Nate Fish: Brick of Gold

JAC recently spoke with Nate Fish, founder of the Brick of Gold Publishing Company. Brick of Gold publishes the art and writing of incarcerated people and offers art, copy, direction, design, video, and print services. Since 2016, they’ve published three books containing work from incarcerated artists. 

Words Uncaged, 128-G: Art and Writing from a California State Prison is Brick of Gold’s most recent book, a collection of art and writing from inmates at Calipatria State Prison in Southern California. “What you have in your hands is not only a collection of art but a collection of voices,” says Joel Baptiste, one of the inmates. “[We] have amazing stories to share if you’re willing to look and listen.” 

128-G consists of scans of original artifacts from inside Calipatria – drawings on paper, napkins, and other found materials, typed and handwritten letters, birthday cards, and powerful photos from filmmaker Danny Dwyer. All the material in 128-G comes from Words Uncaged, a non-profit organization running art and writing programs in several California prisons.

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

NF: I started Brick of Gold in 2016. I never intended to publish art and writing from prisoners. It was just a vanity press to publish my own work and the work of friends. But my childhood friend, Ray Adornetto, was working in prisons in California for an organization called Words Uncaged. Ray sent me the work of the prisoners, and I knew right away I was going to stop publishing myself and start publishing them instead. It was just more impactful than the work professional writers were producing, myself included. We published two collections of prison writing in 2018, and just released our third book with Words Uncaged, 128-G: Art and Writing from a California State Prison. It’s broken into the artbook circuit which was one of our goals for the book. 

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

NF: Well, first, Words Uncaged deserves the credit. They are the experts, and they are the ones going into the prisons and doing the difficult work. But as for Brick of Gold and the books we’re putting out, we are trying something a little different because we are taking artbook sensibilities to prison publishing. We are basically taking what can be interpreted as gritty, outsider work and making it into beautiful artbooks. I do not think that’s been done before. We want to challenge the art establishment to include this work in their definition of what’s important, and get the books into museum shops and artbook stores so people with resources can see it. The ultimate goal is policy change, but we think we can help move the dial that direction by presenting the work this way. It is very difficult to continue denying people their humanity and liberty once you see and read the books. 

JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art or creative practices? What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

NF: I have been writing less and editing more. I have to read and edit and art direct the books with the designers we hire and that takes a lot of time, so I have shifted a bit from writing to curating. But I still do write and publish my own work as well. I am also a visual artist. Crafting our books has definitely sharpened my ability to conceptualize large scale projects in general. I would say though that the work of the prisoners we publish has had more of an emotional impact on me than a professional impact. They’ve taught me more about being a good person than being a good artist. 

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

NF: Yes. Words Uncaged cannot get into prisons right now, like most organizations and individuals doing this kind of work. WU runs programs in Calipatria, Lancaster, and Donovan prisons. There are outbreaks right now in Lancaster and Donovan, and a lot of the guys we work with are very sick. I keep getting messages that Joel or Jimmy or Cory are struggling. I have never even met any of the artists whose work we publish, but I feel like I know them, and it hurts to hear they’re sick. 

JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, both concerning Covid-19 and anti-racism protests, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

NF: One of the things we’ve done as a reaction to the times is put out a call for work from prisoners specifically about race in America. We want to hear about their experiences and see what solutions they have to offer. It’s important to us that in our projects we are not learning about prisoners, but are learning from prisoners, about ourselves. It’s a bit of a flip in the power dynamic we’re used to seeing with all the voyeuristic prison docs and stuff that have been coming out for decades that sort of fetishize prison. Things are magnified in prison. Every element of life is sort of laid bare, especially when it comes to race. A lot of our guys have transitioned from racist to anti-racist and we want to hear from them how they did it. We should be releasing the book on race in America in 2021. 

JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

NF: The prison reform scene is awesome but fragmented. There are dozens if not hundreds of orgs working on the same thing often not even knowing about one another. You guys know that better than anyone. It would be awesome to see a unifying organization, one place where all the work lived, and we got some collective bargaining power.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, as well as this period of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the justice system?

NF: I think the protests are more impactful than the epidemic when it comes to people examining themselves and our society. If anything, the epidemic may cause people to withdraw from thinking about the pain of others because their own resources are likely diminishing. The protests in 2020 are mostly focused on police reform. That’s great. But there was not as much talk about top to bottom reform that includes prison reform. But prison reform will inevitably come back up to the top of the news cycle at some point. It is part of the national conversation and very few things if any are as glaringly in need of reform as the prison system most people agree, even conservatives. I am not a huge fan of the word reform in general. It sounds like we need to just move the line a little bit when I think we need to move it a lot. 

JAC: What led you to JAC, and how has your experience with JAC served your own work?

NF: You guys are at the forefront of bringing awareness to prison art so it didn’t take me long to track Wendy down for a call. She’s helped me get a better understanding of prison art on a national scale, because we have only worked specifically with California Prisons. JAC has a broader reach so I can learn about when and where and how prisoners are making art all over the country because I am still pretty new to this world. 

Head to the Brick of Gold website to purchase their books and learn more about what they do. Profits from 128-G go to Words Uncaged. 

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.

As the End Comes (a tribute to Alice Walker)

by Mardie Swartz

Mardie Swartz has spent 29 years behind bars in Texas. This poem is about the time approaching when she will finally be beyond bars.

I remember beginnings –

The first time I was molested

Sold, abandoned, raped

The first drink, snort, shot of

Whatever would numb some

of the pain. The first time I

ran, and the first time I

just stayed and closed my eyes.

The first time I tried to hang.

 

I recall pissing on myself

In fear when I entered jail

at sixteen. The smell of

vomit, stale bodies, and

broken lives seeping into my

skin and hair as

I huddled in a corner

trying to be invisible again.

 

I can still feel the smooth

slice and burn of steel parting

flesh. The pulse of my lifeblood

racing forth when I tried to

Give the state back my seventy-five years –

The easy way…….

A cascading red necklace

made of anguish and despair.

 

As days became months,

became years

then decades which melded into

monotonous monologues with different

faces but familiar themes,

hope became dust motes in a sunbeam –

briefly glimpsed, but intangible,

Weightless

Subjective

Meaningless

 

And yet.

With the changing of the

calendars, the changes in

the mirror, came the

changes in my soul –

Emerging from the shattered

mess of degradation and shame

arose a survivor, a warrior

an unconquerable heart

who dared to look up,

lift my head,

and piece together a life amid the dross and dregs

of the irredeemable.

 

As the end comes,

I realize

everything I’ve heard

about it

is false.

 

Betrayal no longer matters

Hatreds are forgotten,

forgiven. Abrupt

Partings for weird reasons

are resolved, and love

comes crashing against

my heart’s door.

 

There is no longer fear

of the unknown

but a gripping, relentless

excitement

as months become days,

become hours,

minutes,

seconds –

 

And I walk out the gates

to a new beginning

toward my own

until now unimaginable

destiny

without fences and bars

“My body may be imprisoned, but nothing can keep my creative vision from reaching out beyond these walls.” – the unbounded heartwork of Carole Alden

