Artist Spotlight: William Brown

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

Art can be a source of joy, an outlet for emotions, and an opportunity for self-expression. For some, creating is all this and more, becoming a means for survival. For William Brown, drawing started as a way to cope with a traumatic childhood filled with mental, physical, and sexual abuse. When he was as young as 7 or 8 years old, William remembers making pen and pencil sketches of the cartoons he saw on TV. From Ninja Turtles to the Simpsons to Disney movies, these drawings became his “portal to the world.” Only allowed to leave his room to go to school, William would draw what he could see outside his second story window: kids playing, people going to and from work, “people just living the life I never got to.” Sitting at his window, drawing people doing “day-to-day” things, William would capture the emotions of the people he saw and “so was born my fascination with human expression.”

William’s happiest memories growing up were the times he spent in his high school art classes. With no real friends, art class became his “home away from home.” He recalls how his art teacher became his only friend, helping him learn to translate his feelings into something visual. “I was able to escape into the created pieces and show the world how I felt and saw the things around me.” As he grew up, William continued to use his portraits and figure drawings to express his emotions and “deal with the life that was thrust upon me.”

As an adult, William discovered photography and instantly felt connected to the media. He was drawn to the idea of documenting “real life” and capturing what people usually “glance over or ignore.” William saw photography as a way to bring to light that the world isn’t always perfect and happy. As a portrait artist, he loved to capture moments where people could be themselves, “when their walls were down and their purest emotions were exposed.” Glimpsing these moments allowed William to feel like a part of the people he photographed, slowly breaking down the feelings of loneliness and disconnect he has felt since childhood.

“Being incarcerated has stripped me of not only my freedoms, but the medium through which I was able to connect to others.” Without access to photography, William lost the invaluable sense of connection he’d found through his work. He recalls waiting for sentencing in county jail with only a pen and paper, “reviving the lost love of drawing that had gotten me through the tough times when I was young.” Since that day, William has continued to refine his graphite drawing skills, going on to work with acrylics, watercolor, and even collage, before finding he feels most expressive with oil paints. “The common thread throughout, from my photography to my oil paintings has been to express raw, unfiltered emotion in my subjects.”

Ever since his first drawings out the window of his childhood bedroom, William has continued to be inspired by people. As a result of his isolated youth, William has always felt disconnected from those around him and struggled with his identity: “Who am I? Who do ‘they’ want me to be? Why do I not feel the way others around me seem to feel? What do I need to feel “normal?” It is these questions that have driven William to express and document human emotion. The desire to connect with others and to “feel accepted and normal” has motivated William to try to understand and explore his own emotions in hopes of someday finding the answers.

For William, creating is an immersive process. When he begins a new piece, William tries to surround himself with the feeling he wants to convey: “Be it happiness, grief, loneliness, pride, whatever, I try to invoke and maintain that same feeling in myself throughout the rendering of the piece.”

“If, for example, I am conveying happiness, I’ll work around others, chatting, laughing, having fun while I create. If I need to cultivate a feeling of solemnity or grief, I’ll isolate myself, reminiscing on troubled times in my life, bringing those often suppressed feelings to the surface, giving me a chance to share them and help heal them.”

William also uses music to help him channel the feelings, memories, and experiences from his life that he tries to bring into each piece. This thorough process allows William to feel more connected to the piece when it is completed. He also thinks others may be able to connect to this sincerity, so long as they “open themselves to more than merely looking at the piece, but seeing it.” For those who really “see” his art, William’s pieces are the most raw expression of who he truly is and how he truly feels. “Having this outlet has given me the opportunity to hold on to my true self and to be honest in a way that the brutality of incarceration aims to beat out of you.”

These days, however, William has been struggling to create, saying “I am truly disappointed in myself. The COVID-19 crisis has all but stopped my work.” William is at a facility that has been designated a “quarantine facility,” which means there are extreme restrictions on their movement and supplies, limiting William to mostly sketching. For the last 7 months, William has been in “quarantine lockdown,” only allowed to leave his cell for 45 minutes, three times a week to contact family and 15 minutes, three times a week to shower. They’ve recently added Rec Yard time, allowing William one hour, three times a week, but the rest of his time is spent in total lockdown in his cell. William is frustrated with himself because “where there is a will, there is a way,” and others have found ways to still create under the stifling circumstances but William feels numb. Every day is exactly the same and he can’t find his “creative force.” The situation has suppressed William’s ability to create and killed his morale: “It’s left me feeling like a failure to adapt to my new normal.”

