by Treacy Ziegler
About the guest blogger: Treacy Ziegler has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University. In this voluntary project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 2,300 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.
While working in my studio, I wrote on the reverse side of my drawing a question I was pondering. I wrote, “How does one participate in a world from solitary confinement?” Later, I sent this drawing to Charles forgetting about the question on its back. Charles has been living for years in solitary confinement.
I send art to individuals in solitary confinement as part of my project, An Open Window, whose mission is in creating a dialogue of art with prisoners. In this way, my project is not just for “artists,” but also for anyone interested in learning and talking about art.
Naturally, Charles thought I was directing the question to him and answers, “I think about the world in my mind. I make my mind go out to the world and then, whatever is possible, is possible in my mind.” Reading Charles’ statement, I think of idealism; hopeful idealism from a solitary cell.
However, there is a problem with Charles’ answer. During one of my first visits to several prisons throughout the east and mid-United States, a warden took me on a tour of the prison. Seeing the cramped small cells in which the men live, I asked the warden, “Is memory of space the prisoner’s largest dimension of space?”
The warden’s answer surprised me. He said, “No. Memory is the first dimension of space that the inmate loses.”
I wasn’t clear as to what the warden was referring. Was the warden referring to a psychological loss; forgetting the visual memory of one’s bedroom, the smells of one’s kitchen, the sounds of one’s neighborhood? Or was the warden referring to something much more fundamental; what is a bedroom, what is a kitchen, what is a neighborhood? These latter questions suggest not a psychological loss, but an entire ontological spatial sea change of how one experiences the world.
Since that visit I have spent significant time conducting art workshops in various prisons in various states. Whether he knew it or not, it appears that the warden was referring to something more fundamental than psychology – he was referring to the second – an ontological breakdown in one’s spatial knowledge. Of course, this ontological breakdown may also be accompanied by psychological manifestations.
Charles’ mind can only “go out to the world” if he has memory of that world. Memory depends upon active involvement of an undifferentiated mind and body within an undifferentiated world.
When a student in another prison came to class without a pencil, I said to him, “Oh, go search through my bags and find a pencil.” Joe, the prisoner, is stunned and replies, “I don’t know how to do that.” Not sure sure if he is suggesting that his searching through the bags will break a rule, I look at him in puzzlement. Joe answers my confusion with, “If I ever get out of here, I won’t know how to open the refrigerator to look for a bottle of ketchup.”
Later I tell this story to another prison class in another prison. They laugh saying, “What?! He couldn’t open a refrigerator to look for a bottle of ketchup? What was he? An idiot?” But when I rephrased the idea saying that sometimes when I was with them, I felt as if they moved like they had a neurological problem disrupting their relationship to space, this same critical group of prisoners reacted without mediation, “Yes! That’s how I feel!”
A person learns to navigate personal space that is both transparent and opaque with an element of ease – what Merleau-Ponty calls the map of “I can.” The doors of their personal space do not beckon my students in prison; the doors are barriers. Thus my students live in what could be called the map of “I cannot.” I wonder, “Can creativity emerge within such a landscape?”
As a landscape painter, I know the ability to visually move through space is important. It was the exploration of space that compelled me to go to prison and although I had not thought so much about the prisoners themselves, I was interested in how space identifies a person and how identify changes as one moves through space: I am defined as a customer in a store and as a mother at my son’s school. It seems a prisoner is defined a prisoner 24/7.
My interest in space also includes the space in which I exhibit my work and how that venue influences both the viewer and the work. After 22 years of exhibiting my work in galleries of Canada and throughout the Untied States, I became interested in finding an audience who did not have the money and power that characterize the gallery audience; This is an audience who is defined by the space of the gallery as “my potential collector.”
I wrote random letters to wardens and supervisors throughout the United States asking if I could exhibit my artwork in their prisons.
I explained in my letter that I was not interested in art as therapy or as rehabilitation. I wanted to present my work with the same attitude as I present my work in gallery – I do not expect to be “doing therapy” with the gallery audience. I do not think art makes people into good people or bad people – art is moral neutral.
Of course, the idea that art is experienced in prison as a tool for therapy or rehabilitation speaks to the ontological perspective of space. Art is asked to function differently in prison than it does in the gallery world. I resisted the notion to make it such in my random letter because I do not believe that art ultimately functions as a tool. I believe art exists without why and just because
The first response I received to my random letters was from a warden of a super-maximum security prison.
It was a chilling letter. The warden wrote that the “heinous inmates” in his prison would not only not see my art; they did not see the light of day. He didn’t actually explicitly state, “Not see the light of day,” and I figured it was my artist’s imagination that added these words to his implicit suggestion of the prisoners’ lack of sunlight.
Since that letter of five years ago, I learned my artist’s imagination was not running wild. I have an art project available to a network of 2300 prisoners throughout the United States. Many of the participants live in solitary confinement – many prisoners from Pelican Bay State Prison. In Leon’s recent letter, writing from Pelican, he doesn’t know what to do for my assignment asking him to observe the sky and then draw it. He writes,
“There is no window in my cell and I only see a small window at the top of the rec yard where I am permitted to go out one hour a day by myself.”
