Guest Blog: Annie Buckley – Final Projects

By Annie Buckley

This is the third in 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 full series is available here. To read the first two posts in Buckley’s JAC blog series, see: Oasis in the Desert and Art and Healing. Stay tuned for the fourth and final blog, which will be posted on Friday, October 30th.

For this series of posts, I am focusing on our Arts Facilitator Training (AFT) program with Prison Arts Collective (PAC). This is a program that is close to my heart as I developed it with the goal of empowering and giving agency to the hundreds of men and women that we are privileged to work with in prisons across California to develop and teach their own art classes. Initially, I fused elements of my art education classes at the university with skills to support leadership in cultivating creative communities in prisons. Since then, the AFT has evolved with input from peer facilitators in the prisons, my colleagues in PAC, and faculty and students in the four California State University campuses where we have PAC chapters. I am thrilled that the students in our first AFT program have been teaching weekly classes to their peers for the past four years. In addition, at least three have been released and two of them are working full time as teachers of rehabilitative programs in prisons.

photo by Peter Merts

Final Projects

Excerpted from: Art Inside #9, Painted Windows, 10/08/2018

The many men and women behind bars that have honed their artistic practices over the years and have a desire to give back to others have been our inspiration in developing the Arts Facilitator Training. I wanted to expand access to the curriculum our teaching artists learn in college courses and in our Prison Arts Collective training with the peer facilitators in training to empower participants to be leaders and mentors and to support their personal development.

photo by Peter Merts, courtesy of the California Arts Council

Throughout the class, we talk about learning theory and art interpretation. Students reflect on why they want to teach and how they will guide those with different backgrounds and levels of experience from their own. We practice cultivating a positive environment in which everyone feels heard. Prior to graduating and facilitating classes, participants must complete a final project.

Like most students during finals, they are typically nervous. The assignment is to develop and teach a 15-minute lesson for their peers and us teachers. The lesson can be on any art form but must engage the students and include all three elements of our curriculum: art history or culture, creative practice, and reflection.

photo by Peter Merts, courtesy of the California Arts Council

At Prison Arts Collective, we have now taught this class to hundreds of participants across California. Each time, students anticipate the final with nervous excitement. Many have never spoken in front of a group before entering this class. For some, this has constituted their first positive experience in a classroom setting.

photo by Peter Merts

On the day of the finals, we give the classroom over to participants and ask them to lead us through their projects. For at least six hours, they stand up, singly or in pairs, and take us through their planned lessons in guitar or creative writing, painting or drawing. They often surprise themselves with their success in this endeavor.

photo by Peter Merts

Students have led us through a history of choirs and a joyous if tentative round of Row, Row, Row Your Boat; taught us to stretch to find the correct finger placement on improvised guitars, the neck drawn on a sheet of paper with labeled strings; reflected on someone we have harmed and written an acrostic poem in their honor; drew portraits of people we have lost; and learned to make a pop-up card.

Final project day never fails to be one of the most inspiring, eye-opening, and fun class days I’ve experienced in many years of teaching. Despite the nerves, our students pass with flying colors and we are honored for them to be peer leaders.

photo by Peter Merts, courtesy of the California Arts Council

About the Author:

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, where you can find the full series of “Art Inside.”

See JAC’s recent Teaching Artist Spotlight for more about Annie Buckley and her work with the Prison Arts Collective. 

About the Photographer: 

Peter Merts has been photographing California’s prison art programs for 15 years; his images have appeared in the New York Times, The Economist, and The Huffington Post. He co-published, with Dr. Larry Brewster, a book on the topic—Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (2nd ed)—and is on the advisory board of the Prison Arts Collective.

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