Thinking back to some of his finished pieces, William reflects on his graphite drawing of a “nude woman sitting on the floor drinking from a bottle of Ketel One vodka.” He explains that it’s funny because his mother can’t see past it being “the crying drunk woman” but the piece is probably his most vulnerable. Inspired by a photo he saw, the drawing embodies William’s struggles with identity.

“Feelings of who I am and how to express myself have always conflicted with who others expected me to be and how they felt I was to behave. In this piece, I am showing my internal identity, as I was on the street. Feeling alone, emotional, trying to use my body to gain acceptance and satisfaction from others, drowning the emptiness in alcohol and tears, this was my everyday, my ‘normal.’”

In creating this piece, William realized how far he has come. He describes how he now has more confidence to “let my outside match my inside” and feels he will have the strength to be more himself in spite of people who may be intolerant or unaccepting.

“My incarceration has been a continuous struggle with identity; who I am versus who I need to be in order to be safe and secure in a microcosm of violence and hatred.” Creating allows William, but also others who view his work, to understand his thoughts and feelings at any given moment. “Art, to me, is a way of sorting out what my mind and senses throw at me” — a way of bringing thoughts and emotions into focus. No matter what media he uses or how he’s currently feeling, William expresses how, “I feel comforted knowing I will be able to tell my story to the best of my ability. Art and its expression has helped me through these rough years of being in a strange and uncomfortable world by allowing my voice to be heard.”

You can view more of William’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like William, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Gabriel Ross

JAC recently spoke with Gabriel Ross, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Gabriel (MA Catechetics and Liturgy, University of St. Thomas) is the founding director of Creative Spirit, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring spirituality through the arts. Gabriel has facilitated adult education courses and intergenerational programming for over 25 years. She leads women’s spirituality groups and teaches courses on comparative religions, eco-spirituality, creativity and spirituality. Gabriel designed and leads the Soul Journal programs for incarcerated women and Befriending Creation camp for girls. Her unique program offerings include drum and ritual groups and Mystics at the River.

The goal of the Soul Journal program is for the women to leave prison stronger than when they arrived. Prison Mother’s Soul Journal invites the participants to a deeper level of self-understanding, leading to more positive ways to communicate with and parent their children. Creating the journal gives incarcerated women a unique and creative way to see their lives as a process of change and transformation, which is vital to the rehabilitation process. The process itself has transformative power that is extended when journals and new knowledge are shared, helping to heal wounded relationships with children, other family members, and the broader community. The mothers in this program learn positive parenting techniques and new ways to share their values and hopes with their children. Prison leaders see the positive results of creating new circles of support within the prison.

Gabriel is generously sharing the Soul Journal Curriculum for Mothers in Prison with the JAC network as a resource to use once it is safe to go back into prisons. It can be accessed here and under Practitioner Handbooks/Curricula in the JAC Resources tab. 

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

GR: I founded a small non-profit called Creative Spirit that is dedicated to the imaginative expression of spirituality through the arts. Part of my work was teaching Soul Journal Classes to women in the general public and one of our board members thought it might be a good fit for women in prison.  Our board member had a friend who worked at the local women’s prison and she set up the connection to begin the Soul Journal programming.

JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programming you have been creating?

GR: Our Women in Prison Soul Journal Programs use the power of narrative art to explore new paths to heal, become stronger, and find hope for the future. The work is unique because the curriculum has been written specifically for incarcerated women with input from the women.

Since the first Soul Journal class at the prison in January of 2012 we have developed four different courses based on the needs of the women and prison staff requests:

  1. Mother’s program
  2. Program for women with long-term sentences
  3. CIP (boot camp) program
  4. Native American program

JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art?

GR: Teaching in prison has absolutely impacted my teaching practices.  Most of my students have never been given the opportunity to sit quietly and reflect on their lives and their values.  Having the opportunity to explore these ideas and express them with art, poetry and writing is new for the women and can be challenging.  I need to provide engaging exercises, thought provoking material and a variety of strong images to enable their self-expression.  It is also about being able to facilitate discussion about their work, finding safe ways for them to share their journals.  And of course teaching in prison means finding alternative ways to be creative with the limited art supplies that can be brought into the building.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

Seeing what visual journaling can open for them, and the positive effects the program can have for the women.  For the Mother’s program, seeing the women find a new creative way to connect with their child/ren.  For the Native American program, seeing the women discover Native teaching and values and being proud of their tribal heritage.  For the CIP (boot camp program) seeing the women experience confidence and self-worth as they approach graduation. I always leave the prison feeling like I made a difference in their lives and they express their gratitude.  Here are some comments from participants:

From the Native American program:

“Soul Journal helped me reflect on what being a Native American woman means and what it means to me and it also inspired me to want to get more involved in ceremony and be more traditional when it comes to raising my children.”