And Robert, who in his letter adds a postscript,
“Treacy, when you go out today, look at the sky for me, I haven’t seen it for years.”
After the initial chilling letter from that warden, I did receive positive responses from prisons that were intrigued with my offer to exhibit my artwork in their prison. In one New England prison, I donated 50 paintings now hanging throughout the prison; in the halls, in the blocks, in the mess halls. In another mid-state high security prison, I have a permanent exhibition of paintings in the gym.
The initial response of the prison communities to my art in their prison is often confusion and anger; anger on the part of the corrections officers and confusion on the part of the prisoners. The correction officers are often angry because of the obvious reason; prisoners don’t deserve art. The prisoners are confused because my artwork does not look like prison art. In my art, I am not concerned about details and I suspect my work may seem too “simplistic” to some prisoners.
At the prison where I have 50 paintings, the prisoners often tell me, “Every time I turn around I see one of your paintings.” I am not always sure if this is a good thing or not. One prisoner told me he didn’t really want to wake up everyday looking at my paintings, but then went on to describe how every time he looked at my paintings he saw something different. Again, I don’t know if this is a good thing or bad thing for this prisoner.
Eventually, I was asked to conduct workshops in the prisons where my paintings hang. This made sense to me since I was primarily interested in having a conversation of art. Asking prisoners about art through a survey or questionnaire seemed too mechanical, and as is often the case in prison, questions beg the answer.
Like the spatial limitations of prison, art in prison is limiting and because of this, art has the potential to be oppressive in prison. (This is not totally different than the gallery world where art too is used as a tool of oppression – it works on elitism and eliminates most artists). In prison, art can be undermined when it does not fit into the accepted categories. William writes to me,
“I have to do my art in the middle of the night when no one sees me – or else I would get a lot of criticism.”
The primary sources of art in prison tend to be Bob Ross, cartoons, photos of loved ones, tattoos and Playboy-like magazines.
When first given tours of prison, I was shown a Bob Ross mural after Bob Ross mural painted on the prison walls by various prisoners. Bob Ross is the former host of the public television program, “Joy Of Painting” where he taught millions of people and prisoners to draw happy trees for little animals. Finally, I was compelled to say that I didn’t want to see anymore Bob Ross’ formulaic approach to creativity.
The prisoners were shocked, “You don’t like Bob Ross?”
Bob Ross art is consistent to the prison structure in offering a formula; offering the same false clarity that prison offers. Bob teaches a how-to-paint-the-sky formula without having to experience the actual sky; eliminating the need for an aesthetic experience. Bob Ross is an excellent aesthetic stop-gap where looking at the sky can be tantamount to an escape plan.
Drawing from photographs is equally oppressive. In drawing from a photograph, a person does not experience form, light and shadow, movement, texture, etc. In drawing the actual moving world, a multiplicity of perceptions is demanded of the artist that is not demanded when drawing from a photograph. I never just “see” this living world with my eyes, I experience it through all my senses. As I often say to people, “Don’t talk to me when I don’t have my glasses on – I can’t hear you.”
Drawing from how-to books and from photographs is not about creativity; it is about making a product.
I have developed workshops in which the students are asked to draw from life allowing everyone’s drawing to develop differently and uniquely. As I tell the students, Van Gogh’s style would never have been developed had he rendered his drawings from photographs. All drawings rendered from a photograph look the same and no personal mark making is developed.
The students learn that drawing from life is possible even in a solitary cell.
When I asked Manuel in his solitary cell to observe light and then draw that light, he writes:
“Inside the cell, I could see that the light and dark tones are not flat. I’ve noticed the light and dark patterns near the windows. The areas around the windows are extremely dark, but the area where the light comes from the window is bright…….The window light reflecting on the concrete bed has a very bright light tone and there is no light in the darkness surrounding this light.”
Manuel continues to describe the different light and shadow patterns for the next five paragraphs of his letter. He then develops a drawing from this exploration of what to the typical eye is just an empty room.
The assignment of drawing light and shadow patterns in the cell asks that the artist draws the cell through exploring the phenomenon of light and shadow instead of through a conceptual orientation to objects. This difference is understood in a prisoner’s joke during class: “Tonight when I fall asleep, my mantra will be – ‘It is not an apple; it is light and shadow.’”
It is a simple drawing experience demanding the artist to feel what it is that he/she is drawing – The artist feels light and shadow, feels direction, feels dimension, and feels light on that concrete bed. The drawing activity demands reciprocal involvement between what is drawn and the artist. With practice, the artist experiences lack of differentiation between eye, pen, paper, and hand. Ultimately, the division between artist and what is being drawn disappears.
Drawing from life brings the artist to the world. Not to a mental world like Charles’ mind, but to a tangible world demanding an active involvement in the world – demanding an active involvement even if that world consists of nothing more than light and shadow patterns in a solitary cell.
And yet, art cannot be made into a tool for therapy. It is without why and just because.
Drawings from the curriculum Drawing From Life – assignment to explore light and shadow in the cell: