Art Connects Us

Dear friends,

Our team is grateful to our wonderful community for contributing to and engaging with JAC in so many ways over the last year, through some very challenging times. We’re excited to celebrate the launch of Maryland’s first multidisciplinary, distance learning arts program serving incarcerated women, CorrespondARTS, with all of our friends and supporters.

When COVID-19 began sweeping the country, shutting down visitations and programming in prisons nationwide, here at JAC we knew we had to push harder to maintain connections with artists inside. With our pARTner project and ArtLinks events in place online, enabling people on the outside to connect with the incarcerated artists in our network and engage with their creative work, we explored untapped possibilities to build even more bridges.

After much planning JAC formed a team of highly experienced, passionate local teaching artists who had lost their programs in prisons and jails as a result of the Covid lockdowns. Together with our Founding Director, they developed a 6 month pilot project, with activity packets offering prompts and lessons in theatre, visual art, creative writing, and poetry are being delivered every two weeks to the  Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, Each participant will receive feedback and reflections on the work they return to us. JAC is the organizing body for this project, but the creative control is in the hands of four fabulous teaching artists, Lori Pitts of Voices Unbarred, Schai Schairer of FIST DC, Carien Quiroga, and Leslie Bumstead.

Untitled. Joshua Earls

CorrespondARTS is being funded in part through a grant awarded to us by the Maryland State Arts Council. We are grateful for this support and hope to be able to supplement our budget to help cover the costs of art supplies and printing and to adequately compensate our team members for their time and labor.

On this Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving, help us fund CorrespondARTS and reestablish opportunities for creative expression during this time of isolation and crisis. Please donate to our campaign so we can sustain this much-needed program!

  • A $50 donation covers art supplies for 5 participants
  • A $70 donation covers printing costs for 20 packets of art curriculum
  • A $150 donation covers the full cost for 3 participants for 1 round (incl. printing, curriculum design, and supplies)
  • A $500 donation covers the full cost for 10 participants for 1 round (incl. printing, curriculum design, and supplies)

“It is enough that our time with loved ones is taken from us in penalty. Our voices and hearts expression should have a continuum always, this is the essence of life and no one should be allowed to take that from any individual under any circumstances. So thank you so much for providing an outlet for this; it’s rewarding to me to have this form of expression, correspondence, communication. I sincerely hope this is reciprocated to you and the members of the Coalition committee who work to make this possible that they can continually feel their efforts are making a difference and receive a beneficial impact in their own lives as well.” –Cedar, artist

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for being a part of our vibrant community and supporting us in so many ways!

In peace, love, and solidarity,

The JAC team

ImageWhat can you give this Giving Tuesday?

We are setting out to raise $10,000 to ensure the sustainability of CorrespondARTS. Please help us reach our goal!

Your donation through our fiscal sponsor, The William James Association, is 100% tax deductible.

Artist Spotlight: Jeremiah Murphy

by Molly Wooliver, JAC Intern

Creating art is a powerful and effective way to express how a person is feeling and what they are thinking, and to see how they interact with the world. It can help with understanding yourself as well as other people in a way that other forms of communication cannot. Painter and photographer, Jeremiah Murphy, reflects on his relationship with art and how it has changed over the years: “I didn’t have art as an outlet when I was a kid and it definitely hindered my self-expression.” Jeremiah wasn’t properly introduced to art until he started attending McIntosh College in Dover, New Hampshire in 2004. He took a painting class taught by Richard Hamilton Jr. as part of his photography curriculum and “everything changed.”

“Richard Hamilton is an immensely talented painter and photographer whose passion for his art spurred my interest in painting,” Jeremiah says. “He was surely that one great teacher in my life.” Finding his own inspiration from his professor’s passion, Jeremiah was finally able to express himself in a way that felt like his, and in a way that helped him address his past. “Like many other people that find themselves behind bars, my youth was one of abuse, neglect, and a resulting feeling of isolation. I spent my life ignoring the issues I developed in childhood, which led to the terrible decisions and acts that landed me here, in prison.”

While inside, Jeremiah continues to strengthen his relationship with himself through his art. With painting being his most significant new tool to use, he says, “I can lose myself in the act and truly live in the moment. It’s become a form of meditation.”

Jeremiah finds inspiration in many things, but his primary inspiration is his son. “He never really saw me excel at anything before I was locked up. I hope that my passion for creating art will make him proud for his dad.” Another thing he hopes for is to stir emotions in the people who see his work. Despite calling himself his own worst critic, “that kind of acceptance of my work gives me a great sense of accomplishment and drives me to create more.” However, being able to create more is increasingly difficult. 

Supplies are limited on the inside but Jeremiah looks to create unique textures by experimenting with different techniques and mediums. “My favorite part of the process is creating backgrounds. I strive to create interest and depth using various items and my latest whim. I’ve even applied toilet paper (un-used!) to several canvases over the years.” He paints almost exclusively in acrylics for the ease of use and fast drying time. Jeremiah works by applying a lot of layers and washes, and tends to use his fingers to smear and soften lines. “I like to work quickly and will often have two or three canvases going at once, so quick-drying paint allows me to move along.”

During COVID-19 lockdown, the ability of the artists like Jeremiah to create has been severely restricted. This is especially true for the painters as their studio is located in the gymnasium, which has been closed since April. Jeremiah admits to going a little (“meaning a lot”) stir crazy, but he has had some creative outlets. “I’ve been asked to paint several murals in the ‘leisure’ library, the law library and some classrooms. It’s only one day a week but I’ll take it!”

When asked what the Justice Arts Coalition can do to further support incarcerated artists, Jeremiah said, “It’s not that you don’t already accomplish this, but if I were to emphasize anything you might do, I would ask that you continue to show the world our humanity. Especially in America, the tendency is to demonize those that run afoul of the law and to never let them, or never want them, to again become a part of society.”

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

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.