Are the arts a way?

“Saying the unsayable,” demands the person giving expression be a keen observer; for without reflective observation, expression is fluff. Is it possible for prisoners to astutely observe the ambiguity of his/her experience; and in doing so, become powerful witnesses of incarceration rather than powerless prisoners?






The art of absolute loneliness

 Bill Sell’s self-portrait

It was in June, 2013, that Billy Sell hung himself.  I assume a guard discovered him because he had been living in solitary confinement for the past six years. Billy had been in prison for 16 years.  He was 32 years old at his death.  Found hanging in his cell, Billy was first unresponsive and later died in the infirmary. Billy had taken part in the California hunger strike by prisoners against solitary confinement.

Billy first wrote to me a number of years ago.  He asked where he was supposed to send the assignments for the through-the-mail art curriculum I provide for prisoners. Billy added that he knew I wouldn’t be able to answer him personally — assuming that the rules would forbid this.  Unknown to Billy, I am able to write to any prisoner in prisons where I do not volunteer. I wrote back to Billy thanking him for his letter and said that I would be interested in receiving his completed assignments.

However, in Billy’s next letter, he apologized for taking up my time. He wrote: “I must be honest with you as I know you are with me.  As I am writing, (and have weighed this out) regrets sink in my heart heavily. I do not or will not be able to participate properly in the art program.  I feel as I have wasted your time. My tools prevent me from giving a solid effort and the poor quality is a waste of your time. It was never my intention to waste your time.”

When I read this, I felt Billy’s depression reflected in the letter. I wrote back to Billy saying, “I want to apologize for any discomfort I may have caused you in regard to the art project. It was not my intention to make you feel bad about the art.”  I continued to write that I was not interested in a display of perfectly rendered skills, but rather a visual investigation through art. I ended the letter with: “Anyway, if you don’t want to draw, that’s fine; just write back anyway and keep in the loop.”

Inspired by Bernini

Billy did write back, again surprised that I took the time to write him.  This letter also reflected a depression that seemed to prevent him from drawing.  I wrote back to him, sending art that I thought would interest him.  Then surprisingly, after several more exchanges of letters, I received a number of drawings from Billy.  These drawings surprised me mostly for the energy and because he was obviously more comfortable in drawing than he believed himself to be.  In the letter accompanying the art, Billy wrote, “I want to thank you for being the nudge that you are,” and explained that he wanted to do drawings of the Virgin of Guadalupe for his mother. He also talked about other art that he liked: Bernini and some sculpture.

Billy and I continued to correspond; he sent me drawings, and I sent him artwork that his drawings suggested to me and that I thought would inspire him.  In his May letter, he seemed excited to start a life-size drawing of his cell. His plan was a drawing that would be eight feet by six feet.  Once, during his one-hour-out-of-the-cell time, he had inspired other prisoners to draw life-size versions of their cells.  I had originally asked Billy to draw his cell this large size because I hoped it would give him space and empowerment.

In Billy’s letter right before his death, he wrote about art, about colors, about how holidays don’t mean much in prison, and about a drawing of mine that I sent him.  Billy said he liked my explanation of the drawing; the explanation gave him insight he felt he did not have himself.  He thought his own vision was too mechanical.  My response to that comment in my next letter would be to take issue of this assessment of his eye. It was my experience that his eye was not mechanical; rather it was an eye sensitive to light, shadows, and nuances.

In his last letter, Billy sent me additional drawings and his self-portrait.

What happened?

I don’t know if Billy was depressed.  Of course, death by hanging is usually considered a suicide.  Further investigation is being conducted.  State law in California requires that all prisoners who participate in hunger strikes must be monitored and screened for mental health issues.  Unofficial word has it that Billy requested help in the days before his death.  I write to other prisoners in solitary confinement who seem to be dealing with mental health issues — paranoia, delusion, and absolute loneliness.

I think it is ironic, however, to consider absolute loneliness a mental health issue when one is required to live in solitary confinement. The absolute loneliness that one experiences in a situation of solitary confinement can only be considered a normal state of being, resulting from an abnormal requirement. If, however, absolute loneliness is not a mental health issue, but a normal state of being, then it could be concluded that the prison would not be required to respond to it as a problem. Ironic.

The prison system is on a mission of destruction.

I recently read of a woman who, when she was a passenger on a plane she thought was going to crash, turned to her unknown neighbor and asked, “Can I take your hand?  I want to feel the touch of another person when the plane crashes.”

Prison is a crashing plane and all that remains is an extending hand.

 Billy’s drawing of his solitary cell

Horses in a prison gym

 Drawing 60″x 48″ , prison gym


It was Bataille…….the horse who lived below for ten years in the black galleries [of the coal mine] without ever seeing daylight.” Emile Zola, from Germinal

Walking into the prison gym, I was struck by its north light. Some artists strive for this light, building their studios with windows facing north.   Because windows facing north never receive a direct hit from the sun, the light is soft. In this softness, things are evenly illuminated making it possible to see clearly – an egalitarian light.  By contrast, southern light is not gentle.  Being ruthless, it exposes some things in stark brightness while concealing other things in darkness.   Sight can be oppressed by this slant of light.

Moving further into the gym, I am absorbed by its size.  At 84’x50’x30,’ it’s typical for a gym, but not for the rest of the prison where cells are sized to restrain inhabitants.  Instead, this room is for expanding. Feeling the expansiveness with a gentle illumination,  I impulsively asked Eric, the prison program director entering the gym with me, if I could exhibit my art in the gym; adding, “I’d love to show my paintings here – better than the Guggenheim!”  It was not an odd question for me to ask Eric.

I met Eric after writing random letters to wardens throughout the United States asking to exhibit my artwork in their prison. My letter might have been seen as a good will gesture in exhibiting my art to prisoners, but I knew better. The artist is always dependent upon an audience in completing the creative process and often feels indebted to anyone who takes the time to look.   I appealed to wardens because after exhibiting in galleries for 20 years with its redundant conversations, I wanted a new audience not shaped by money and power.   It seemed likely that this new audience would be in prison.