Woman Impaled - Part 1 of Bars Triptych
Prison Cell Bars Triptych, part 1: “‘Woman impaled upon bars’: I originally did this concept when I was very first incarcerated and facing a sentence of 20 – life. I had been unexpectedly ripped from my children’s lives. Out of five children I still had two that were young enough to be at home. A 14 year old son and a 9 year old daughter. The positioning of the woman represents the overwhelming pain and mental anguish at seeing my hopes and dreams disappear beyond a horizon. I felt helpless and hopeless for a long time.”  
Woan Crocheting - Part 2 of Bars Triptych
Part 2: “The woman crocheting is an act of defiance. This is a mindset developed after over a decade. My body may be imprisoned, but nothing can keep my creative vision from reaching out beyond these walls. Whether it’s beauty, or a statement…it’s going to places I may never. This piece is about finding your voice in whatever manner available to you.”
Untitled - Part 3 of Bars Triptych
Part 3: “In this cell, the fish represents the protective mental and emotional barriers we construct to keep ourselves safe. The child represents the changes we go through to nurture our new dreams.”
“The pregnant mermaid and the male with his back turned has to do with domestic violence. Being held captive by a spouse who hides their true nature. Feeling trapped, dead inside, and praying for your children.”
Baby Peeling Head Open
“Baby Peeling Head Open – This represents therapy in prison. You’re treated like a child in a steel playpen. Painful but necessary to examine the content of your head in order to grow beyond your circumstances.”

Mermaid and Fish

Mermaids
“There are four drawings that incorporate mermaids with children or fish. These are simply joyful pieces.”

Mermaid and Fish

Mermaid

 

 

Girl with Dragon
“‘Girl with Dragon’ represents the desire I had as a child to feel protected.”
Hippocampus
“The horse sea creature is a hippocampus from mythology. Just for fun.”

 

Cadillac - When I'm Free
“The Cadillac fiber sculpture (crochet) is a piece that is part of a “When I am free” series. It helps me to visualize a day when I am no longer in prison. I feel that it is crucial to develop a freedom within yourself regardless of your surroundings. It gives you that reservoir of spirit that keeps you intact mentally and emotionally no matter what you have to cope with behind bars. If you believe that they can’t take who you are away from you, then they won’t be able to ever silence you completely. Creating works of art and words are the best way to continue your connection with the larger world.”

When I Am Free

When I Am Free

When I Am Free

 

 

 

Piercing the wall: An invitation through letters on art

by Treacy Ziegler
Henry Haro - Seeing the Sun
Prisoner Henry Haro,  “Seeing the sky” – as part of the Points of a Compass project

 

      unsignificantly      off the coast      there was

     a splash quite unnoticed

     this was

     Icarus drowning

William Carlos Williams’ poem on Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting – Landscape with the fall of Icarus:

Landscape with the fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Belgium, 1525-1569
Landscape with the fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Belgium, 1525-1569

On visiting a particular prison for the first time to conduct an art workshop with the prisoners, I averted the inevitable invitation of seeing the prison’s Bob Ross mural – that mural painted by a prisoner in the style of the famous public television personality who taught the world – and prisons – the joy of painting.

“Before you show me the Bob Ross mural, I got to tell you, I don’t like Bob Ross nor am I a fan of his teaching.”   The prisoners were surprised I knew of the prison’s mural.  More surprising was that I didn’t like Bob Ross’s art, “You mean, you don’t like him?”  Most surprising was being direct in saying so.  But teaching in various prisons in several states and having a through-the-mail art project with 700 prisons throughout the United States, I’ve learned that many prisons have such a mural, that Bob Ross has become the Godfather of art in prison, and that in teaching, it is best to be supportive but direct.

Unfortunately, in prison there is little art experience beyond Bob.  (My complaint about Bob is that he taught art as formulaic and encouraged the world to paint the sky through his eyes and not the individual’s.  This lack of visual autonomy supports the incarceration status.)  So when Wendy Jason, the site manager of Prison Arts Coalition suggested creating a network of artist-to-artist correspondence, developing a dialogue on art between artists on the outside and artists on the inside via a conversation through mail, I was enthusiastic.  I hesitate to speak of it as a pen-pal service.  Pen-pal suggests other things.  Instead, this correspondence has the potential of offering a dialogue focused on art knowledge, experience, discussing mediums and techniques, and art philosophy.  Since by definition a conversation goes both ways, the art experience of both parties can be expanded.

