The Becomings of A Master: Abstract

By R. Zumar

This is the first piece of abstract art that I’ve ever made. I didn’t know what it would mean to me once it was finished and really didn’t have a plan of what I wanted when I was looking at this blank piece of paper in front of me. Then I started thinking about this pandemic we all are going through, how it spreads to all four corners of the world with no reprieve no matter who you are. It spreads and takes us further from each other cause we are force to isolate to fight it, but in that isolation we are not really alone. While the virus spreads sickness and death we can spread kindness, life, love, help one another when we can and have empathy for our fellow man.

We will make it through this and I believe we will be even closer to each other once we do. I only wish to spread hope for now and eternity. What is it that you wish to spread.

The Spread

I am the artist R.Zumar and this is The Spread. This is The Becomings of a Master.

About the guest contributor:

“I’m Rayfel Zumar Bell known as R. Zumar and discovered my passion for art while incarcerated. I’m a self taught artist who strives to break into the art world even from a cell. I spend the lions share of my time thinking about and creating art, the rest working out and my favorite pass time, snacking :)! Through art I want to help others and contribute to various charities I care about; cancer, autism, sponsoring kids in need around the globe, and preserving wildlife.”

View the first four installments in the artist’s blog series here, here, here and here.

Rayfel asked that we include this note within this post:

“The Justice Arts Coalition!
What can I say about The Justice Arts Coalition?
I could say that they do good work. I could say that they are wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, but those would be understatements.
They don’t only do good work they do great work. They are not only wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, they believe in what they do. They are not looking to exploit artist they deal with, they are looking to help the artist grow and I greatly respect and appreciate that.
Wendy, the founder of JAC, and those that work with her does a lot. This isn’t their jobs, this is work that they volunteer to do because they believe in the concept that people can grow to be better than they were. That when you give the voiceless a voice and let them speak their truth, you can bring forth the good that’s deep within them.
I trust that JAC will always do the right thing and I don’t have much in the world in way of wealth, but what I can contribute I will. So I ask of you out there in the world to contribute how ever you can. Even $1.00 can help in contributing to the cause.
I am the artist R.Zumar and I thank you all for just being here whoever you are. This is The Becomings of a Master.”

 

Chris Trigg on the state of the arts in federal prisons

JAC network artist Chris Trigg details the enormous challenges facing incarcerated artists over the last 10 years and more recently in light of pandemic lockdowns.

Surviving prison requires some creativity. It often becomes about making the most of a bad situation. If you look, creativity manifests itself everywhere. People making something out of nothing. Some of this creative energy becomes channeled into the arts which one would think would be a positive outlet for prisoners. The policy statements seem to lend themselves to that idea. Indeed, art can be transformative and therapeutic. If nothing else the time I spend immersed in my art is time I don’t spend engaged in nefarious activities. There is little happiness to be found in prison and myriad ways to express your discontent or misery. So one would imagine that administrations would promote art as an outlet for prisoners’ energies, right?

One thing about energy is it cares not one bit for how it is expressed, so long as it is expressed. All the years of getting tough on crime that has locked up millions of souls has also converted these prisons into barren wallows of boredom. Every year they take something and replace it with nothing. Where once there were weights and pull up bars now there is dirt on concrete. Once there were jobs or an open yard to be on, now there are endless lockdowns or an hour or so outside if you’re lucky. Prison has always been a place of boredom but it is a castle of utter emptiness these days. 

The art or “hobby craft” program has suffered as well. Once we paid a 5x markup for our materials. In one wallop 10 years ago, they increased it to 30x which effectively priced the majority of federal prisoners out of the ability to afford art supplies. 

They tend to “promote” guards into the positions that oversee or control these programs and the vast majority of them know nothing about art or any of the activities they oversee. They bring an attitude of suspicion, or apathy or occasionally resentment to the job. Not all of them! Some are interested but often they are stifled by those who administrate the program. The mentality of one individual in charge of the “rec department” of which the art program was part was to be overtly hostile to any idea or request by both prisoners and staff. The question at hand is why she found her way to that position to begin with or why she stayed in it if it disinterested her to the point of hostility, but prison is so often like that so one ceases to wonder and adapts. 