The warden from the Florida State Penitentiary was first in responding to my letter.  He wrote a chilling letter suggesting not only would the prisoners not see my art but also “these inmates who committed heinous crimes rarely get out of their cell.” In reading the warden’s letter I imagined prisoners never seeing the sky, making me think of the horse, Bataille, in Zola’s novel Germinal. Once the horse was lowered into the mine, he never again saw light of day.  I assumed thinking of Bataille was my over-vivid imagination to the warden’s letter; although, I couldn’t really imagine a prison preventing anyone from seeing the sky.  Years later when I got familiar with solitary confinement prisoners, I learned my initial imagination was not wrong.   Robert Deninno, Leon Martinez, Marty Rivers, and others have lived in solitary confinement not seeing the sky for ten years.  Writing from their cells with no external view, they’ve asked, “Treacy, will you look at the sky for me?”

When I first received Eric’s call from a mid-United States high security prison for men, his enthusiasm to my random letter struck a significant contrast to the Florida warden. Eric invited me to visit the prisoners a couple of times.  A visit without programmatic structure and intent is very rare for outsiders to prison, but for a couple of visits I would spend the day hanging out with the men talking about art and exploring what they wanted from me if I were to teach them art.  Eventually I set up a regular schedule to teach drawing and painting.  I also brought artwork for the arts and crafts room and my numerous sketchbooks revealing the process leading up to completed works.

Someone wrote that the sketchbook is an access to the artist’s inner vision.  If the prison guards knew this my sketchbooks would have been banned as contraband along with any other personal information.   As a volunteer I am forbidden to share anything personal with prisoners.  There was nothing seemingly personal about the sketchbooks when the guards examined them for entry into the prison; just drawings of sculpture, landscapes, zoo animals, museum paintings. But prisoners can be experts at seeing beyond the obvious and to their eyes, my sketchbooks had the potential to impart another less obvious dimension of me.

DC, one of the student-prisoners, flips through the sketchbooks. Although he is polite telling me all the drawings are good, I know that is not so.   The struggles are evident because I describe on pages what are my problems; the horse’s head is too short; the distant between the eyes is abnormal; there is no form beneath the jaw of the zebra.   Sometimes in frustration, I write silly comments upon the page. DC reads the comments extending from the figures: a sheep stating its grief over another sacrifice, a Roman sculpture not liking his hair-do, or a Holy man at a desert tent door advertising there’s air conditioning inside.

 (pages from sketchbook)

The prisoners discover songs I like.  Listening to music while drawing, I write lyrics on the sketchbook pages.    DC is the self-designated reader for the class and from an Abigail Washburn’s song, he reads, “I did what I had to do and just a little more,”   The  prisoners snicker in what seems to be recognition. Ignoring it’s a line from a song, they hear the words literally and look to me with wonder as to what I did beyond the necessity.  Sometimes, I just write random things or questions that come to mind while drawing. In this way, the sketchbooks are not a vision of my inner being – that’s too profound an assessment.  The sketchbooks are more personally mundane and intimate – like a diary stuffed beneath a mattress.

 (pages from sketchbook)

Again, it’s DC who first questions the armored horses in the sketchbooks; a series I did at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, the Stibbert Museum in Florence, and the Philadelphia Art Museum. The horses are different from the rest of the sketches and DC asks, “Why the armored horses?”  I’m not sure why, then suggest it is because of teaching in prison.  Thinking out loud, I ask, “What is an armored horse but steel and defensiveness with something alive beneath and what is prison but steel, concrete and defensiveness with….” DC ends my question with, “something living and trying to survive beneath the weight?”

Later when Eric and I are in the gym, he is enthused by the idea of hanging the paintings in the gym.  I imagine prisoners playing basketball surrounded by paintings of armored horses. Would they add to the game, distract, or not make any impression at all?  Would they see them as a metaphor like DC?   Or, will the paintings be like graffiti markings existing just for existence; a statement of I am.

The prison guards got angry when the horse paintings were hung in the gym. It’s how most guards react to art in prison.  In a New England prison where I have 50 large paintings hanging throughout the prison – cellblocks, chow halls and public rooms – a guard asked me, “Isn’t this artwork horrible?” I was about to explain to him that I was the artist, but realized he knew.   Instead I answered, “Yes, terrible. I can’t think why anyone would want to mess up a perfectly good prison.”

In the mid-US prison, the guards tell Eric to hang the paintings by the gym’s ceiling, but he resists saying, “No one will see them 25 feet up in the air.”  The guards then appealed to the warden complaining that “inmates will get hurt running into the paintings.”  The warden asked rhetorically, “When did you start worrying about whether inmates got hurt?”  Finally, the guards insist that the inmates will destroy the paintings.  Again the warden holds tight responding, “If the inmates aren’t given an opportunity to prove their trust, then trust can never be developed.”   But it wasn’t trust of which the guards were disgusted.   They were annoyed by a contraband of the personal, smuggled in disguised as art, and hung with a full-court offense.

Perhaps it’s not strange that DC picked up on the armored horse analogy being the only prisoner I’ve met with so little psychological armor to survive prison.  That he was such a sensitive person was juxtaposed to his large size and street background.  As a nervous man, DC cried often.  His crying didn’t seem a manipulation as some, but genuine with grief and fear.   Even I made DC cry.  This was in response to homework I gave the class asking them to draw their cell.  When DC didn’t have the homework, he pleaded, “Please don’t make me draw my cell, please don’t make me sit in my cell, I can’t bear being in my cell.  It’s so painful being trapped there.”   DC started to cry and I believed him.

Eventually DC changed; he appeared less sensitive.  I’m not sure why; maybe the transfer of Eric and the warden – two strong advocates for the emotional needs of the prisoners – to another prison created a hole in his support system forcing him to a point where the pain became too great even for crying.   He stopped participating in the class showing no interest in learning anything new in art.   Instead, he assumed the role of authority taking charge of the art room; a role he wasn’t particularly good at.  He didn’t manage like the previous prisoner, Jimmy, who took charge of the art room maintenance with a graciousness that no one thought of him as being in charge; expert at becoming invisible in the job.    Instead, DC made it known that he was in charge.  He got on everyone’s nerve.