Most artists from the outside will probably not go to prison – there are all sorts of restrictions: time, distance, and so on.   But the United States postal service offers another avenue.  Developing a relationship focused on art eliminates some of the potential problems of pen-pal correspondence; over dependence upon the person outside, unintended romantic and other potential confusion when the correspondence has no specific focus.

Over the past eight years as volunteer art director of Prisoner Express, a distant learning program, I’ve had numerous writing relationships to prisoners. There are 4500 prisoners in the program and because it is a distant learning program, all prisoners are required to write into the program. We offer numerous projects in which the prisoner can participate.  But many prisoners write additional personal letters and inquiries.  Many of these inquiries are about art.

Most prison libraries do not have art books. Apparently, they are the first books to get stolen from the library.  Beyond Bob Ross, few artists are familiar to prisoners; Michelangelo, Picasso, Van Gogh. Frida has her day in prison, as does M.C. Escher. But other artists, even Rembrandt, are often not understood; as one art student in my prison class suggested, “I wouldn’t give 5 cents for a Rembrandt.” While it isn’t important this prisoner agrees Rembrandt is great, this prisoner’s experience of art might be expanded in understanding why some artists come to the front and some don’t; how art functions within a society beyond aesthetics taste; how art speaks for – or against – a particular race, generation, or class; and how art has influenced the beliefs of society.  Art is much more than pretty pictures and self-expression.

I personally receive lots of letters from prisoners and tried through the years to write back to most – a hard task with 4500 prisoners. Sometimes they write after their art was published in the general newsletter,  “I’ve been walking on clouds ever since I saw my drawing in the newsletter.”  Sometimes the prisoner has a question about one of the art curriculums.  Some letters and prisoners stand out.

Raymond first wrote to me six years ago when he was working on a drawing curriculum I sent prisoners who signed up for the course. Raymond seemed excited to work on the different assignments in the curriculum; light and shadow, perspective and other drawing exercises. However, he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to do a successful job because he was currently in solitary confinement and his drawing materials were limited to the single interior cylinder of a pen that is permitted to prisoners in solitary. Pencils are not allowed in the hole.  Regardless, he sent me several drawings. From this work, I thought Raymond might be interested in the work of Piranesi, Georges De La Tour and Courbet; sending him photocopies of these artists’ art in my reply letter.

While his drawings were compelling, it was his questions that evoked my interest. The questions suggested a person searching for greater understanding of both art and who he was in relationship to art.  There are those letters from prisoners who are not interested in learning.  These letters suggest a need for an affirmation of their existing skills;  “I’m the greatest artist in prison,” writes Donald.  While trying to be as supportive as possible, I am drawn to those artists who are willing to expand and challenge what they are already doing. Of course, the self can be challenged and battered in prison, and re-affirmation is important. But I understand my relationship to the prisoners is not as their counselor.  Instead I am a person to whom they can talk about art.  It just so happens that in pushing the parameters of art, people learn about themselves and gain strength from this knowledge.

Raymond’s questions seemed to reach beneath the surface exploring a deeper meaning in art.  In response to the images of Courbet and De La Tour, Raymond asked, “What is the difference between Courbet and De La Tour?”  On a superficial level, it is easily recognized they are both painters of people with the obvious difference of being from different eras.  But I realized Raymond was picking up something more fundamental.  Assessing their difference, I realized that Raymond was discerning the artists’ use of figures in their painting reflecting the sea change in how art functioned within society.  Courbet developed social commentary through social realism while De La Tour focused on an internal symbolism leaving the immediacy of the world.

Raymond’s thoughtful questions were even more surprising in that he had little formal education outside prison.  Raymond was incarcerated at 17 years of age and has been in prison for 20 years.  He received his high school GED in prison.  With no supportive family, he learned through his own means. Perhaps education has little impact on people’s capacity to understand the depth of art. I’ve heard friends with college education speak in superficial terms about a painting, reminding me of Woody Allen’s joke that after he sped read War and Peace, concluded, ”It was about Russia.”