“This class reminded me not to be ashamed/embarrassed of who I am. It helped me remember how much I love who I am and how beautiful my/our culture is. I cannot wait to start going to ceremonies again and help educate the youth about who they are.”

From the Mother’s program:

“I have learned all the ways to express my love and expectations and dreams to my children.  I loved that this group made me know and feel better to express my dreams and also share and be open to the wrongs I’ve done so my children don’t do or follow my negative ways.  This class helped me to have strength to change and become a positive mother.”

“This was awesome.  I was skeptical – once in the class I was surprised at how much I was able to open up about as well as see even on the inside.  I’m still able to be a positive influence with my children and hear what a good parent I actually have been and will continue to be.  Thank you for this opportunity to do this – it was tremendous.”

From the CIP (boot camp) program:

“Soul Journal has given me a sense of power I didn’t even know that I had. It is the greatest gift I have been given. I’ve been able to find a lot of inner peace and reflect on how I feel.”

“Soul Journal helped me reflect on my life in a less negative way.  I was able to begin the process of letting go of resentments.”

“Soul Journal got me looking at what I want in a relationship and about some things I need to deal with from my past to heal.  I would only suggest that as many squads as possible get this opportunity – it IS an amazing journey.”

JAC: As you know, 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? 

GR: I have not been allowed into the prison here since the middle of March 2020.

There are no opportunities for on-line or correspondence courses.  About a month ago a group of formerly incarcerated Native American women (I had in classes at the prison) contacted me and asked me to do a reentry Soul Journal program with them.  We have started to meet and hope to continue to gather.  Not being able to go into the prison has been disheartening for me and the prison program director said that the women really miss the Soul Journal programs.  There is no certainty about when the women’s prison will open to program personnel.

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? 

A supportive network includes a place to present, discuss and get ideas for this very important work with incarcerated people.  The network might also include the opportunity to connect with other local artists looking toward the possibility of collaboration.

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.

Artist Spotlight: O.G. Blue

By Molly Wooliver, JAC Intern

Marlowe Brown was born in Asheville, North Carolina but moved coast to coast and back again before he was old enough to go to school. He describes having had “a typical childhood of a young person of color”: he went to school, joined the track and field team, and participated in other school-related activities. But things changed, and ‘typical became atypical’ when Marlowe’s classmates noticed he had blue eyes. The girls seemed to like it, but the boys didn’t, resulting in a couple of fights a week. Although the fighting came naturally to him, talking to girls did not. Girls liked him but conversing did not come easily: “I would often get tongue-tied.”

Marlowe Brown first became ‘O.G. Blue’ when a particularly pretty girl passed him a note in class. He wrote back and was able to say exactly what he felt on paper. She shared the note with her friends, and after that, every girl in the class wanted a note from him. He wouldn’t label himself as the smartest kid in school, but his favorite class was English, where, he says, “I did learn one thing, which was that pen and paper are a powerful communication tool.”

Blue’s creative process is simple. “I think of exactly what I want to say, sort of like putting a puzzle together in my head, and when it’s done, I lay down the completed puzzle.” These days he finds inspiration in a lot more things than he was able to when he was younger. When he first started writing poetry, it was only about a particular idea or person, but later in life, he discovered he could turn anything into verse. “Real people inspire me, smart people. A happy situation inspires me; a special lady inspires me, one that you think of even when you’re supposed to be concentrating on something else.” 

Writing has helped him throughout his years of incarceration because, through his text, he can paint a picture with words, whether he’s writing to family, friends, or for business purposes. “When I was in high school, I could actually relate to people and situations better through pen and paper rather than in person, but as I grew, attended a few civic organizations, I can speak and express myself in person, even public speaking now.”

Writing has also helped him in processing his experiences and emotions. He says that a lot of his writing is inspired by real-life: “[Everyone knows that] the sun doesn’t shine every day, and I bring that to a point.”

“Poetry and writing awaken my mind to things that I could only dream of and I wanted to hold onto that thought for as long as I possibly could; therefore, I put it to pen and paper for a lasting reminder.”