No one can prevent what happens in prison even when it’s clearly coming.  I think of Stevie Smith’s poem speaking for the dead man; lines written in my sketchbook, “I was further out than you thought and not waving but drowning.” I wonder if I had a clearer sight from my small part as a volunteer art teacher, what would I have done differently?  I might not have talked so casually direct at DC; I might have understood speaking as light and taken the northern gentle way instead of the ruthless one.   But sometimes I forget.

 (page from sketchbook)

As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wanted to rip them back from the listeners.  It was during class when DC was being particularly bossy that I automatically asked him, “Who made you drill sergeant?”  I was immediately mortified by my question and kept muttering in front of the prisoners, “That was so wrong,  oh so wrong.”

Wrong doesn’t describe the comment.  In seeing the signs but ignoring the context, my comment was more naïve than wrong; like assuming a hand waving back and forth above deep water is a hello.  In prison, where DC’s behavior was not tolerated, my casual remark undermined the potential ramification of DC’s actions.  The juxtaposition of my comment –  what might have been a simple flip remark anywhere else –  against prison, shocked me into seeing how the prisoners saw DC.  I could see they knew he was utterly doomed and beyond anyone’s protection.

I never saw DC again.   In the interim of classes, he was badly beaten and spent the remaining time in the prison infirmary before being transferred to another prison.   Stevie Smith’s dead man laments the confusion of communication while Hegel suggests that it is exactly this confusion by which language contains silence better than silence itself.   But if confusion or silence exists in everyday communication between individuals outside prison, communication in prison is nonexistent.  Instead, it is replaced by action and reaction.

But prison doesn’t just change communication into reaction, it digs a deeper destruction. Prison’s primary goal is not destroying communication but in dismantling the communicator; denying a sense of self.  And without a self, there is no communication – just the reformulation of things heard and seen in a closed system of limited and controlled information.  Protecting this closed system, the “I” becomes the ultimate contraband – the person within the personal.  Prison kills the self better than death because even the dead man speaks with a recognized “I.”   

In the convoluted logic of prison,  prisoners can only survive a system built for the sole purpose of destroying them by becoming experts in their own destruction; turning the gun upon their own being as a self.   DC can only survive by destroying himself.  (It has nothing to do with influential criminal behavior of other prisoners that makes prisoners more insensitive in prison.) When prison is successful in barring this contraband of self, what remains of a person?

Like all good prisoners, Bataille the horse, became an expert of living within the coal mine that ultimately destroyed him.   He knew how to maneuver the mine tunnels; learning when to lift his head, when to lower it, and most importantly, Bataille learned to forget his previous existence.  But at the end of his life, Bataille held a melancholy look as if he remembered a field or the sky, eliciting a faint but sad memory that once he was a horse.

 (pages from sketchbook)






Art of social responsibility

Do what you will with me.  Jerome Washington, ink drawing, prisoner at Graterford Prison.

Artist as advocate

Sometimes, titles are proclamations. The 1984 exhibition entitled, Disdain for False Authorities, presenting Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) graduates Bo Bartlett, Vincent Desiderio, Richard Ranck, Tom Sarrantonio, and Robert Simon, is one. The title suggests an enigmatic manifesto declaring not only contempt for falsehood but by making falsehood a possibility in authority, holds any and all authority accountable to a standard of truth. Through an even subtler move, the proclamation creates a power shift transferring authority back to those governed – often powerless – motivating them off their knees to an independent civil right for both judging and choosing authority.

The exhibition, affecting both aesthetic and social ramifications upon the Philadelphia community, had particular resonance for me. At the time, I was in transition from social work to art with the most recent job in protective services working with Philadelphia families whose children had been physically, psychologically or sexually abused. It was an extreme job involving children both murdered and raped, demanding that I assess the situation, and then work intensely with the family should the child remain in the house. With some families, the assessments were obvious. A mother, whose five children drowned as babies in five earlier but separate, mysterious bathing episodes and then demonstrated to me how she disciplines her latest baby by yanking his blond hair until he cries, will in all likelihood, have another drowned baby. At other times, the situation wasn’t so clear. In my last family court hearing, I wasn’t sure about the safety of the child, and began my assessment hesitantly with, “Well…” Instead of allowing me to continue, the judge cut me off stating, “Good, then I will dismiss the case.” His returning glare told me he knew this was not my conclusion but more shockingly, it told me he was more concerned with how I spoke in his courtroom than the safety of a child. Authority reveals its falsehood through the injustice it imposes. I enrolled as a full time art student at PAFA and left social work behind me.

As most people in the PAFA community know, the five artists in the Disdain exhibition continued working as artists with certain independence. Recognizing the fortune of this, Bo Bartlett helped facilitate the development of the Bo Bartlett Center, a learning and exhibition center at the Columbus State University in his hometown of Columbus, Georgia. Outreach is a strong component of this center with six planned art programs involving the homeless, school age children, prisons, a pscyh program for art therapy, art for veterans with post stress trauma, and a program for the disabled.

More recently, Bo made another proclamation.  This time, so subtle it could go unnoticed. In an interview with James McElhinney for the American Arts Quarterly, Bo states, “I can be in my studio all day, but in the morning for a couple of hours I can go work with the homeless, or with kids, or prisoners, or the disabled in the psych programs.” A seemingly simple statement and yet, is not. At a time when artists are challenged to stop making art in the tradition of studio art and are often encouraged to create “social practice art” in using causes, communities, institutions and people as elements of a participatory art, Bo’s statement is a re-affirmation that artists live civic mindly in and out of the studio. In fact, his statement suggests a powerful structure for social activism in art by developing parallel but inter-supporting voices; thus, avoiding the potential problems arising from social practice arts.

