Workshop Spotlight: A Conversation From Death Row with Kenneth Reams

Our online Summer Workshop Series Create+Connect is going strong! This week, on Thursday, June 22, we are so excited to be joined by the incredible Kenneth Reams.

Kenneth "Artist927" Reams
“Kenneth ‘Artist927’ Reams” by Kenneth Reams

Kenneth Reams is an artist, social justice activist, and the founder of Who Decides, Inc., a non-profit that aims to raise awareness through the arts of the racial, ethical, and socio-economic issues intertwined with the history and practice of capital punishment in America. This workshop will include an hour long discussion of his experiences, as well as a Q&A at the end.

Mr. Reams is a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, one of the most impoverished cities in America. Growing up in poverty, struggling with hunger, abuse, and a lack of opportunity, criminality became an increasingly prominent, unfortunate facet of Mr. Reams’ life. Following a botched robbery at a drive-thru ATM, where his friend shot and killed a man in the heat of the struggle, Mr. Reams was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, becoming the then-youngest inmate on Arkansas’ death row, despite not having pulled the trigger.

Facing execution for a murder he did not commit, Mr. Reams refused to allow his spirit to be broken, deciding to hone his life-long artistic skills and vision in order to share his story and perspective with the world. His art has been donated to several institutions, published in books; such as “Marking Time” – released in 2020, and featured in exhibits from New York to Norway, Little Rock to London, and many locations in between. Through a variety of media, including paintings, sculpture, and poetry, Mr. Reams expresses a uniquely visceral vision of the inhumane, arbitrary nature of capital punishment and the exploitative character of the prison-industrial complex.

Home
“Home” by Kenneth Reams

Simultaneous with his rise in profile as an artist, Mr. Reams has become a prolific public speaker, engaging and enlightening an increasingly global audience. His past speaking engagements include talks at the International Film Festival on Human Rights in Switzerland, Stanford University, Bethany College, Princeton University, Columbia University, UNC Chapel Hill, St. Francis College in New York, Yale University, Geneva University – in Switzerland, and the University of Miami School of Law.

With the release of Free Men, a documentary about Mr. Reams’ life, legal battles, and art, his story has taken on a new dimension and medium. As the film has made its way through the circuit of international film festivals, Mr. Reams has shared his thoughts about the film and the future with enraptured audiences in Beirut, France, Argentina, Islamabad, Great Britain, Tokyo, Belgium, and Vienna.

Despite the physical limitations facing Mr. Reams, having spent the past twenty-seven years of his life in the solitary confines of a six-foot by nine-foot cell, Mr. Reams continues to make a lasting impact on all who hear his harrowing yet inspiring story, prompting a widening audience to evaluate their own conceptions of justice and morality.

Please join us for Kenneth Reams’ Workshop on June 22 at 7 pm EST! Tickets here.
Check out more of Kenneth’s work on his website, and sign his petition here!

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.”

The Prison Story Project

On May 23, 2020, in collaboration with The Prison Story Project, the Justice Arts Coalition will be presenting a premiere screening of “On the Row,” a documentary created by The Prison Story Project that explores the humanity and stories of men currently on death row. As part of our larger Create + Connect: Online Workshop Series, JAC feels privileged to be a part of this vital dialogue, and looks forward to your attendance at this screening. JAC recently spoke to Kathy McGregor, Founder and Project Director at The Prison Story Project. Her profound words are below.

To register for the “On the Row” screening, which will be presented on May 23 @3:00 pm EST, visit this link. 


Since 2012, The Prison Story Project has entered correctional centers in Arkansas to give
women and men the tools to tell their stories. We believe that no voice should be silenced, and we hope through staged readings of the women’s and men’s writing that we will help bridge the gap between the incarcerated and the communities to which they hope to return.

In May of 2016, The Prison Story Project gained unprecedented access to the men on death row. We knew that these men had, through violent acts, silenced the voices of innocent lives forever. We entered partly on impulse, partly on faith, and partly because we could. The men on the row initially met us with curiosity and a good deal of resistance. They wanted to know what was in it for us. They feared we would manipulate or exploit them. They didn’t trust us. Over six months, through mailings and visits, we asked them to tell their stories. Many of our proven strategies failed. The men on the row told us they were different from other prisoners and that we couldn’t possibly understand them. However, they kept trying and we kept trying. The magic of looking a person in the eye and treating him like a human being started to take hold, and without a doubt the men on the row were powerful writers with stories that surprised us with their insights and emotional depth. They didn’t dwell on their pasts or blame others for their crimes. Some of them had found an immense peace that eludes many of us in the free world, and they wanted to share it purely out of gratitude for having found it. By facing their crimes, enduring their sentences, and accepting their impending deaths, they each found ways to survive and retain their humanity. Their writing exploded, and by our final class we saw each other eye to eye. They trusted us, they said. We
had just gotten our first glimpse of them, we said back.

