by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern
At 10 years old, Gary Farlow was given his first set of pencils, markers, and pens. Growing up, he was never very athletic or outdoorsy, but while he couldn’t play sports, what he could do was draw. The son of an accomplished home designer and builder, Gary would “borrow” his father’s supplies so he could make art. When his father eventually realized the depth of his son’s creative passion, he purchased the boy his own art set, and as Gary describes, “there was no looking back!”
For as long as he can remember, art has been Gary’s refuge — helping him through his most difficult times. During his incarceration, art has become all the more meaningful, providing a much needed escape (“a bad word in prison!” Gary jokes). “When I am drawing, I think of only what I am drawing. I turn on a local classical music radio station and I’m no longer in prison – I am in my studio.” For Gary, art is a way of reducing stress, of feeling the satisfaction of creating something for others to enjoy, and perhaps most importantly, of affirming his self-worth. He reflects that this is especially true in carceral settings, as incarcerated populations are typically “out-of-sight/out-of-mind” for most of society:
We have little value, no voice, no rights. So art is a creative process by which I say I am here. I am a human being. I exist.
Gary often waits until the evenings, when the daily sounds of the cell block finally settle down. As the melodies of his music replace the noise, he enters his creative world and gets to work. “It quickly becomes the favorite part of any day!”
Gary’s creative process is simple: he needs only to see a photo that interests him, and from there he can begin to sketch in his mind. Before touching pencil to paper, Gary allows the image to take on new life in his head, often mentally altering the picture so much that it barely resembles the original. He finally brings his mental drawing into reality with a 2H pencil. Once the image has taken shape, he uses color pencils to develop the minute details that are a hallmark of his art. “Whether it’s items in a store window or detail you must look closely to see, I believe it is these which bring life to my work and set it apart.”
Landscapes, and more specifically cityscapes, are Gary’s specialty. Occasionally, he ventures out of his comfort zone and creates wildlife pictures or other material that moves him, but he is most inspired by buildings. From Art deco to Victorian, and the “ruffles and flourishes of architecture,” Gary supposes his fascination with buildings is one legacy of his father’s work. “The Chrysler Building, The Smithsonian ‘Castle,’ N.C.’s own Biltmore House, the canals of Venice, colonial charm of Williamsburg, the majesty of London, and the romance of Paris – all inspire me.”
One of the challenges Gary faces as an incarcerated artist is the difficulty of accessing adequate art supplies. “This was not a challenge in the ‘real world’ but behind these walls it is often difficult to acquire materials to work with.” Gary explains that in North Carolina, families are not permitted to order supplies for artists inside, so the artists are responsible for obtaining their own art supplies. In addition, they are only allowed to order from approved vendors, so it can get quite costly. Gary goes on to describe that there are often art supplies for sale “on the yard” but one has to be cautious and know who you’re buying from: “I’ve seen far too many purchase stolen art materials.”
This past year, Gary faced an even bigger challenge where he worried that his art days might be over for good. He needed to have surgery to reattach the retinas in both eyes and feared he would lose his vision and be unable to continue making art. Thankfully, the Duke Eye Center in Durham, N.C. successfully completed the surgery and saved Gary’s eyesight. “They are truly amazing,” he reflects gratefully. Gary has gone on to create dozens of pieces since his surgery, including submitting 36 pieces to his recent prison art show.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unexpected catalyst for Gary’s art. While thankfully Gary’s area has not been hit with a Coronavirus outbreak, the prison is still under restriction, which means no visitors, volunteers, religious services, classes or programs. As everyone finds themselves with an abundance of time, Gary is filling it with art. He comments, “I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the “new normal” that Covid-19 has ushered in. Yet, it has provided ample time to focus on my art.”
In addition to his visual art, Gary is also a writer and poet. He has written dozens of poems, using his talent for words to share insights, memories, thoughts, and reflections on a wide range of topics from his background and family to life in prison to speaking out against hate.
Gary wishes more people could see the remarkable impacts of art, stating, “you seldom hear of the positive effects of art on inmates and the trickle-down benefits for society.” He emphasizes the transformative power of art in penal facilities, explaining that a dollar spent on art in prison actually saves thousands of taxpayer dollars. “The arts are humanity’s greatest achievement and our most civilizing influence.” As he writes at the end of his poem titled “Revelation”:
is a way to strap on your
own armor – even if only
for a moment.
So slide a pen from your holster,
unsheath a pencil from your scabbard,
lock and load the words you choose and
use them to cry, shout, whisper but
Just step up,
come forward and let your revelation speak.
Loud. Proud. Strong.
You can view more of Gary’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like Gary, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
Gary K. Farlow attended Guilford Technical Community College, majoring in Administration of Justice. He completed undergraduate studies at the John Marshall School of Law in Atlanta, and earned a Juris Doctorate from the Thomas Jefferson College of Law at Head University in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. He also holds degrees from Western Illinois University, South Piedmont Community College, Montgomery Community College, and Southeastern Theological Seminary. He is past chairman of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission; represented North Carolina Governor James G. Martin on the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Nursing Home Administrators; represented North Carolina at the 1984 national Conference of the Aged; was a Reagan and Bush Administration nominee for the African Development Foundation; served on the United Arts Council of Greensboro, Greensboro Historical Museum and Society, and the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. He is a former vice president of the Gate City Jaycees, the Lions Club, and the Founder of the Senior Theatre Consortium. Mr. Farlow’s previous writings have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul, the Volunteer’s Soul, and The African American Soul, as well as Serving Time, Serving Others, Serving Productive Time, the Journal of the American Health Care Association, and two poetic anthologies of the National Library of Poetry, Essence of A Dream and Visions. He is the author of both Prison-ese: A Survivor’s Guide to Speaking Prison Slang, first edition published by Loompanics Unlimited, and The Cellblock Gourmet: Inmate Recipes From The Big House and Doin’ Time: How to Survive and Thrive in Prison, both published by the Graduate Group. Mr. Farlow is a Former Associate Editor of the East Triad Press and The Greensboro Sun; sports reporter for The High Point Enterprise, and has written various features for The Greensboro News and Record. He is a recipient of the PEN Award for Prison Writers and has written several play scripts including Sticks, which deals with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the nation’s prison system; Beyond Bars, dealing with the difficulties faced by those transitioning back into society after incarceration; A Homeless History Lesson, which explores the plight of the homeless and substance abuse in America. His poetry has been released on audio-cassette by the National Library of Poetry entitled Visions: The Poetry of Gary Farlow. Mr. Farlow has travelled extensively and has been a guest lecturer at Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg, South Africa, and at the Medical University of South Africa in Pretoria. He has appeared on Eye on Washington and Good Morning South Africa. His poetry has also been released in two additional anthologies, Collections, by Iliad Press and The Best Poetry of America, by the National Library of Poetry.
An accomplished artist, specializing in urban landscapes utilizing colored pencil, Mr. Farlow’s works have been on display at Art With Conviction in Tucson, Arizona, the Prisons Foundation and Safer Streets Art Foundation in Washington D.C., and at the Durland Alternatives Library at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.