Social practice art has become increasingly popular with many MFA programs and art grants. It was also a strong element in a meeting I recently attended for developing prison art programs within a college in-prison curriculum. I was asked to join because the director heard a talk I gave at Vanderbilt University on prison art education. Although my talk impressed him – developing an authority of seeing through the practice of drawing from life – any PAFA alum in the audience would have been less impressed hearing it as common experience. In the curriculum meeting, I re-iterated the impact of seeing with authority developed from drawing from life, but was interrupted by a recent MFA graduate who suggested Duchamp would disagree and then continued to talk about the prison in typical graduate school jargon; not speaking of the prison as a place where individuals lived and existed, but addressing it as the “space;” adding words as “discourse,” “criticality,” “juxtaposed,” “liminal,” and so on. I was somewhat surprised having been asked to the meeting because the previous teachers who taught the prisoners were also recent MFA graduates of conceptual art. These previous teachers apparently insulted the prisoners with similar art-speak ignoring the prisoners’ wish to learn how to draw. I didn’t continue with the project and am not aware of the outcome. Prisoners on prison turf can be a hardy group, used to dealing with false authority and if necessary, can protect themselves from jargon-slinging artists intent on conceptually capturing them into a social practice art project. It is when hope of freedom or a better life is drawn into the conversation that prisoners are reduced to defenselessness.

The artist Gregory Sale did create a social art exhibition involving prisoners. “It’s more than black and white” was a three-month residency exhibition and installation at the Arizona State University Art Museum for the purpose of exploring “process-oriented context by literally bringing the studio into the museum.” The context explored was incarceration and the local notorious Tent City Prison headed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Prisoners in handcuffs were transferred from the prison to the museum so they could paint black and white stripes on the museum walls as a way of including them into the dialogue. The museum served as a venue for visual exhibitions, multimedia performances and lectures. Prisoner art was not included into the discourse, but prisoners and the public were invited to write or draw upon the now painted striped museum walls. The public was taken on tours to the prison. This project was later part of a PAFA exhibition, entitled “here,” where Gregory Sale gave a lecture on his art exhibition.

I can’t help but wonder what issues arise from social practice defined as art.

As Duchamp demonstrated, art is a funny thing. An ordinary object can be re-located and redefined as “art” by an artist and through that redefinition, gain a different, higher value. So does it follow when a public forum of discussions, lectures and multi-media presentations – what in ordinary circumstances is referred to as a “conference” – is labeled as art and presented as such in a museum, that the status of the conference increases?  Does it suggest a cloak of mystique that only an artist could create this conference, thus developing a strange exclusivity?

But art ensures its position by taking one step further than increased status. We all know that art is not expected to follow rules. It can’t. Art would be reduced to a formula, cancelling out the elements of creativity – elements bringing forth a degree of something new.   And because it doesn’t follow external rules, art becomes an interesting state of creative sovereignty; self-governing, self-regulating and self-expressing. In this sovereign state, art is free to exist without accountability to anyone or anything. Of course, this is exciting. For artists creating art out of non-breathing, non-living objects, it isn’t an issue. However, for social practice artists whose work insists on involving humans and living creatures in social activism, questions of accountability arise.

Every public advocate has a code of responsibility clearly identifying who/what he or she is responsible. In the case of lawyers, social workers, nurses, doctors, teachers, their ultimate responsibility is to their client, patient, or student; taking an oath clarifying that responsibility and what happens if the oath is violated. When artists assume the advocate role of social change as an element of their art, to whom/what are they ultimately responsible: the general public; the art; the prisoners who, presumably, hope to see their lives altered by this exhibition; the reforms to a harsh prison (six years after the exhibition, Tent City Prison remains one of the worst prisons in US with Sheriff Arpaio running it as he always has); the museum; or the conceptualization defining the exhibition which may be more important than all the participants? How are rules of responsibility decided upon, enforced, and then reconciled with artistic freedom of expression?

In addition, what structure is there for protecting vulnerable groups from artists who may exploit these groups as a means to artistic success and money; particularly in lieu of the increasing museums exhibitions and grant money for social practice arts. Is the conceptualized theory taught in MFA programs adequate in giving artists in-the-field people skills to understand and navigate the very real interpersonal and systemic dynamics of social responsibility?

If the artist truly believes in social change why diffuse that goal with the label of art, exhibiting it in a museum, complicating it with a conflict of interest?

Hiding in plain sight – the artist’s strengths as an advocate

Most of the Philadelphia art community knows PAFA graduate, James Brantley, has been painting for many years. What may be less known is that he also spent years teaching at the Youth Study Center, a center for juvenile offenders, which he refers to in his bio as public service. This division between teaching and art suggests integrity in James’ understanding of responsibility; students are the primary responsibility while teaching, art is when painting. With this integrity, I can’t imagine James ever making a social practice exhibition out of his students by which they are transported to a museum in handcuffs. Instead, each aspect of his life affects the other; painting affects teaching and vice versa – falling mysteriously as a whole into visual metaphor of an entire living, thus allowing James’ paintings to resonate with compassion and empathy.

The word Bo uses for the Bo Bartlett Center’s various teaching programs is outreach. Reach is a strong word suggesting desire, touch, extending beyond the self to an indeterminable point that will be known through mutual understanding with another, a body of water with a surface not accepting the authority of a permanent mark – always moving and fluid.  Bo seems to suggest this fluidity when he states in the interview for American Arts Quarterly that teaching a homeless person suddenly activates a participation in a different community that may have been previously unseen; social responsibility setting off chain reactions in many directions.

Teaching, and particularly teaching art which is more show-me than theory, has the potential for being less laden with value. It offers an experience of one person sharing skills and expertise with another person; sharing being the operational word rather than stating a specific right or wrong way. Less value-laden because teaching art does not imply a problem to be changed. This is the burden of social change activism. With its constant need to identify problems, social activism creates a power hierarchy between those changing the problems and those having the problem; between those who know best and those who do not, and so on. By not taking problem-identification as its point of origin, teaching art can avoid that power structure and become egalitarian. This is particularly so when it is understood that once the skills are acquired, the person can do whatever they want with those skills – like teaching a person to ride a bike with the knowledge that the rider can, ultimately, ride that bike anywhere.

Teaching art is not without its own peculiar values, thinking of Arthur DeCosta’s admonishment in life painting class, “Treacy Anne, you have just committed the greatest sin in the entire world.” Coming just from social work, I hear this as a heavy indictment and am relieved to hear that my greatest offense is modeling the nude in violet. When I repeat this story to prisoners in painting class, I imagine them getting comfort from the knowledge that someone else committed an offense far worse than they ever did. And in fact they do, because they experience acutely how contextual values define crime or sin. Likewise, Mr. DeCosta knows that if, with the skills he has given, I end up in the neighborhood of the Expressionists, so be it.