Although O.G. Blue’s primary focus is poetry, he is currently expanding his portfolio and writing three thriller novels: High Anxiety, Why Are We Here?, and Never Die Alone. Writing comes to him more naturally now, whether in verse, letters, or novels. The real challenge he faces with writing is when it comes to legal matters, and he says his difficulties in that area exist for a reason. “Most people of color are laymen with the judicial system. After all, it was meant to be that way”. The COVID-19 crisis has made Marlowe feel more aware of life because, for now, the world is in a vulnerable position like never before. He reflects on his personal losses and shares: “An old associate of mine just recently passed due to the COVID virus, everyone that knew him would acknowledge him as Old Joe, he will be remembered”. Things have never been this different. He misses the idea of the ‘old world’ — a world older than COVID, a time with fewer technologies. A simpler time, “when you could tell the make of a car just from its sight, a handshake was prevalent, and when you were invited into your neighbor’s house, you could take your shoes off and sit a spell.”

“The mental picture on the poem, ‘Old Friends’, was how life was in what I consider now, ‘the old world’, when you could leave your windows up on a hot summer’s nite, a handshake between men sealed a deal. When a man’s word represented him even bad things had a reason, not accepted but they were less complicated and demented. When our kids went to school and returned safe and sound.”

“The poem ‘Between Us’ was based on the fact of something all humans long for. In other human-beings which is trust, compassion, understanding and respect. Once these emotions are acquired and acknowledged; it’s like magic. Then you have a relationship as strong as King Kong.”

You can view more of O.G. Blue’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like O.G. Blue, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Judy Dworin

JAC recently spoke with Judy Dworin, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. The Judy Dworin Performance Project (JDPP) is an arts non-profit that harnesses creative expression as a catalyst for positive change. JDPP uses dance, theater performance, and multi-arts engagement to examine social issues, build bridges of understanding across diverse communities, and inspire both individual growth and collective action. Judy founded JDPP in 1989 based on a commitment to the important role the arts can and do play in creating change in our universe – personal, educational, and global. She oversees the entire organization’s activities as well as the artistic direction of the Ensemble and designs the curriculum and programming for the Bridging Boundaries programs in which she is a lead teaching artist.

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

JD: Judy Dworin Performance Project [JDPP] has always had its mission art as a change agent and giving voice. Prison wasn’t necessarily on my radar screen in terms of that mission. Sixteen years ago we were invited to perform at a conference for volunteers in prison and after seeing our performance, Wally Lamb, who is a well-known novelist and led a very successful writing group at York Correctional Institution for many years, asked my colleague, Kathy Borteck Gersten, if we had ever considered working with women in prison. We hadn’t really thought of it but, I asked myself, why haven’t we thought of it? So I called Wally and he put me in touch with Joe Lea, the York librarian and media specialist and self-appointed arts coordinator at York, who has brought so many arts offerings to York in his time working there, and Joe led our way through the bureaucracy so it could happen. The thought was to do a multi-arts residency using spoken word, dance, and song on the theme of ‘time’ as experienced by the women. We had an initial conversation with eight women who were in different arts groups at the prison. We were deeply moved by this conversation—when they told us the amount of time served and left to serve it took our breath away. It was clear that we were going to be there for the long haul. That was how it all started; since then it has grown to include a Moms & Kids Residency; an outreach in Hartford Public Schools to children with parents or loved ones in prison; a Dads & Kids Residency at Willard-Cybulski CI Reintegration Center; an outreach to York CI women who are 18 to 25 titled I AM (Imagination, Arts & Me) and several reentry initiatives including an arts workshop with returning citizens and Trinity College students called New Beginnings and a mentoring program working with the JDPP professional ensemble called Stepping Out. All of these residencies and outreaches culminate in some kind of a a performance.

JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programs you have been creating?