 I often focus on paintings/sculpture of early Renaissance when I send art to prisoners – perhaps a little archaic for today’s inclusiveness.  But I understand that the prisoners with whom I write and meet in prison are often interested in classical drawing, and although some will argue, no one seems to draw as well – either before or after – as the white boys of the Renaissance.  (When Renaissance women and minorities, overlooked by history, are found, they will greatly contribute to this learning.)  I am particularly drawn to the paintings of the artists who were struggling to understand form.  Raphael gets too perfect for my taste.  My painting instructor called him divine because Raphael could draw a perfect circle.  But as I wrote to Raymond, “Why draw a perfect circle? – I’m more interested in seeing beyond to where that circle collapses under the burden of being perfect.  Hence, I send Raymond, Hans Memling’s diptych of a woman on one panel and a horse with a monkey on the other.  Raymond concludes his assessment, “This strange painting is inspiring,” after discussing its awkward-other-worldliness.

Inga Kimberly Brown, another artist writing to prisoners from the PE membership, takes a different approach and sends the prisoners Michael and Manuel more contemporary art.  When Manuel sent in art in the style of a silhouette – not knowing of Kara Walker’s work – Inga sent him a packet of her work including the legacy of the silhouette in the history of the American Black and slavery.

by Kara Walker

 

by Manuel Gonzalez, III

Some prisoners only send me their art with no added correspondence.  I have enough art from Leroy to have a solo exhibition of his work.  While I don’t have intense verbal correspondence with Leroy – often only receiving multiple drawings without a letter – his words on the drawings are humorous. Leroy reaches for the funny side of incarceration in surviving prison.  His work has an attractive design quality and I recently learned that Leroy spent much of his childhood accompanying his mother to quilt shows.

Coffee stained art
Coffee stained art by Leroy Sodorff

Clarence is another prisoner with whom I correspond – although it is mostly Clarence corresponding with me.  I receive about five letters a week from him.  Clarence is incarcerated in the mental health unit of a maximum-security prison.  There is a frenetic quality to his letters and I have boxes and boxes of his letters. I’m not sure when, but at some point of our correspondence, Clarence made me high priestess of a religion he developed.  I write this not in disrespect of Clarence or of mental illness. I actually am fond of Clarence’s thinking – he understands things other people find a bit obtuse.  Because I can’t always follow his letters, I engage with his letters on a visual plane – finding the marks upon the paper fascinating. Clarence recently sent me a string-bound notebook filled with pages in which every surface is covered with marks on worn paper shredded at the edges – a mysterious artifact. Clarence asks that I keep it safe and so I will.

In his continued letters, Raymond pondered the photocopies of art I sent him with comments and questions about different artists.  I sent him Caspar David Friedrich and in response to the painting, Monk on the Sea, Raymond writes:

“First off, the ‘The monk by the Sea’ was considered Friedrich’s most radical composition because he didn’t concern himself with creating an illusion of depth….. This lack of depth gives the piece a flat abstract quality.  So my question would be, what separates “abstract” in a painting from just being incomplete.”  A legitimate question for someone who has never encountered abstraction in a painting.

Raymond seemed intrigued with the concept of chiaroscuro – those patterns of light and shadows – and drew light as it changed throughout the day in his cell.  Light, no matter how little or how much, is always present; even in prison.   It becomes an available subject for prisoners to draw.

Exploring light extended to non-artists as when Daniel Perkins became interested in his cellmate’s drawing assignment on light and shadow.  Consequently, Daniel spent a month measuring the changing sunrays coming through the window of his cell as the sun moved across the sky:

Sunrays in cell, recorded by Daniel Perkins
Sunrays in cell, recorded by Daniel Perkins

Later, Raymond asked about that phenomenon artists refer to as lost and found – elements in painting disappearing or becoming more evident; he asked about the difference between an illustration and fine art.  In one letter, Raymond asked if art needs to explain itself and to what extent a painting/artist is accountable for being understandable.  Even if I have no answers for these questions, they offered the opportunity for a thoughtful correspondence.

