Teaching Artist Spotlight: Kirk Charlton

By Liv, JAC Intern

Recently, JAC had the privilege to speak with Kirk Charlton, a visual artist, formerly incarcerated teaching artist, and founder of the program Art Inside Out. Continue reading to learn about Kirk’s relationship to art, the mission of Art Inside Out, and the values which shape the program.

When Kirk Charlton was five years old, he gave his grandmother a drawing of a horse getting stung by a bee.

“She could have said a lot of things like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s cool.’ Or, you know, ‘That’s great. Appreciate it.’ But when I gave it to her eyes got really big,” Kirk says. “And she said, ‘This is incredible. This is unbelievable. I’m gonna hang it on the refrigerator, and I want you to draw me something else.’

You’ve got to watch what you say to kids, right? Because they’ll take it and run with it. And that’s what I get, you know – I just never stopped drawing after that.”

This kind of positive affirmation is central to the program which Kirk later founded. Art Inside Out structures itself around re-establishing a sense of value in people who are incarcerated, and Kirk began formulating the idea for the program while he was still incarcerated after reflecting upon the ways in which art had given him a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. He realized that, although many people were introduced to artwork while in prison, they did not always realize how much they gained through the creative process. Through the modules of Art Inside Out, Kirk helps to facilitate that dialogue by engaging his students in conversation about art and personal value. In Kirk’s words, “The program is really structured around re-establishing our value, and knowing that we’re important to our community, to our church, to our friends, and our family, of course. But more importantly, we’re valuable to ourselves.”

Kirk likes to begin every session of Art Inside Out with what he calls “healthy thoughts”: positive affirmations that help ground his students. From there, he guides students through exercises that get their creativity flowing, such as trying to draw the speed of sound or walk like a certain color. He then transitions into an art lesson and finally to the actual art project. The class closes with a discussion about a topic such as kindness or forgiveness.

“I noticed that while I was trying to make my life better, a lot of things that you do to make your life better kind of parallel to wanting to make your art better,” he says. “Art’s all about problem-solving.” Through his program, he helps his students to realize the connection between life and art and to apply it to their own lives. 

I noticed that while I was trying to make my life better, a lot of things that you do to make your life better kind of parallel to wanting to make your art better.

For example, he may base a lesson around the idea of perspectives. From an artistic perspective, certain techniques may help an artist enhance the portrayal of a certain viewpoint and capture it in an effective way. Similarly, there are methods that can be used to reframe perspectives in life, changing the way we view ourselves or certain situations. 

Throughout these conversations, Kirk emphasizes the word sufficiency, which he defines as “having enough.” “When I teach art, a lot of people expect this beautiful, magnificent masterpiece on their first try, and I always tell them that’s not an area you want to be in when you’re learning art,” he explains. “Nor is the area of lack of effort, where you say you want to be an artist, but you don’t put any effort into it. The area between that is the ‘area of sufficiency’. And that’s where you know you’re enough – you’re gonna get better. And isn’t that how life is? Instead of perfection, or lack of effort, you want to be in the middle and just know that you’re enough.”

And isn’t that how life is? Instead of perfection, or lack of effort, you want to be in the middle and just know that you’re enough.

There is something comforting about the way Kirk speaks of value and progress. The manner in which he articulates the way life and art mimic one another is unique because of its groundedness, as his words aren’t convoluted or fluffy. He finds ways to communicate difficult concepts in a practical way, maintaining a consistently patient and positive presence. His view of ar t reflects his character; to Kirk, art is simply a learned skill, and therefore can be practiced by anybody.

“You can be an artist as a bricklayer,” he says. “I always like to tell people that do other kinds of art that ‘Man, you’re an artist as much as Leonardo da Vinci.’”

This belief is consistent with the decisions he has made surrounding the program. In order to expand its accessibility, Kirk wrote The Self-Directed Art Inside Out, a book which allows people to complete his exercises on their own. Though it was originally written for people experiencing disciplinary segregation, he found it to be useful during the height of the pandemic and for those who do not want to participate in the classroom setting, which has allowed Kirk’s work to reach audiences that may be frequently neglected. The disciplinary segregation unit in particular received little to no programming before Kirk worked to introduce Art Inside Out.

In addition to founding Art Inside Out, Kirk has completed many drawings, several murals, and even a series of children’s books, which can be purchased on Amazon. His artwork is thematically varied, ranging from humorous pieces to emotional retellings of his experiences growing up and with incarceration.

The empowerment that Kirk has found through art and his continued drive to help others find their own sense of value through creation is an inspiration, to say the least. As he works to expand his program further, he continues making art with no intention of slowing down. “I love art,” he says. “And it loves me back, for sure.”

The artwork featured in this post is courtesy of Kirk Charlton. To support Kirk in his efforts to expand Art Inside Out, you can donate to his GoFundMe here.

One thought on “Teaching Artist Spotlight: Kirk Charlton

  1. Todd Hollfelder

    Wow! Very interesting guy. Got me excited to get to work on the inspiration I’ve locked away in my head, only with strength and positivity. Wish I could attend a class in person.

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