Creating Art on the Inside

By Jamal Biggs

When I read different articles about different artists of today and their working methods, I’m often envious of them. I’m envious of their total freedom of expression—whether it’s the freedom to depict any image or message they desire or the freedom to choose whatever medium they want. For me, a self-taught, prison artist, creating art is very difficult because of my circumstances, but the benefits make it well worth the challenge.

One of the many challenges I face when creating art in prison is the decision of when and where to work. I often have to choose between painting in my cell with the nagging concern of whether I’m in my cellmate’s way or painting in the housing unit dayroom with the loudly distracting hustle and bustle of all the activity going on around me. The lack of privacy and constant distractions often stifle my creativity and make it difficult for me to tap into my innermost thoughts. However, the strong inner desire to create often overrides even the most persistent outside distractions.

With my artistic style mostly favoring realism, I often feel frustrated and unsatisfied when trying to render complex, realistic compositions. My confinement severely limits my ability to freely study nature. I am unable to fully study the live male and female nude form. I am also limited in my ability to create my own set-up, lighting and painting environment. Due to these limitations, I find myself drawn more to surrealism rather than pure realism, which frees me to be more creative and imaginative rather than realistic.

The most significant challenge I face is the restrictions placed on the type and amount of art materials I can possess. I’ve always wanted to paint with oil paint, but can’t because I’m restricted to only water-based media. I also always wanted to do extremely large paintings. However, because the small cells can’t accommodate large works of art, this is virtually impossible. I’m also limited to a set number of paints, brushes, pencils, etc. With such limitations, it’s even more important that most of the emphasis in a given work is placed on the narrative or idea within the work rather than the medium or colors used.

Despite these and many other limitations, creating art in prison is very rewarding and beneficial. Through my art, I’m able to escape the monotonous, boring, stressful madness of everyday prison life by entering a place in my mind that is timeless, boundless, lively, relaxing, and imaginative. While prison confines me physically, art transforms and liberates me mentally and spiritually. Art gives me a reach that goes far beyond the concrete and steel in prison. It enables me to touch people in a positive way. Art is both transformative and transcendent, in that it elevates me from the status of “prisoner” to that of “artist” whenever someone views my work.

Art has created opportunities and opened doors for me. It has enabled me to meet and gain the friendship of wonderful people that I would not have been able to do otherwise. Art has made me relevant and made people notice me, despite prison’s attempt to suppress and hide me. Art is also profitable and has provided me with an additional means of supporting myself. Most importantly, art has given me the ability to give back to the community, whether by donating my art to causes I believe in or by teaching others to create art.

Although creating art in prison has many challenges, the rewards it provides and opportunities it creates make it all worth it in the end. Art has helped to make me a better person, which is why I try to teach others how to draw or paint in hopes that they too could realize the benefits of art.

Several of Jamal Biggs’ work is displayed below. To learn more about Jamal and to see additional work visit his website

Artists Commentary on Works
by Jamal Biggs

30x24, Acrylic on Canvas (2006)
30×24, Acrylic on Canvas (2006)

Oprah (Orpah): the Bequest and Pilgrimage:
30×24, Acrylic on Canvas (2006)
This work is another in the series of pieces I’ve done on Black history. It was inspired by and is a tribute to not only Oprah Winfrey but to all African American women. It depicts a number of pioneering, legendary, Black women whose contributions helped shape the lives of present and future generations. This painting symbolizes the idea that no one person is an island unto themselves bus is intrinsically linked to the community through the history, struggles, and achievements of the past. Through blood, sweat, and tears of legendary women of the past, freedoms and opportunities have been handed down to later generations. Oprah symbolizes a woman who is not only keenly aware of these gifts she has inherited, but who uses them to the fullest and embarks on a journey to establish her own legacy to hand down.

18x25, Oil Pastel on rayon Velour (2005)
18×25, Oil Pastel on rayon Velour (2005)

Moment of Prayer: Martin and Malcomb
18×25, Oil Pastel on rayon Velour (2005)
This work is another in the series of pieces I’ve done on Black history. It depicts Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcomb-X, two of my favorite people of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite having different religious faiths, ideas, and strategies, they both shared the same love, devotion, and tragic fate for their people and cause. This painting attempts to convey the seriousness of that moment, the fear they both must have felt in the moments leading up to their deaths, and the strength and courage they sought and found through their faiths.

28x22, Oil Pastel on Rayon Velour (2007)
28×22, Oil Pastel on Rayon Velour (2007)

Thurgood Marshall
28×22, Oil Pastel on Rayon Velour (2007)
This work is another in the serous of pieces I’ve done on Black history. It depicts former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He is my favorite Justice, and I am often inspired by some of his published Court opinions. The woman flying behind him symbolizes freedom. The torch she is holding represents wisdom and insight. The scale she is holding symbolizes fairness and justice. The book he is holding represents knowledge and truth. He is guided by all these principles.

25x19, Acrylic & Varnish on Paper (2007)
25×19, Acrylic & Varnish on Paper (2007)

Diddy and Biggie: Dreams Can Come True
25×19, Acrylic & Varnish on Paper (2007)
This work is one of a series of pieces I’ve done on entertainment artists. This painting depicts hip-hop rapping icons P-Diddy and Biggie Smalls. P-Diddy is centered with his hand extending holding a microphone, symbolizing how he was able to achieve success and make his dreams come true through music.

Tupac: Personification Consumes Self

25x19, Soft Pastel on Paper (2007)
25×19, Soft Pastel on Paper (2007)

25×19, Soft Pastel on Paper (2007)
This work is another one of a series of pieces I’ve done on entertainment artists. It depicts hip-hop rapping icon Tupac Shakur. It portrays Tupac the rapper (in the foreground) and Tupac the person (in the background). It attempts to make a statement on how someone could lose themselves and become consumed by their larger-than-life, on-stage persona.

2 thoughts on “Creating Art on the Inside

  1. Even in the bowels of America’s prisons people still find ways to liberate their spirits and creativity, and leave their mark on the world. Though physically captive their spirits and minds continue to soar.

    Each writing or painting a prisoner creates is an act of liberation. Prisons are designed to extinguish the spirits and creativity of of those it cages.

    When prisoners use the spoken or written word, or any of the arts, to convey a message, story, or vision, they are proclaiming that the system cannot circumscribe them.

    Hence, the imprisoned writer or visual artist takes on the form of liberator, activist and revolutionary for humanity who resists being silenced.

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