JD: The initial program that we started, the York performance residency which is now in its 16th year, is a very intense and intensive program. We meet monthly, then weekly, then bi-weekly, and then in 4-hour double sessions to collaboratively create a performance piece developed from the women’s original work. The residency is always based on a theme and the performance that is created becomes available to about 200 women on the compound along with invited state dignitaries. There is an evening with outside guests and a performance for families. Approximately 400 people get to see the performance including about 150 to 200 from the community. It’s really unusual that that many people are allowed in– not to the visitors room, but the school of the prison which is where we have the performance. We’re able to take some of the material that is approved by the prison out into the community so that we not only have the community coming to see the performances, but we have the performances going out with returning citizens performing with my professional ensemble. The ripple out of the program has emerged by listening and learning—our experiences teach us about new needs and they then take us to the next steps in this work.
For example, from the families performances we saw the great joy families have in connecting with their loved ones and also the impact it had on the performers, kids and family members alike. So we started a Moms & Kids program. It is unique in that we are allowed to have three special visits with the moms, their children and caregivers, one of which is a weekend in July where the women have four hours each day to be with them. We transform the prison school into an ‘arts mecca’ with stations of activities that the moms have agency in creating. The families are able to stay at a conference center nearby, a beautiful place with a petting zoo and nature trails. At the conference center we have a special caregivers group and a social worker with us who helps in leading that group.
This points to another unique aspect of our Bridging Boundaries prison programming: everything we do, we do in partnership with social work. We work closely with the social worker at York for both the performance residency and Moms & Kids program. The performance work goes very deep and the social worker is there in case something comes up for someone, or if someone on the team feels like a group member is having problems. And she runs a Moms & Kids support group for our moms throughout the year so there is real continuity throughout. We also partner with a social worker from a Hartford social service agency, Community Renewal Team (CRT), to follow up with the families after Moms & Kids and Dads & Kids visits to see if anything needs to be processed. We have found it to be a very helpful and important partnership. We work with kids in schools who have loved ones in prison through the school social worker. And our most recent outreach with the dads at Cybulski is a pre and post family conference with the CRT caseworker, the soon-to-be-returning citizen and the family to set up some shared expectations about coming home and having several sessions of follow through when the dad is released. COVID got in the way of this getting off the ground but we are hoping we can do it via phone.
Our most recent program at York is the I AM program, (Imagination Arts and Me). There is a special unit now at York, the WORTH Unit, for 18 to 25 year olds. It’s the first unit of its kind for women in the country and it provides both activities and support to help prevent recycling into prison time and time again. We received an NEA Grant to start the program and it’s been extremely successful.

JAC: How do you think your program affects participants?

JD: I feel like there’s been a huge impact within the Performance Group. For a lot of the women, they have realized for the first time they have this huge creative potential that in many cases they might never have found otherwise. We’ve had women in our residency for as many as 15 years so there are those who have an enormous longevity and then there are new people that come in. Every year they raise the bar on themselves and keep trying new things and going to the next level, and the bar is also raised for those who come in because the senior members have set a standard. There’s this incredible growth process that happens and the work becomes an anchor point for them – they become a kind of family to each other in both the performance residency and the moms in our Moms & Kids program as well. The dads at Cybulski do as well. There’s a sense of community in a place that so often discourages community. They develop trust and the ability to trust is so hard to do in prison.
It’s so incredibly moving when the women can perform for their families too. That’s not always their best performance if you were looking at it from an artistic perspective, but it’s deeply emotional—hard to get through without tears. I think it has all changed their experience of prison. I know that so many of the evaluations we get say “there’s no program like this”.
The Moms & Kids Program has made it possible for the women to hold their kids, dance with them, eat two meals with them, and create with them. It took us a very long time to get it worked out as to how we could have shared meals and the first time we did, in a group of twenty-two women, six had never eaten with their child before and that’s just mind-boggling. It was so incredible for them to have that experience with their child. Those kinds of things are so important – it makes not being able to be there now very hard.

JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art?

JD: I feel a sense of urgency to bring issues around incarceration out and bring more awareness and understanding. Social justice has always been a big part of my performance work and I’ve felt that the issues that arise in mass incarceration are rarely foregrounded. So I’ve done a lot of pieces that have been developed from material from the inside and from new material that’s written by those who are released and we now have a series of performance pieces that are about the prison experience that are performed by my professional ensemble and returning citizens. That’s been one big impact.
There’s also a style of work that we do in the prison. It’s obviously very pared-down and it combines narrative with song and dance. I’ve always been cross-disciplinary in my approach, but in this case it has been good to stay true to the sensibility of the performance that happens in the prison in the material that we take out. There is an amazing authenticity and honesty that happens there and I try to infuse the outside work with the same sensibility. The women are outstanding and their strength, their stories, their resilience is a huge part of the impact of the work.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists and actors?