The new tactic in the era of reform is to just not process orders. We have to fill out an order form. The commissary places the order from the supplier. The amount of the purchase and the 30x markup are deducted from your account and from your monthly commissary spending limit. You have a limit of $360 a month, so if you order $280 worth of stuff (including that 30x markup) which is not so hard to do as art materials aren’t cheap, you will have $80 left for your necessities for a month. That is if you can afford it. Most can’t. Many accumulate and save for months to make one order. That is to say prisoners sacrifice to buy the materials to create art. 

But lately since the federal penitentiaries exist on lockdown or modified lockdown, or any state other than normal for more often than not, they use that as an excuse to not process or cancel all orders. Even when not on lockdown, they’ll implement a reduced spending limit to punish the population further which excludes anyone from ordering art materials. The reasons for the lockdowns are not the consequence of the entire population’s actions yet the punishment is collective. It ceases even to be a punishment and just becomes the norm 24/7 locked in a small cell with a radio and little else. 

The art materials would be put to wise use in such a situation. We have all the time in the world but it sometimes feels like it’s by design. This stark stagnation en masse. People have no real idea about this world. Let’s hope they never find out. 

About the author:

I am an artist. There is a power in that statement. I spent 20 years in solitary confinement. 16 of it in the federal supermax called the adx.

If it takes 10,000 hours to master something then I am a master pastelist. I accumulated those hours and more wedged between a concrete stool and a steel toilet under two light bulbs of merciless fluorescence. I spent years there becoming good at something good. Becoming more than I was in a place built to make me less.

I left the adx in 2018. I have 4 years left on my sentence. I am an artist. I am experimenting with oils. Learning to use a medium I never had access to before. I hope my experience will translate into success in the future and that I can use what I’ve been through in activism.

You can read more about Chris and view his incredible wildlife artwork here.

Please consider joining our pARTner Project to connect directly with an artist in prison. Find more information and sign up by clicking here.

What we can learn about isolation from prison artists

This piece written by Janie Paul was originally published in The Conversation.

Reposted with the author’s permission.

Over the past few months, most of us have found ourselves in unfamiliar territory trying to shape the formlessness of our days while contending with physical separation.

Many incarcerated people, however, have spent years figuring out what to do with their time in isolation. Some discover faith, while others read and educate themselves. Then there are those who become artists.

For the past 25 years, I’ve worked as senior curator and co-founder of the Annual Exhibitions of Art by Michigan Prisoners at the University of Michigan. Each year these exhibitions draw thousands of people who view and buy the work. For the artists, these shows are a source of validation and support. They get to keep the money from sales.

Getting to know many of these artists confirmed my belief that art making is a basic human activity that gives shape to meaning. In conditions of extreme confinement, finding meaning becomes all the more urgent.

Most prison artists don’t consider making art until they become incarcerated. For many, it is a choice of growth over deterioration.

For others, like Wynn Satterlee, a former inmate in a maximum-security prison, it was a matter of life or death.

In prison, he was told he would die of cancer. With the help of friends, he took up painting.

“I painted to escape the suffering and the pain,” he told me after he was released from prison. “Ten hours a day, seven days a week, for over seven years. And I overcame cancer.”

Wynn Satterlee, ‘Free My Daddy,’ acrylic on canvas, 2005. Prison Creative Arts ProjectAuthor provided

Oliger Merko, who was born in Albania, is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

“It really shakes you up to get that sentence,” he told me during an interview at Ionia Maximum Facility in Michigan. “I was totally hopeless, drifting, with no direction. I started thinking more deeply, and when I discovered art, everything opened up. Now I paint for three or four hours a day and don’t want to stop, even if it’s chow time. It’s a real second life more than an escape.”

To make this kind of leap into artistic expression requires some basic human capacities that we often ignore but can be summoned under extreme circumstances. One involves finding the extraordinary in the ordinary – a requirement for many prison artists, who lack money for expensive art supplies.

