Teaching Artist Spotlight: Annie Buckley

We recently talked with Annie Buckley, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Annie Buckley is a professor and the director of the School of Art + Design at San Diego State University and the founding director of Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. PAC provides multidisciplinary arts programming and peer facilitator trainings in 12 prisons across California through an innovative partnership between California State Universities and state prisons. Buckley’s writing on contemporary art is published in Artforum, Art in America, The Huffington Post, and she is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Buckley has written a series of  four blog posts for The Justice Arts Coalition excerpted from the series, “Art Inside,” published by Los Angeles Review of Books. The four blogs will be posted every other Friday starting September 18th.  

photo by Peter Merts

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

AB: I have always loved art and had a passion for social justice so I have worked at the intersections of these in various ways for most of my life. In bringing art to prisons, specifically, I am inspired by my mother, who was a volunteer in juvenile detention for nearly 20 years, and by her friend and mentor, Gregory Boyle, S.J., the founder of Homeboy Industries.

JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programming you have been creating?

AB: I think what is most unique about Prison Arts Collective is that we have a comprehensive arts facilitator training in the prisons to empower and support those with arts experience to teach others. We started this program in 2015 and our first graduates have been leading weekly classes in the prisons since then, cultivating creative community within the institution. We visit monthly to offer mentorship and support. I remember on one of those visits, I happened to be in the hallway when a student arrived late. He looked flustered so I asked him if I could help and his reply made me smile, “Oh no,” he said, rushing past, ‘I’m looking for my teacher.” It didn’t matter that I came from outside, or taught at a university, or any of the other markers we might assume grant authority to help or answer questions. He was looking for his teacher, the person that guided him and had formed a bond for him to grow as a musician. I loved that moment.

I think the second thing that is unique to our program is that our teaching teams are collaborative and include university students as well as alumni, interns, staff, and faculty. Rather than one expert or master teacher, we are community-based and our model integrates a variety of experiences and voices. Each term, we try to offer at least two different courses per site so that we always give our participants the opportunity to make a choice. We want to encourage them to have a voice and to have agency in the process as much as possible within the many restrictions.

JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art? What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists? 

AB: It is really hard to say what is most rewarding about teaching in prisons and growing a program to support others to do this incredibly rewarding work. I feel strongly that it is a gift to be able to teach and build community with individuals that are so largely forgotten. I have met so many amazing people in the prisons that inspire me and help me to be a better person and teacher.

Another thing I have gained is a reconnection to the real meaning and purpose of art. I have two degrees in art and have written for international art publications so I am very familiar with the contemporary art world. What drew me to this work is my passion to expand access to the arts for all yet what I gained is a renewed connection to art as a transformative human experience.

JAC: As you know, the Justice Arts Coalition is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

AB: Prison Arts Collective is a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. We are fortunate that AIC allowed its programs to continue in alternative formats. The last day we went inside the prisons was March 12, which was a couple weeks before the institutions stopped programs from going inside. But we felt it was important to protect our team and our participants so we paused in-person programming. Right away, we started planning what we could do instead.

Collectively, our teaching team has made and sent in over 1,200 packets to participants in 11 prisons and we are currently creating new packets for the fall term. In addition, we collaborated with faculty and outside artists as well as our teaching team to create a new video series called Outside:Inside Productions. We have already created nine videos in this series and are working on two more. Finally, one of our newest volunteers, Sabrina, a student at CSU Los Angeles, developed a partnership with a local radio station so that we could create radio content, both for those in the prisons to listen to as well as for people on the outside to connect with this work.

JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, both concerning Covid-19 and anti-racism protests, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

It probably sounds like a corny soundbite but I think what stands out most to me now is not the many obstacles we face but the opportunities for evolution. Systemic racism is not new but the new national dialogue is powerful. How can we leverage this to create real and lasting change? The pandemic is tragic on so many levels and for so many people all across the globe, including being a nightmare for those in captivity, so there is no way to put a positive spin on it. My hope is that we use this experience to evolve as a society. In my own life, I have learned and grown more in my darkest moments of grief and illness. I hope we do the same as a world today.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, as well as this period of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the justice system?

AB: I hope that people awaken to the reality that we are interconnected. There is no us and them, just us. The sooner people recognize the depth of that truth and we develop systems — including education, justice, healthcare, and more — based on that idea, the better off we will be as a society. The justice system is one of many interconnected systems that have led to mass incarceration. We need to address the poverty and wealth gap and give all people a living wage. We need to ensure that no one in this incredibly wealthy nation is without access to a home. I would like to see what our country could be if we re-designed our systems with an ‘us’ not ‘us and them’ mentality, with the sense that when we lift up one, we lift us all up.

JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

AB: The idea of a national coalition is exciting and powerful. I like how we can learn from one another. When I teach socially-engaged art at the University, I always ask students if they believe that art can change the world. Many say yes, but not all. When I teach art in the prisons and ask if art can change the world, there is never any question; literally every single incarcerated person I have asked this to has said yes. This is power. And I believe that we are more powerful when we work together. I am excited to see what we might grow from these shared conversations and how we might evolve our practices to educate and empower not only those behind bars, but those outside, too, to imagine and ultimately build a more just world.

photo by Peter Merts

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