By Treacy Ziegler
Still life drawing by prisoner David
“….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 arrangements of objects, some still lifes present as visual pleasure while others are arrangements of symbolic objects challenging the viewer to decode its meaning. 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 a still life makes very explicit the world’s restlessness, compounded by the difficulty in reconciling that movement onto 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 stasis of the still life room, movement is not stopped.
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; abstract qualities that are felt but conceptually overlooked by the novice viewer.
But prisoners most often feel the need to create meaning in their art; the I-want-to-express-myself-to-be-a-better-person art that is often portrayed in prison art classes. 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. Insisting that meaning is the door to any experience, many museum visitors demand, “What does the painting mean?”
For my prison art class, I compromise and bring objects instead of abstractions for the prisoners to draw. By doing so, I also bring the inevitable meaning that surrounds those objects like an opaque dirt cloud. Meaning is always everywhere, not to be manufactured on command, but experienced as it ruthlessly burrows into our lives.
I bring a small toy farm, a provincial farm from France; a strange farm to bring into the prison. (I still hold to the idea that form is currently more important than content – only because form is ignored by most beginning artists.) To me, the fact 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 18 years ago. At that time, I wanted to simulate a place in my studio where I could draw space without light changing – like the still life room. It is not a typical toy farm; the farmhouse and outbuildings are 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 a 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.
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 that characterizes the imagination, bringing everything imagined under the single filter of the self. I suggest we build 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 outside context – 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. Many of the paintings 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 greater basic of ontological dimensions – here, there, absence, presence, together, apart, isolated, union, and so on. 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 a restriction or a freedom? After all, what is the price of identity and meaning?
In some ways, meaning is similar to the still life room in that they are both control mechanisms. 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 that helps in moving through daily life, it also means that a silly clown will always be identified as the short-end of a maternal relationship. – life gets trapped by meaning and memory.
Morandi strips the bottles of meaning, breaking them from the past and allowing the many bottles to be unique. In this, he creates a state of non-meaning that will not be conquered the way meaning is tamed into submission. And because meaning is always through the filter of “me” (to me, for me, and through me), when meaning is abandoned, that “me” is abandoned to potential unknown.
What would Morandi draw in prison? He would probably draw big-bosomed women and celebrities. In prison, still life rooms are dangerous in that they teach artists to become astute observers of the world. For prisons, it is best to have prisoners maintain focus upon an inmate-self whose identity and meaning can be controlled rather than allow prisoners to overcome the trap of identity in becoming powerful witnesses of the world they live.