Some eventually learn that almost anything that can be picked up and held can be made into a beautiful three-dimensional art object. They use toilet paper and glue, soap, cardboard, paper, stones from the yard, plastic lids and bottles. Robert Sarber’s sculpture “Buck/Deer” was made from toilet paper and glue and then painted with acrylic.

Robert Sarber, ‘Buck/Deer,’ toilet paper, glue and acrylic, 2017. Prison Creative Arts ProjectAuthor provided

Kenneth Mariner makes dioramas out of cardboard, old folders, thread, glue, tissue, acrylic paint and twist ties.

Kenneth Mariner, ‘House Diorama,’ cardboard and mixed media, 2019. Prison Creative Arts ProjectAuthor provided

Many prison artists cultivate the ability to focus for extended periods of time. This discipline is a way to resist the monotony and violence of prison life.

John Bone learned to draw by doing hundreds of drawings of his cell, sometimes working 16 hours a day, observing every detail of his environment. His scrutiny of something with no intrinsic beauty – coupled with close attention to the tonal values and spatial structures of his drawing – resulted in remarkable works.

John Bone, ‘Cell Scene,’ Graphite, 2010. Prison Creative Arts ProjectAuthor provided

While learning to draw, Billy Brown was getting frustrated. Then, one day, he prayed for a vision and came up with an extraordinary technique for colored pencil drawings on black paper. At the beginning of each stroke, he lightly presses on the paper; as he moves the pencil, he increases the pressure, which makes the color more saturated.

Billy Brown, ‘Moving People,’ colored pencil on paper, 1999. Prison Creative Arts ProjectAuthor provided

What enables a person to focus with such attention for so long in such isolation?

The prison artists I know are motivated by a powerful need to assert their identity and explore unmet needs for love, beauty, nature and animals, a sense of accomplishment, and the ability to communicate intense feelings. This desire is so strong that people start making art without the self-doubt that most non-artists in the world would feel.

Karmyn Valentine, a carpenter by trade, had never made art before coming to prison. In her first painting, “My Pain,” she was able to find form for her suffering.

Karmyn Valentine, ‘The Way It Feels,’ watercolor on paper, 2016. Prison Creative Arts ProjectAuthor provided

“I was abused and betrayed and so that is why the arrow is coming from the back,” she said. “I am touching the arrow because the pain is my constant companion. I lived with it before I came into prison and I live with it now.”

There’s a freedom these artists can access in the choices they make about content, materials, marks, texture, colors, shapes and surfaces. The very act of making these choices is a way to reclaim their agency. This is significant in a system that treats people as objects to be moved about, counted, chained, searched and assigned a number.

Time and the future change when prisoners become creators rather than objects. Once artists imbue their day-to-day lives with purpose and meaning, waking up no longer becomes something to dread. As Merko explained: “Before I became an artist, every day was routine, and now, even though in prison you want the days to pass quickly, I sometimes wish the day was longer when I’m painting. It’s like I don’t belong in time anymore.”

Prison artists develop a practice in which one work of art leads to another, pointing them toward a path of endlessly unfolding possibilities and a feeling of being grounded. To those of us living with stress and frustration during COVID-19 restrictions, these artists demonstrate how to develop an inner space of freedom – and how to live imaginatively and purposefully in a strange new world.

 

Janie Paul is the Senior Curator and the Co-Founder of the Annual Exhibitions of Art by Michigan Prisoners, a project of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus at the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan. Now in its 25th year, the PCAP Annual Exhibition is the largest exhibit of art by incarcerated artists in the world. It is both a vehicle for bringing this important artwork into the world and a foundation of continuous support for the artists inside. Janie has facilitated visual art workshops in prisons in Southeastern Michigan and has brought her university art students into prisons and juvenile facilities to facilitate art workshops. While doing this work with incarcerated artists, and with her own art practice as background, Janie has become an expert in the artmaking culture in prisons and the art practices of individual artists. She is completing a book about this work.

The Becomings of A Master: The Portrait Series #3

By R. Zumar

This is baby Harmoni, born January 27th, 2020. I look at her at peace with no worries in the world. A new little human gifted to us, a life with so much potential. Like all children, at least in our country, she will have the basics to survive and grow. She will have clothes on her back, food in her mouth, and a roof over her head; but like for my son I think of what the future holds for her, for all children born to us. What will they become?