 Sometimes, I get questionable requests from prisoners.  I had been writing to Jimmy for a year or two when he asked if I send him pictures of children in swimsuits. He also asked for images of Sally Mann’s photographs, the photographer who took images of her children in the nude. I have no idea whether Jimmy is in prison for sexual predatory behaviors, but the request seemed wrong.

Perhaps, it was an innocent request.  In teaching at a men’s maximum-security prison, I brought several books on paintings; including those of Raphael.  In viewing the paintings of Raphael’s baby Jesus, I realized the inappropriateness for prison.  I told my class that while I was not directing my concerns to them, there were, in fact, individuals in prison who were confused about their sexuality in relationship to children.  Therefore, the rule was made that even little baby Jesus had to wear a diaper in prison.

I’m surprised the prison guards allowed the Raphael painting book into prison.  It’s hard to believe that the postal mailrooms in prisons are more diligent than the front gate in the search for contraband.  Regardless, rules are constant.  Some mail rules are obvious with obvious reasons; no nude children, no frontal nudes; no women in chains; no guns.  Then there are some not so obvious rules: no blank writing or drawing paper; no stickers (even stickers on the envelops with the return address); no hardbound books; and so on.

Most prisoners, particularly the above Jimmy who has been in prison for more than 20 years, know what is acceptable and what is not.  When I find a prisoner making such a request, I experience it as disrespectful.  Reiterating my relationship to Jimmy as not his therapist and it wasn’t my desire to point out the inappropriateness of his request, I stopped writing to him.  There are so many other individuals with whom to correspond.

When a recent law was enacted in California stating anyone incarcerated at 17 years of age or younger would automatically be scheduled for the parole board, Raymond asked if I would write a letter of recommendation for his hearing.  In his letter, Raymond told me why he was in prison – a 17 year old involved in a gang activity.  While the other members of the gang were not incarcerated, Raymond was.  He felt it was his lack of legal representation.

The question of a prisoner’s crime is one that people often asked – should the prison volunteer know what the prisoner did?  I know what most the prisoners have done.  As a realist, I’d rather be confronted with the contradiction of my feelings in order to understand them and move on.  What I have discovered is that my feelings towards a prisoner are based upon what the prisoner currently brings to the relationship and not on the crime.

Raymond was denied parole. The board was impressed with him, but thought he was too smart, seeing his intelligence as a threat.  I wondered if my letter had been a hindrance.  For a second hearing, scheduled in the following year, I again wrote a letter of recommendation.  In this letter I describe Raymond’s humility as I saw it through his ability to learn which reflected his ability not to know – that state of being vulnerable in allowing oneself not to know.

Granted parole, Raymond will be released from prison this month.  In his most recent letter, Raymond thanked me for what he feels to be my insight and experience in helping him become not only a better artist but also a better person.  Of course, his praise is more than I deserve.  Raymond success is his own.

Raymond now faces the challenges of entering a world he has very little experience of – he grew up in prison.  He writes how exciting but also how frightening this all seems to him. Perhaps through social media, email or even writing, we will continue to discuss the issues of art – that elusive subject giving rise to hope and a structure for understanding.

It is Wendy’s invitation to both artists and individuals with a working interest in the arts to develop friendships with artists who are incarcerated through letter correspondence and the exchange of creative works.  In the next couple of weeks, there will be a new page on the Prison Arts Coalition website inviting participation in this art correspondence, which we are calling the pARTner project.  You can email Wendy at pacoalitionadmin@gmail.com if you would like more information prior to the launch of the project. We imagine that we will very quickly have a long list of artists in prison who are eager to connect with, inspire, and learn from you.

Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 2,300 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.