What I learned at PAFA is the phenomenology of seeing – the first person description of the basic structure of a given. Translated, this means in Jan Baltzel‘s still life class, I discover the basic structures of seeing are not the flower, vase, or cup; these are the given.  Instead, the basic structures are light and shadow, near and far, textured and smooth; the various visual phenomena turning the world into fluid relationships. Likewise, in Bruce Samuelson’s class I discovered the changing phenomenal relationships when the given is a live model, thus providing the means to make seeing a more nonjudgmental experience.

The biggest discovery of art school, however, was the realization that until then, I was seeing the world through a conceptual filter of rules defining objects of the world. Accepting these rules made it unnecessary to actually look at the world if, in fact, I ever even notice I wasn’t looking at the world. Consequently, art school became reclaiming independent visual authority.

Strange things happened when I teach prisoners to draw from life using skills learned at PAFA. At first, the guards are concerned with the individualistic style of teaching art; instead, wanting a one-size-fits-all approach. They wonder why the prisoners can’t draw from photographs instead of the still life materials I bring. Then, the guards are concerned with prisoners drawing from life, seeing this drawing as tantamount to developing an escape plan. It was when the guards threw away all my students’ drawings (destroying drawings from life; not drawings of the smiling big-bosom women prisoners copied from Playboy magazines) that I understood how totally subversive is PAFA’s curriculum – the very anti-authoritarianism of asking people to see the world on their own.

 Prison yard light poles marking time,  James Bennett, prisoner at Five Points Prison

But an artist doesn’t stop at independent seeing. This independence becomes the basis of crafting visual metaphor, the strength of which is suggested by the 20th century philosopher, Georg Gadamer, who states, “A stunted tree in itself does not convey misery, but a drawing of that tree can.” The power of an artist is precisely this visual metaphor rooted in studio practice (be it room, field or street), crafted through tools learned from a school like PAFA that, ultimately, leaves the rhetoric of theory to others. Joseph Campbell tells a story of an inter-religious conference of both Western and Eastern religions. A Western theologian asks a Buddhist monk, “What is the theology of Buddhism?” What is the theory behind it? The Buddhist monk thinks for a couple of seconds and then answers, “We don’t have a theology. We dance.”

Art has been asked to defend itself for almost 2400 years; ever since Socrates degraded the artists as copyists.   More recently, traditional arts of painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, and the making of visual things have been challenged as superfluous.   Perhaps artists, feeling the need to demonstrate social concerns, have appropriated social work, social science, and social philosophy to justify their existence. But art has always been strong in encompassing the elements of living – pain, happiness, sorrow, misery, joy, injustice; embracing life through the mysterious dimension of visual metaphor and creating a place where the soul can make sense of, but cannot be destroyed by those elements. What false authority dares to say there is no social responsibility in that?


For additional thoughts on art and social activism posted in the Broad Street Review, see Making art out of other people’s problems



Through the library door

 Two-way door; painting donated to the mental health unit of a men’s prison, oil on panel, 48″ diameter

The prison library in which I teach art has historical significance, but it is a legacy I am forbidden to speak about to my prison students.

There are many forces here beyond silence keeping prisoners within the mental boundaries of incarceration.


The time it takes to walk from the administrative building to the prison school library is approximately 4 minutes. On a clear warm day, it is a pleasant walk; on a cold winter day, it can be harsh. The school sits at the south end of the prison’s large grass rectangle with the administration building facing opposite at the north end. A perimeter concrete walk encircles the grass quad leading to the school from either side.

Large grey stone buildings of the same 1920 circa as the school line the longer east and west sides of the quadrangle. These buildings house the 23 blocks where 1500 male prisoners live.  In front of the school on the grass sits a large rusted steel wheel.  It looks like a 1960’s sculpture installation.  On my initial tour, I asked the superintendent – facetiously – if this had housed the bell calling prisoners to dinner, but I don’t remember his answer.  The scene could easily be mistaken for a liberal arts college campus except for the maximum-security stonewall extending five thousand feet long and reaching nineteen feet high, topped with barbed wire enclosing the entire area of thirty-five acres.

Today the weather is warm with a brilliant sky.  I walk through the pedestrian trap; the guards’ name for a passageway in the outer building.  Here, pedestrians pass through a metal detector and then through a mechanically operated door leading to a small stoned wall room at the bottom of the guard tower.  In this windowless room, about the size of a large elevator, pedestrians and personnel wait for the next door to mechanically open.  Standing in this room with invisible guards standing watch at the top, it feels like the interior bottom of a lighthouse and I imagine a surrounding sea.  Of course, the sea is a good 30 miles east.  When the large metal door does swing open, I see a small area where flowers have been planted. The gardener is a prison lifer who for years has been planting beauty for the prison.  Passing the flowers, I walk to the concrete stairs leading to the administration building.  I will wait there for my escort who takes me the final section to the library.

Although I have had the opportunity to walk freely without an escort, I prefer an escort.  I’m not concerned about walking alone among the prisoners.  Once we reach the library, I will spend the entire day with the prisoners without a guard or help, should there be a problem. Rather, I want an escort because I don’t want to assume the power status that walking independently through the prison seems to grant.  I have no authority in prison and I don’t want to align myself with false authority.  As stated between the lines in the prison volunteer handbook, I left my civil rights at the pedestrian trap.  I left all personal belongings in a locker before the trap.   Why pretend otherwise?

On this day, my escort is Ashley, secretary to the Director of Treatment.  She is young and from the way she flirts with the male guards, appears to be self-consciously insecure.  When we leave the administration building, there are prisoners at the open, but barred, windows of the SHU.  This supervisory housing unit is reserved for prisoners who have been deemed particularly violent or who have committed in-prison offenses.  The prisoners are calling out to Ashley. I think they are saying something about her weight.  I’m surprised by this; not by the prisoners’ shouts but because the SHU is so close to the prison’s general population.  In other prisons, the SHU is in a distant corner, far from potential interpersonal dynamics – if these catcalls of weight slurs can be considered as such.