Blessed child

Will we teach them to be like us? Be worse than us? Or will we help them grow to be better than us? I can only wish for the latter. Each generation should be a little better than the last generation. Just because we’re not going to live forever doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about the quality of life for our descendants 100 to 1000 years from now and more. But to do that we must be better than we were.

Each life is a blessed life, it’s only hell if you choose it to be.

I am R. Zumar and this is Blessed Child. These are The Becomings of a Master.

 

About the guest contributor:

“I’m Rayfel Zumar Bell known as R. Zumar and discovered my passion for art while incarcerated. I’m a self taught artist who strives to break into the art world even from a cell. I spend the lions share of my time thinking about and creating art, the rest working out and my favorite pass time, snacking :)! Through art I want to help others and contribute to various charities I care about; cancer, autism, sponsoring kids in need around the globe, and preserving wildlife.”

View the first five installments in the artist’s blog series here, here, here, here and here.

Rayfel asked that we include this note within this post:

“The Justice Arts Coalition!
What can I say about The Justice Arts Coalition?
I could say that they do good work. I could say that they are wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, but those would be understatements.
They don’t only do good work they do great work. They are not only wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, they believe in what they do. They are not looking to exploit artist they deal with, they are looking to help the artist grow and I greatly respect and appreciate that.
Wendy, the founder of JAC, and those that work with her does a lot. This isn’t their jobs, this is work that they volunteer to do because they believe in the concept that people can grow to be better than they were. That when you give the voiceless a voice and let them speak their truth, you can bring forth the good that’s deep within them.
I trust that JAC will always do the right thing and I don’t have much in the world in way of wealth, but what I can contribute I will. So I ask of you out there in the world to contribute how ever you can. Even $1.00 can help in contributing to the cause.
I am the artist R.Zumar and I thank you all for just being here whoever you are. This is The Becomings of a Master.”

Black Lives Matter

We write this message in response to the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, David McAtee and countless other Black people at the hands of police and law enforcement across the country. As a community that includes many people impacted by our unjust law enforcement and carceral systems, we mourn the deaths and the brutalization of Black people under these violent systems of anti-Blackness and white supremacy. We assert and reaffirm that Black Lives Matter. 

 

At JAC, we work to amplify the voices and creative expression of artists who have experienced incarceration, because we know that the objectives of this system are to silence and dehumanize. The foundations of the system are slavery, colonization, and institutionalized anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. We stand against the continued oppression and dehumanization of Black people, and stand with the protestors who are refusing to remain silent. We are disturbed and angered by the efforts of law enforcement to deny their right to free expression and to demand true justice. The use of physical violence, tear gas, rubber bullets, and other militarized tactics against civilians is horrifying and unacceptable, both in this country and abroad.  

 

JAC’s mission is to “harness the transformative power of the arts to reimagine justice.” The current moment has revealed to us that we at JAC must do better. We invite and implore you, especially those that are non-Black or white allies, to join us in efforts to educate ourselves and take action, as it is not enough to reimagine justice – we need to collectively work towards a complete transformation of the system. 

 

We will be reading and engaging with the work of Black scholars, activists, theorists, and authors, sitting in discomfort, and learning and unlearning in the process of becoming antiracist. This is not a program with a beginning and end, but a lifelong undertaking and responsibility. 

 

We will be following the leadership and amplifying the voices of Black people and organizations that have been doing the work of dismantling white supremacy and anti-Blackness, as well as the systems that perpetuate them.  

 

Education is vital, but action is even more so. We have compiled a document containing resources on where you can donate (grassroots organizations, bail funds, and funds for basic needs) and get involved. It is a work in progress, and we encourage you to contribute to it. 

 

JAC will be continually working on how we can be actively antiracist as an organization, and how we can best show up for and support the Black artists, friends, educators and professionals in our network. 

 

As always, we welcome your thoughts and input on how we might go forward in solidarity, healing, and action.