This work has been transformational in my life and I think it’s been transformational in the lives of everybody who’s on the team and everybody who participates. It’s very emotional work and I find myself on the edge of tears at times because the women and men at Cybulski hit on such essential things about life, and about people, and about possibility. I have not talked much about the dads at Cybulski which is a newer program (2016 we were invited by the Department of Correction to initiate it), but their work has been equally strong – making themselves vulnerable and growing in self, within their community of dads and with their families. They have fully embraced the movement activities, performing small original pieces for their families at the 3 visits—all of it. It has been beautiful.
I feel very lucky to have dropped into all of this and I feel very committed and driven to be sure it keeps going and it keeps growing. I may not be able to change the system but I can work to affect as many people as possible within it, in the most positive ways possible so that everyone’s life can be better. It’s seeing someone who never thought they could speak out their narrative, tell their story, or deal with wherever they are in their process of healing and growth and with trauma that may be so deep, and they DO it. A social worker that we work closely with at York said to me, “you know, you get to the stories that we can’t get to and then we process it”. I think it’s true there’s a sense of trust and safety in this arts work that allows a kind of growth to happen that doesn’t happen in other situations and I think that’s so incredibly rewarding.

JAC: What is your greatest challenge as a teaching artist in the justice system? Are there any current obstacles you are trying to overcome as an organization?

JD: We have learned through the years how to work with the Department of Correction– to both understand the ways that they’re comfortable with things happening and to gradually build trust to be able to expand that. We look at it as a partnership because we’ve been there a long time and, over time, gradually, we’ve been able to do things that go beyond what would normally be allowed. We are very careful that everybody on our staff is aware of what one can and cannot do. It’s its own training and then within that, how can we preserve and optimize the integrity and the value of what we want to do, and not have that suffer as a result. And expand it along the way. We’re very interested in longevity and seeing it through the long haul so that we keep building and finding the balance of how far we can build each year. That’s been a really valuable learning process and how to be patient and know that all the ideas that one has in the beginning are most likely only going to happen slowly over time and not all at once. I mean, the shared meals are a perfect example. That took six years to happen and it was frustrating. But you have to keep working on it and believing in it and not losing sight that eventually it can happen. The other thing is trying to make sure nothing happens that will jeopardize the program or that nothing happens in other programs at the prison that will jeopardize all programs. You also always have to maintain absolute flexibility because you can drive an hour and 15 minutes to get to the prison and arrive there and find it in lockdown and you can’t go in. But one must be persistent in one’s vision, patient, and it is critical to never give up. If you have an idea, know what the balance of it all is, and know how to present it so that it can move forward, if not right away then in time.
I feel that that if you take a kind of adversarial stance against the prison administration, you won’t last. We are there because of the permission we’ve been given to walk in those doors. One has to honor that; you don’t have to agree with the structures in place, in many cases one doesn’t necessarily, but you need to know that you’ve been given that permission and how can you best utilize that for the betterment of everybody.

JAC: The JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. Has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

JD: All of our programs have been able to continue during COVID. The only one that we have not found a solution for yet is our schools programs for kids who have loved ones in prison, because they need to be in cohorts and they can’t mix in-between classes. We’ve been able to reach out to the kids who are part of our Moms & Kids and Dads & Kids programs. We send them monthly books, art materials, writing prompts and on our Facebook page we have Suzi Jensen on our staff who herself had a mom in prison when she was growing up, reading stories every week. And a social worker from CRT checks in on the caregivers each month to see if any services or help is needed. Pre-COVID we also created a Resource Guide for families who have loved ones in prison that lists all the resources in the six major cities in Connecticut that we hope is helpful during this time too.
We are creating booklets through correspondence with all of our groups in the prisons, sending writing and art prompts via the prison counselors that we edit and get designed by a graphic designer and then printed and distributed to program participants and their families. At the men’s prison, prison admin has approved the dads who live in one unit to meet as a group, guided by the senior members to maintain the connections and collaborative spirit of our Dads & Kids program. But it is still hard not to be there and great when I get their writings and art and get a sense of how they’re doing and where they’re going with their work.

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?

JD: Something that I’ve found very useful is the bi-weekly sharing of how all of us are dealing with COVID-19 in our prison outreaches. We’re reinventing ourselves in so many ways in our lives and in our work and trying to navigate that through the prison system has its own variables and distinct challenges. To hear what people in other parts of the country are doing is very useful and it has also brought me to realize how different situations are– what’s allowed in certain places that we would never be allowed to do. So I think establishing national conversations as opposed to conversations just within one’s own sphere are terrific. Right now it’s COVID, hopefully after it’ll be another more positive catalyst– conversations and idea sharing are so helpful. Each of us has our own way of doing things and we have so much to learn and benefit from each other, so these informal conversations have been really key. Also a national conference would be a great idea to realize.
I feel that if people are allowed to feel the common humanity that exists among all of us, they can feel the wisdom that comes out of the performances that emerge in the prison work that we do and gain a different understanding of who lives behind the razor wire and some of the critical issues that surround mass incarceration.