We didn’t know how they would react to our presentation of their writing. They had put up resistance all along and doubted that we could properly represent their stories. On October 8, 2016, the day of the inside performance, we showed up with an entourage of two poets, a storyteller, five actors, and a musician. We brought snacks. We chatted. We threw a little party in one of the darkest corners in America. When the performance started, we fell to silence and listened deeply. As one of the men on the row wrote us afterwards in a thank you letter, we were all transformed by the writing we heard that day: inmates, teachers, and actors. The writing, he said, culminated in something that’s bigger than all of us.

The Governor of Arkansas signed orders on February 27, 2017 for an unprecedented 8
executions over 10 days to begin just after Easter. Four of the men scheduled participated in this project. Stacey Johnson and Don Davis received stays. Jack Jones was executed on April 24, 2017, and Kenneth Williams was executed on April 27, 2017. Many of us held silent vigil at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, AR on each of the scheduled execution dates as the defense lawyers and Attorney General filed briefs with the Arkansas Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court literally up to minutes before the death warrants expired at midnight. One participant described the vigils as feeling like silent screams.

The film screening of “On The Row” reminds us all of the humanity of the men on the row and the redemption they have found during twenty plus years of being locked away in solitary confinement. They are profoundly grateful to be heard and share their stories. And we are lucky to be able to hear them.


For more information on the Prison Story Project:

Matt Henriksen, Prison Story Project Creative Writing Director for “On The Row”
Kathy McGregor, Prison Story Project Founder and Project Director
Fayetteville, AR
www.prisonstoryproject.com

Artist Spotlight: John Zenc

This month, we’ll be putting our Artist Spotlight on John Zenc. Zenc supplied JAC with a collection of his own thoughts, excerpts of his artistic process, as well as various copies of his artwork. But first, an introduction to his life and work, (Human Mask of Life;) (Hidden Fears.), in Zenc’s own words:

JZ: A little history of myself. Born Feb. 3, 1957 — Honolulu, Hawaii. Been married two times. No kids, now divorced. I enlisted in the United States Army at age 15. I made a birth certificate, later my age was discovered. But when I turned 17, I re-enlisted. Both honorable discharges. I know and secretly went out with Natalie Wood, the famous actress.

Several [of my] pieces were sold to John Lennon and Johnny Carson, T.V. Personality.

My art work is now all around the world. Many people have my kids. My art is my kids. I gave life to each piece.

JZ (continued): Enclosed a prison news article about me. . . a public document written by inmates for the prison news paper.

img_8937
Introduction to (Human Mask of Life;) (Hidden Fears.), a collection of art by John Zenc

More recent work by Zenc:

JZ: In the years, I threw hundreds of my drawings away, because I was unhappy [with] the way they turned out.

Experimental Drawing #1 - 2009
“Zenc X-1” by John Zenc

JZ: Elsa, a survivor of the WWII concentration camps. Spent 3 years there. When she got out she was ashamed. So she would hide behind the pretty flowers. But she had nothing to be ashamed of.

The WWII Survivor - 2011
“The WWII Survivor” by John Zenc

JZ: Too many school shootings. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

Trapped in Net, the School - 2009
“Trapped in Net, the School” by John Zenc

JZ: I did so much in the 1970s. Hitchhiked three times across the U.S.A. This piece is kind of a 1970s flashback. Good memories. I loved the song in the 1970s called Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye. I loved my first girl friend, then Debby.

1970 - From Within
“From Within” by John Zenc

JZ: The working girl has to survive, make a living, her broken body is her only way to make money, so she carries on. No woman is perfect. I love this piece. Distorted body, fair. I love it.

The Working Girl, Smoking Cigarette - 1982
“The Working Girl Smoking Cigarette” by John Zenc

JZ: Preachers in general lie, all musical notes, the time. . . The ones who beg for money all the time. Dig deep in your pockets. Wow, these preachers should be ashamed of themselves.

Lying to God (you can run but you can't hide)- 2012
“Lying to God – You Can Run but You Can’t Hide” by John Zenc

JZ: (On “Old Man Smoking Pipe”) I can’t stop thinking. Only 2 hours at a time I can sleep. The other 22 hours, I think, and think, never any real rest. I think of many things, times and space. God?

