Guest Blog: Annie Buckley – Lines Drawn and Erased

By Annie Buckley

This is the fourth and final post in a series of four blogs 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 three posts in Buckley’s JAC blog series, see: Oasis in the Desert, Art and Healing, and Final Projects.

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

Lines Drawn and Erased

Excerpted from: Art Inside #11, Dividing Line, 07/06/2020

This particular program had begun with a deep sense of desperation. More than once, correctional officers entered our class and stated calmly, “All free people outside.” We stepped outside, coughing from the teargas on the yard. The phrase is raw and shocking out of context; it is surprising the first time you hear it inside, too, and then it becomes strangely familiar, a reminder: We are free. And they are not.

photo by Peter Merts

From these challenging early days, the class had grown into a special opportunity to collaborate among creative peers in a highly restrictive space. Over time, the students came together to help one another learn to develop lessons, teach a class, and most importantly, cultivate community. At this point, they had completed their 60-hour training and challenging final project. They were ready to graduate.

We worked with the institution to secure a space for the event. We invited members of the administration and were thrilled that they allowed us to bring in cupcakes from a local store. The day before the ceremony, we gathered to prepare. We wanted them to demonstrate their abilities as artist facilitators. The students elected representatives to share portions of their final projects. We practiced multiple times. Everyone was nervous but we were ready.

photo by Peter Merts

The next day, we made our way through multiple prison gates and across the dusty yard to the visiting room where the graduation would take place. As the administrators and guests from the prison arrived, I gave a short welcome, explained our program, and introduced the participants that had been selected to teach. Ron started us off. He was a little nervous but proudly shared his lesson about adding shading to drawings. He invited the staff to take a pencil out of their supply bag to try it. A few did. Most did not. It was fine. Angel stood up to teach. He asked the guests to get out two markers. When only a few followed along, he applied what we had learned in class about teaching and gamely encouraged the guests, his students for the moment, adding with enthusiasm, “There are no mistakes in art!”

At this point, one of the higher placed administrators raised his hand. A little nervously, Angel called on him. “Yes, I would like to say something,” the officer said loudly. He stood up. He was a tall and imposing man. “We aren’t going to do this,” he began. He cleared his throat and continued. “We aren’t going to use these colors. We aren’t going to draw these things with you. We are here, and that’s how we show our support, by showing up.” It wasn’t necessary but seemed reasonable enough.

pencil drawing by Stan Hunter

We knew that, under normal class circumstances, the officers have a job to do and cannot participate in the class in any way. We hoped that they might take part in this limited way but understood if they couldn’t. But the officer did not sit down. He straightened and continued, “We’re over here, and you’re there. There is a line between us. It’s a line we can’t cross. That line divides us and keeps things safe.”

The room fell quiet. Poor Angel did his best to finish the mini-lesson in that fractured space. It hurt that he had to do it but he met the challenge gracefully. I was glad that our next and last presenter was Jonah, a wry and witty creative writing teacher. I knew that he could handle facing this room filled with heartbreak.

photo by Peter Merts

With full recognition of the pain elicited among the graduates in the room, Jonah taught a short lesson in poetry. Throughout, he found ways to make everyone laugh. That laugh was good teaching. It showed his leadership and allowed everyone, staff and students, free and captive, to recognize our camaraderie. It erased the line for a time. It brought us back together. I was proud, impressed, and deeply moved.

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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