We are pushing a cart loaded with boxes of materials I bring for the art class. As we make our way to the school, the prisoners are walking the perimeter of the quad and several offer to help.  I wait for the obligatory response from Ashley who has authority.  No, apparently we can handle this ourselves. Quickly dismissing the prisoners, Ashley turns back to the guard who for some reason does not offer to help.  I make small talk with the prisoners who accompany us; many are in my class. When we get to the front steps of the school and can’t manage the cart up them, there is no alternative but in asking the prisoners, Big Mike and Daniel, to lift the entire cart up the steps.

On entering the school’s main entrance, the guards’ station is to the right.  The guards’ door holds a large cork board with pegs on which prisoners hang prison ID cards indicating their presence in the building. To the left of the door is a wall of wired-glass cabinets displaying items the prisoners can buy from the commissary store.  Displayed on top of boxes are running shoes.   I am not sure what brand.   When I ask the class, they answer, “The most expensive shoe; the kind of shoe where we are exploited and the commissary makes a lot of money.”   The prisoners would probably continue to list ways in which the commissary makes money off them.  I do not doubt the prisoners’ complaints.  I have seen the commissary pencils; cheaply made, but expensive.

Directly ahead of the main entrance is the law library.   The walls of this library are brick. The dark color of the bricks absorbs light coming through the large cathedral-like windows and so the library appears dark. There are two large paintings on the wall created by a prisoner from long ago.  I like the paintings, although I can’t remember their specific subject.  It is my feeling the paintings were created in oils; another surprise, since oil paints are now banned and even the acrylic paints we use in class are permitted only with special approval.

The general library is located down the hall from the law library.  On entering it, I am struck with the multiplicity of textures within the room. It’s very different than most prison group rooms that are empty and monochromatic with platitudinous posters offering cliche advice on good living.  Instead, the library has a sense of age created by traditional wooden shelves on which the books are presented, giving warmth to the room.  Several large plants are arranged around the room.

The library is about 40 feet by 30 feet. An adjoining back room is behind a glass wall.   This wall appears as a vintage glass partition I might see in an old newspaper office.  There are about five large windows in the main room. Looking out of these windows, I see other prison buildings, the yard, and the sky.

The library has a bronze bust of the prison’s first superintendent, Parkhurst, placed in the corner of the room.  It is an accomplished portrait and the sculptor was a relatively well-known artist around 1920.  I can’t remember the artist’s name and never revealed to anyone at the prison that the sculpture might be valuable. Later I will use this bronze as a model for the students to draw the portrait – the first time I am able to have the students draw from a three-dimensional human head. It is forbidden to use prisoners as models and what most prisoners learn about drawing human form is through photographs.

Sitting in the library waiting for the rest of the prisoners to arrive, I feel its history.  This feeling is later concurred when I remember that Malcolm X, a prisoner here in the late 1940’s, wrote of the library in his autobiography:

“The library was in the school building. A variety of classes were taught there by instructors who came from such places as Harvard and Boston universities. ……. Available on the prison library’s shelves were books on just about every general subject. Much of the big private collection that Parkhurst had willed to the prison was still in crates and boxes in the back of the library — thousands of old books. Some of them looked ancient: covers faded, old-time parchment-looking binding. Parkhurst, I’ve mentioned, seemed to have been principally interested in history and religion. He had the money and the special interest to have a lot of books that you wouldn’t have in general circulation. Any college library would have been lucky to get that collection.” (Autobiography of Malcolm X)

I can’t help but feel a sense of awe teaching art to prisoners in this room. Although Malcolm X writes that he read more in his cell than in this library, I imagine the books upon these wooden shelves that shaped his thinking. What else caught his attention?  The sky through the large windows? The bust of Parkhurst who envisioned this prison not as a place of power through punishment but one of rehabilitation through education and respect?  And yet, how ironic I cannot speak to my students of Malcolm; I cannot mention his name, his books, and, certainly, not his ideas.  I would be thrown out as a volunteer.

It is well concluded that Malcolm X underwent both a spiritual and intellectual transformation during his six years of incarceration. But incarceration has changed since Malcolm lived here. The library appears to be the same, and yet, it is substantially different. The current topics on the shelves have been dumbed down with paperback books of romance and action novels; very different than Parkhurst’s books that Malcolm read.  Books on race are kept in a locked case, suggesting any discourse on oppression as dangerous.  There are no books by Malcolm X – probably one of prison’s most famous writers. The library has mass-market self-help books, making me think it is okay for prisoners to explore their own psychological inadequacies but assessing society’s inadequacies is not.

Except for mea culpa conversions, current prisons are not about transformation. Prison is maintaining power.  This is accomplished through two roles permitted for non-prisoners: The non-prisoner can be part of the group that disciplines and punishes – usually the security staff and perhaps adjunct staff.   Or the non-prisoner can be part of the group that helps – usually the volunteers. But regardless, helper or punisher, the prisoner can never be equal or treated as such.

This power is further maintained through two major interpersonal dynamics required in all responses of non-prisoners to prisoners. The first dynamics is that all prisoner behavior must be defined as aberrant. As written on every page of my handbook and repeated through the actions of staff and guards, prisoners’ actions are not only to be understood potentially abnormal, behavior must always be suspect as leading to even more dangerous behavior.

The second interpersonal dynamics is not allowing any relational reciprocity between prisoners and non-prisoners. While I can help prisoners through teaching, prisoners cannot help me. However, a prisoner can be treated as a servant, thinking of the time I dropped a can of soda and in cleaning it up, a staff said, “Don’t clean it up, get an inmate.”

But it is not only power of one over another, it is power to insure that prisoners do not identity as human. Crucial to the development of a worthy sense of self are the feeling of being accepted and the capacity to help another person.

In class, Samuel asks a funny question; perhaps, a strange question.  As the youngest in the class, Samuel is about 18 years of age and of mixed racial background.  Like the other prisoners, he seemed interested in the various artists I show the class. They know some of these artists: Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dali. Other artists, such as Sidney Nolan, Louisa Matthiasdottir, William Kentridge, they do not know.  While I show them colorful paintings of Icelandic landscapes by Matthiasdottir, Samuel suddenly asks, “Are you going to show us any S and M pictures?” Surprised, I answered intuitively, albeit with flat tones and rolling my eyes as if his question was just one more stupid teenage question, “No I am not.”

