JAC recently spoke with Nate Fish, founder of the Brick of Gold Publishing Company. Brick of Gold publishes the art and writing of incarcerated people and offers art, copy, direction, design, video, and print services. Since 2016, they’ve published three books containing work from incarcerated artists.
Words Uncaged, 128-G: Art and Writing from a California State Prison is Brick of Gold’s most recent book, a collection of art and writing from inmates at Calipatria State Prison in Southern California. “What you have in your hands is not only a collection of art but a collection of voices,” says Joel Baptiste, one of the inmates. “[We] have amazing stories to share if you’re willing to look and listen.”
128-G consists of scans of original artifacts from inside Calipatria – drawings on paper, napkins, and other found materials, typed and handwritten letters, birthday cards, and powerful photos from filmmaker Danny Dwyer. All the material in 128-G comes from Words Uncaged, a non-profit organization running art and writing programs in several California prisons.
JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?
NF: I started Brick of Gold in 2016. I never intended to publish art and writing from prisoners. It was just a vanity press to publish my own work and the work of friends. But my childhood friend, Ray Adornetto, was working in prisons in California for an organization called Words Uncaged. Ray sent me the work of the prisoners, and I knew right away I was going to stop publishing myself and start publishing them instead. It was just more impactful than the work professional writers were producing, myself included. We published two collections of prison writing in 2018, and just released our third book with Words Uncaged, 128-G: Art and Writing from a California State Prison. It’s broken into the artbook circuit which was one of our goals for the book.
JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programming you have been creating?
NF: Well, first, Words Uncaged deserves the credit. They are the experts, and they are the ones going into the prisons and doing the difficult work. But as for Brick of Gold and the books we’re putting out, we are trying something a little different because we are taking artbook sensibilities to prison publishing. We are basically taking what can be interpreted as gritty, outsider work and making it into beautiful artbooks. I do not think that’s been done before. We want to challenge the art establishment to include this work in their definition of what’s important, and get the books into museum shops and artbook stores so people with resources can see it. The ultimate goal is policy change, but we think we can help move the dial that direction by presenting the work this way. It is very difficult to continue denying people their humanity and liberty once you see and read the books.
JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art or creative practices? What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?
NF: I have been writing less and editing more. I have to read and edit and art direct the books with the designers we hire and that takes a lot of time, so I have shifted a bit from writing to curating. But I still do write and publish my own work as well. I am also a visual artist. Crafting our books has definitely sharpened my ability to conceptualize large scale projects in general. I would say though that the work of the prisoners we publish has had more of an emotional impact on me than a professional impact. They’ve taught me more about being a good person than being a good artist.
JAC: As you know, the JAC 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?
NF: Yes. Words Uncaged cannot get into prisons right now, like most organizations and individuals doing this kind of work. WU runs programs in Calipatria, Lancaster, and Donovan prisons. There are outbreaks right now in Lancaster and Donovan, and a lot of the guys we work with are very sick. I keep getting messages that Joel or Jimmy or Cory are struggling. I have never even met any of the artists whose work we publish, but I feel like I know them, and it hurts to hear they’re sick.
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?
NF: One of the things we’ve done as a reaction to the times is put out a call for work from prisoners specifically about race in America. We want to hear about their experiences and see what solutions they have to offer. It’s important to us that in our projects we are not learning about prisoners, but are learning from prisoners, about ourselves. It’s a bit of a flip in the power dynamic we’re used to seeing with all the voyeuristic prison docs and stuff that have been coming out for decades that sort of fetishize prison. Things are magnified in prison. Every element of life is sort of laid bare, especially when it comes to race. A lot of our guys have transitioned from racist to anti-racist and we want to hear from them how they did it. We should be releasing the book on race in America in 2021.
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?
NF: The prison reform scene is awesome but fragmented. There are dozens if not hundreds of orgs working on the same thing often not even knowing about one another. You guys know that better than anyone. It would be awesome to see a unifying organization, one place where all the work lived, and we got some collective bargaining power.
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?
NF: I think the protests are more impactful than the epidemic when it comes to people examining themselves and our society. If anything, the epidemic may cause people to withdraw from thinking about the pain of others because their own resources are likely diminishing. The protests in 2020 are mostly focused on police reform. That’s great. But there was not as much talk about top to bottom reform that includes prison reform. But prison reform will inevitably come back up to the top of the news cycle at some point. It is part of the national conversation and very few things if any are as glaringly in need of reform as the prison system most people agree, even conservatives. I am not a huge fan of the word reform in general. It sounds like we need to just move the line a little bit when I think we need to move it a lot.
JAC: What led you to JAC, and how has your experience with JAC served your own work?
NF: You guys are at the forefront of bringing awareness to prison art so it didn’t take me long to track Wendy down for a call. She’s helped me get a better understanding of prison art on a national scale, because we have only worked specifically with California Prisons. JAC has a broader reach so I can learn about when and where and how prisoners are making art all over the country because I am still pretty new to this world.
Head to the Brick of Gold website to purchase their books and learn more about what they do. Profits from 128-G go to Words Uncaged.