Old Man Smoking Pipe
“Old Man Smoking Pipe” by John Zenc

JZ: You will be my designated person, because I have nobody left in life. . . I am very lonely in here. I have no one left. The feeling of loneliness is a painful, horrible feeling, a pain like no other. I have broken many bones in my body during my life, but the pain of loneliness is the most painful. Sometimes I wonder if God ever cares for me.

IMG_4897
John Zenc

JZ: The man juggled his life long enough. Now he’s free.

 

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

Artist Spotlight: Cedar Mortenson

This month, we’ll be putting our Artist Spotlight on Cedar Mortenson. JAC asked Cedar some questions, and below you’ll find Cedar’s response. But first, an introduction in Cedar’s own words:

 CM: Thank you for contacting me, for your correspondence and notifications. I hope this letter finds you well, in good spirits and warm. There is quite a lot of snow outside here, from what I can see on the weather channel anyhow. I haven’t been outside for over 6 months. I dream about the sun on my face, rain, wind, snow, dirt under my feet. I usually chef at one of the local ski resorts in Northern New Mexico near where I live at so I can get my free lift pass that goes along with the job, then all my extra time is spent upon the mountain with my snowboard or playing with the dogs and the horses in the snow. Sometimes I get snowed in where I live way up in the mountains so it’s just us til the snow melts enough to get out or my SUV can get through the snow pack. I miss home a lot. It’s hard to be incarcerated so far away from home.

untitled
Untitled, Cedar Mortenson

 JAC: What inspires your artwork?

 CM: Life in general, mostly the impact that life occurrences have on my heart as the pencil and paper is a channel to that. It’s a form of therapy in here. I exercise, I shower, I sleep, read, write, draw. I miss the people I love so much that it’s hard to write them or call, plus phone calls are expensive and I don’t want them to have to come out of their pockets for my bad choices, so I write but it hurts a lot; drawing is a better way to convey my love and thoughts. I draw them portraits and dreams. My dogs and horses inspire my artwork. I am a naturalist, activist, chef, poet, freestyle cage fighter, and outdoorsperson among being an armed robber apparently. I go to sleep every night looking at photos of my dogs. We have a pack. I’m the leader. We need to be together. My brother is looking out for them but he doesn’t love them like I do. He doesn’t embrace them and squeeze their fuzzy faces against his own and kiss the top of their heads, and sing them their songs. They each have their own song, and they get so happy when you sing to them. “There was a sailor dog named Blue… She sailed across the whole Atlantic Ocean…” So begins Blue’s song. Blue and Pepper are sisters. Rocco, Doodle, Midnight and Amos are Pepper’s sons. Midnight has gone missing since I’ve been incarcerated,

 I also have horses. This is my family. I am responsible for taking care of them. I enter art competitions with hopes of placing to win cash awards to send to my mom to buy dog food and hay for them, and my motives are accelerated now with winter here.

The Eye of the Joshua Tree
The Eye of the Joshua Tree, Cedar Mortenson

 This is my main challenge as an incarcerated artist, is trying to find ways to support my furry family and my family too. When I’m free I’ll always help my mom with wood for the winter and hay and bring her groceries. She lives on a rural reservation with her husband and is elderly. Giving time to the elderly is really important. 

It’s a challenge finding a continuum to remain proactive about environmental issues. The jail gives us our food in styrofoam containers. I retail biodegradable compostable products and packaging for 5 FDA approved U.S. companies and can offer them a more cost efficient and completely biodegradable alternative but of course as an inmate they won’t use the resources I offer. 

 Persistence can crack an egg though it’s a challenge to find the most direct outlets for writing and drawing proactive issue work materials that I feel may have the most influential impact. How do I reach people with my art and writing from here? I’m grateful to JAC for the opportunities they provide to do so, and I believe this coalition will grow and prosper in its ability to reach more and more people over the course of time. It’s a challenge as an artist/muralist to be limited to 8” by 12” paper with colored pencils, pen, ink that are 3 inches long and grow shorter with use because apparently they can be used as weapons if they are longer than 3 inches. I’ve recently discovered the white paper lunch sacks. When carefully deconstructed from about an 18 by 24 inch platform to create on and can easily fold back up to fit in a regular business size envelope. This discovery came after continuous write ups from ripping up the facility’s linen sheets to use as canvasses to draw on. So far they haven’t confiscated any of my paper sack artwork yet.

 I could go on to list more challenges but in all honesty the blessings are as great, thank God I have an imagination, a sense of humor, the ability to create and the tools that are accessible and approved to create what I can. God is good to me. I am humble and grateful. Where I’m at is no one’s fault but my own.

Genjis Horse Murasaki
Genji’s Horse, Cedar Mortenson

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. And of course I hope that people will buy my artwork through this experience as I constantly stress about my animals everyday.

 

 

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