Chained To Repetition

By Treacy Ziegler

Jerome Washington cropped

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

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 guard’s assumption 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 coffee or 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.

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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 care. 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 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 agree to free 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 freeing the moth inside the prison.  I argue saying, “That is the whole point, the moth is not free 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.

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