Later, however, I wonder if my response was correct.  I have no idea why Samuel is in prison; no idea if his crime involves violence and torture.  If so, then his question becomes a problem and I would need to report any more similar questions he might ask.  As it turns out, Samuel never does.  In fact, he becomes one of the best students in the class; eager to learn, working with enthusiasm, and participating in critiques during class.  I conclude Samuel’s question was what I intuitively felt – a teenager challenging the limits.  But intuition is forbidden in prison and the between-the-lines requirement in my handbook demands that I understand all prisoner behavior as dangerous.

While teaching in the library, I feel a migraine coming on.  Because I left all my belongings in the locker, I don’t have ibuprofen to lessen the inevitable pain.  In other prisons, I can rely on a guard to have some.  In this prison, no one is permitted anything medicinal without pre-approval.   When I can’t get anything from the prison nurse, my options are either persevere with the headache or leave for the day.  I don’t want to leave because I traveled a distance to get here. Opting to stay, I need to decide whether to tell the prisoners I have a headache.  Not telling them makes it more difficult to teach. However, in telling them, I make myself vulnerable; putting myself somewhat at their mercy. But I realize trust is a basic two-way element in teaching and without it, teaching is a sham.

After telling the class I’m disabled by a headache and settling in a chair with my head braced against the wall, I say, “Think of me as the queen where you have to bring your drawings immediately in front of my face so I don’t have to turn left or right.” The prisoners think this is funny, but they comply displaying their drawings immediately in front of my eyes. It is kind of funny, when suddenly I see out of the corner of my eye two ibuprofen pills set on the table next to me.  I can’t see who put them there, but I feel a rush of relief and almost move my arm.   Immediately I catch myself – thinking, “What is taking medicine from a prisoner – a felony?”

This presents a dilemma.   If found out, the prisoner would be seriously punished and, of course, I would get in trouble allowing the situation.  On the other hand, I don’t want to rebuke an act of kindness.  So I say to the group, “Thank you for your help, but promise me something…..Promise, no matter what happens to me, whether I collapse of a heart attack, have a seizure, whatever…. Promise me you will not save me.  Because saving me will get you thrown in the SHU…. So promise me.” They looked confused, but answered as a group, in dutiful mocking, “We promise, we will not save you.”

All prisons understand such acts of compassion and kindness as beginnings to what they refer to as the “setup” – the way a prisoner gets volunteers to do things for them.  In another prison, Douglas was pulled out of my class and beaten by four guards in the hallway. Shocked, I asked the head teacher why they beat Douglas up. The teacher told me the guards found a letter Douglas wrote to me. Horrified, thinking Douglas must have written something terribly vile to elicit such a reaction, I asked the teacher what did the letter say?  He answered, “It said, thank you.”

Prison, of course, has many such perplexing and confusing stories; institutional force of one person over another is frightening.  But it is naïve to think that guards or the prisons themselves are the perpetuators – the bad ones.  Prison not only mirrors our society, prison is the reasonable conclusion of that society.  Our society is based upon controlling specific groups, thus making society totally dependent upon prison and its annihilating power. And the strange thing is society seems even more dependent upon control now – more so than when Malcolm X was incarcerated, the library offered substantive books, and civil rights could be thought about in prison.









Morandi in prison

“….tear the memory from my eyes” – Tom Waits

In prison, where time can be ignored, the prisoner Joe says he no longer looks at a clock, “I don’t think about time. What difference can it make to me when I’m serving life without parole? Every day, every minute is the same.”  His statement, without anger or regret, reflects the uselessness of measuring temporal change in prison and makes me wonder if still life drawing is a genre for which my students have expert affinity.

As visual groupings of objects, some still lifes present as visual pleasure while others are arrangements of symbolic objects for which the viewer is challenged in decoding their meanings. Think of the religious still life with the skull and fly; or a Dutch still life of opulent middle class life. But in art school I learned that beneath these arrangements, a still life screams of a problem more basic than decoding meaning or giving aesthetic pleasure.

While nothing is profound in the realization that living is constant change, it wasn’t until art school, when asked to draw from life, I was confronted with relentless change at every level.  Despite Joe’s assessment of sameness; nothing is the same in any day or minute: Landscape painting is complicated by our moving relationship to the sun, changing light and shadow patterns that, in turn, alter the shape of things upon that landscape. A stationary nude model is never stationary. Skin and muscle are constantly challenged by gravity, shifting not only the pose, but also making the person look different. Drawing from life makes very explicit the world’s ontological restlessness, compounded by the difficulty in reconciling that movement upon a nonmoving paper or canvas. But art school, sensitive to this difficulty, dedicated an entire room known as the still life room, thus, providing an antithesis – albeit abstract and incomplete – to this metaphysical squirming.

In the still life room, movement is slowed for students learning to draw or paint; artificial light provides constant light and shadow masses; plastic flowers interrupt the cycle of living and dying. But even within the seemingly stasis of the still life room, movement is not stopped. Fellow art student, Leslie, painted so fast and with acrylics so thick that at the end of each class, her paintings, pulled by gravity, repeatedly slipped off the canvas into a pile of sludge upon the floor, arranging into a newly formed still life.

The still life room had several different stations of arranged objects but none were arranged with the concern of decoding meaning. Content and meaning were abandoned for learning composition, replacing meaning with form, and creating diagonals against verticals against horizontals with tonal or color variations.

But can I ask the prisoners to draw without content and meaning? Will they be pulled into a world of abstract diagonal, horizontal and vertical forms without reference to objects providing stories? Most people cannot. Instead, insisting that meaning is the door to any experience, many museum visitors demand, “What does the painting mean?”  I compromise and bring objects for the prisoners to draw. By doing so, I also bring the inevitable meaning that surrounds those objects like an opaque dirt cloud.

I bring a small toy farm, a provincial farm from France; a strange farm to bring into the prison.  I hold to the idea that form is currently more important than content. To me, the fact that it is a farm is unimportant.  I wanted something with planes extending into space; a primitive dwelling consisting of interior and exterior dimensions.   I borrowed this farm from my friend’s young kids 20 years ago. At that time, I wanted to simulate a place in my studio where I could draw space without light changes – like the still life room.  It is not a typical toy farm; it is made with white stucco walls while the rest of the farm is made of wood.   The farm consists of two adjacent buildings with slanted roofs.  It is simple, it reflects light and it is directional extending through space in several directions.

I never gave the farm back to the young kids and now they are too old; no longer wanting to explore this simulated space.    The prisoner Nathan is interested in such space and built a tenement construction.  I initially thought Nathan’s building would be excellent for the class to draw. What I liked about it was the dichotomy between exterior and interior compartments; playing with undisclosed meaning of space with the arbitrariness of boundaries.   When I told Nathan how much I liked the construction, he worked harder on it. Unfortunately, in doing so, he made the arbitrariness less vague with little details and signs; giving too much meaning. With meaning overly defined, the building became flat. We went back to drawing the provincial farm that remained basic; no living people, no animals, no details; but haunted by living and therefore, straddling between meaning and no meaning.

Another thing I bring into class is a vintage puppet from the 1940’s. It is a clown.   Something about this clown makes me think of Twilight Zone or Chucky from the horror movie. Another prisoner, also named Joe, suggests the clown puppet is Pennywise from Stephen King’s novel.  I don’t tell the students this strange puppet is the only thing my mother gave me. This statement isn’t true; an exaggeration.  I do remember it as the only thing my mother ever gave me and, therefore, it becomes the only thing.  But all of this is very illegal to tell the prisoners; illegal not because it’s false, but because it is personal.  It carries a sense of regret, a personal hole in my armor.  This hole, the prison administration tells me, will lead me into bringing knives and cell phones for the prisoners to escape.

But I like the clown with its 1940’s casting of a plastic head that appears different than today’s plastic, and a floppy body.  The floppy body is dressed in an one-piece cotton flight suit; white with red polka dots.  He wears large white shoes made of the same plastic as his head.   I assume it is a male clown. The floppy body moves according to strings attached to a wooden bar.  It is a marionette; it is Chucky the killer-clown-marionette that I bring into a maximum-security prison for the prisoners to draw.

 Prisoners’ drawings of a still life

I bring in a plastic dragon knowing many dragons are drawn in prison. In my class, the third Joe (… so many Joes in prison, it could come as a warning to parents: Name your child Joe, and he will live in prison) draws them constantly. I tell number 3 Joe, “If you want to draw dragons, then draw this one; not one from your imagination. Any dragon drawn from your imagination will only be redundant because you haven’t looked at a dragon extended through space defined by light and shadow.” Of course, this is a stupid thing to say; all dragons are imaginary. And the students eagerly agree, “Yes, a stupid thing to say.”

If dragons are all imaginary what difference is there between drawing this plastic dragon from Joe drawing a dragon from his imagination? When the prisoners don’t know the answer, I suggest it is the relativism – the single vision of the self – that characterizes the imagination bringing everything imagined under the limitation of the self. The students think that imagination is their biggest asset, but I challenge this suggesting the imagination can only be jumped-started through careful exploration of the world.   Otherwise, using the imagination to draw is like writing a novel with only three words in one’s vocabulary.

I suggest building sculptural dragons to draw. If the class were to build an imaginary sculptural dragon and then draw it, the self’s power diminishes making room for the outside world – light and shadow, placement, form, – thus expanding the phenomenal experience of the dragon. We don’t have materials for building dragons and the class settles upon drawing the plastic one I bring to class.

In expanding the prisoners’ knowledge of art history, I bring examples of Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings. Despite Morandi’s reputation as the primary 20th century still life painter, the prisoners are unimpressed and Douglas states, “I wouldn’t give you 5 cents for that painting.” While I love Morandi’s paintings, I understand Douglas’ dislike.  Painting after painting, Morandi presents groupings of bottles.  Many of the bottles stand shoulder to shoulder extending across the canvas. They all seem to break compositional art school rules; tangents are everywhere.  But the prisoners are bored and breaking their boredom, I mimic Morandi’s mother with whom he lived, imagining her asking, “But George, why so many bottles? Why can’t you draw a nice girl for once?” Douglas agrees; all the prisoners have at one time or another brought drawings of smiling big-bosomed women to class.

But why the bottles? Certainly, there is no symbolic meaning in bottles for Morandi. In fact, it is reported that Morandi removed labels of the bottles to bleach any signification, painting the bottles a flat color to minimize reflection. Like the still life room, he created arrangements that reach beyond conceptual meaning; reaching even beyond elements of form to basic ontological dimensions – here, there, absence, presence.   The appearance of stillness in Morandi’s paintings – like the still life room – underscores its unattainability outside an ideal. There is tension between the bottles; invisible vibration of atoms or the moment before an arrow is released making restricted movement more powerful than action.

With this thought, I inevitably think of prisoners and their unique experience living in an ultimate landscape of restriction. What would Morandi draw if he were a prisoner?   Would he experience it not as a sentence but as opportunity to penetrate beneath the stillness? Would Morandi experience his stripped identity as restriction or freedom? After all, what is the price of identity and meaning?

In some ways, meaning is similar to the still life room in that both are mechanisms of control against constant change of living; the still life room slows movement and meaning stabilizes life into the familiar and understandable.  But while the still life room controls movement in order to see differently, meaning controls in order to see sameness – enabling the chair to be recognized always as a chair. And while meaning helps in moving through daily life and enriches understanding of living, it can also stifle  – like keeping the experience of a  silly clown at the short-end of a maternal relationship.

Morandi strips the bottles of meaning, breaking them from the past and allows the bottles to be unique. In this, he creates a state of non-meaning that cannot be conquered the way meaning is forced into submission. And because meaning is always filtered through a “me” (to me, for me, and through me), when meaning is abandoned, that me is forced to relinquish control, thus allowing an experience of mystery.  It is this experience of mystery that I hope my prisoner students will come to discover in art.

What would Morandi draw in prison? He would probably draw big-bosomed women and celebrities. Still life rooms are dangerous in prison where guards understand prisoners looking to see a world beyond themselves as an escape plan and the transparency of incarceration forbids mystery.  Prison operates exclusively on deliberate meaning that clearly defines “me as inmate” and without a me, there is no prison.