“I started reading poetry in a cell in solitary confinement,” writes Reginald Dwayne Betts to the Justice Arts Coalition. Now an award-winning poet and Ph.D candidate in Law at Yale Law School, Betts began his poetic practice in prison.
As a sixteen-year-old, Betts was sentenced to nine years in prison for a carjacking – and it was there, “steeped in despair,” that he began “finding a language, varied and complicated and rich” to carry his imagination to his future. Betts is hesitant to slap a label on art, to glorify it as a unique form of salvation for all. Instead, he points to the individuality of art, the way poetry took him as a teenager outside of the four walls of his cell and allowed him to build possibility. “I don’t want to lift up poetry,” he says, “but rather I want to remember poetry.” Truthfully, as much as art can be a community process, it is also deeply personal.
“Art ends up being about what the writing or reading or witnessing does to you internally.”
Art is consummation between each individual viewer and creator, and Betts highlights the role of the witness – or the reader – in realizing the significance of a work of art. In his 2019 anthology, Felon, he marries his professions as lawyer and as poet to create redaction poems from legal documents. Rather than the poem itself doing the work of blurring boundaries, however, he writes that “readers deserve far more credit than they get. They make the work matter, and they deepen the work by their engagement.” If the reader is willing to explore Betts’s legal background and the meaning of the redaction poems, they add to the value of the work. Comparatively, the isolation of prison creates a dearth of feedback and readership for incarcerated artists – just one reason why incarcerated artists must have their work shared and responded to.
These days, Betts enjoys Basquiat’s show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as the work of Titus Kaphar, with who he is collaborating for theMillion Book Project. The project is producing a curated 500-book capsule collection that will be placed in 1000 prisons in 50 states, sponsored by Yale Law School and a grant from the Mellon Foundation. All his inspiration for the project, says Betts, “comes from being a sixteen-year-old in prison,” along with countless moments over time with various books and writers. For him, words become “a kind of codex and map for life,” and these 500 books are meant to represent the idiosyncrasies of human life and all the diversity that entails. Consequently, the curation of these books is an ongoing and evolving process.
Kaphar, one of Betts’s friends, will be constructing a bookshelf for the project. Kaphar’s art, says Betts, reminds him to be capacious in artmaking and communicating the world. The ways in which they influence each other, however, aren’t just derivative of their artistry, but rather the same way friends influence one another. The conversations between their work evoke their connection as individuals, as ordinary people who hang out and chat and spend time together. Although the arguments of their artwork take different forms, Betts praises Kaphar’s body of work as “brilliantly inventive” and “visually hypnotic.” Thinking back to the Basquiat exhibition, Betts says that while Basquiat introduces him to a world he “didn’t know existed,” Kaphar makes him “reconsider a world” he knows well. These are just a couple of ways engaging with art, whether through creation or witness, serves to alter one’s world.
Art is worldbuilding in a place that fights to limits your world to four walls – the stretch of creative expression can not only help name current realities but also take you to a place away from harm.
“I want to believe that art gives a person understanding, and imagination gives us a vehicle to witness something other than ourselves.”
To learn more about the Million Book Project, check out Yale Law School’s page or the Mellon Foundation’s page.
At 10 years old, Gary Farlow was given his first set of pencils, markers, and pens. Growing up, he was never very athletic or outdoorsy, but while he couldn’t play sports, what he could do was draw. The son of an accomplished home designer and builder, Gary would “borrow” his father’s supplies so he could make art. When his father eventually realized the depth of his son’s creative passion, he purchased the boy his own art set, and as Gary describes, “there was no looking back!”
For as long as he can remember, art has been Gary’s refuge — helping him through his most difficult times. During his incarceration, art has become all the more meaningful, providing a much needed escape (“a bad word in prison!” Gary jokes). “When I am drawing, I think of only what I am drawing. I turn on a local classical music radio station and I’m no longer in prison – I am in my studio.” For Gary, art is a way of reducing stress, of feeling the satisfaction of creating something for others to enjoy, and perhaps most importantly, of affirming his self-worth. He reflects that this is especially true in carceral settings, as incarcerated populations are typically “out-of-sight/out-of-mind” for most of society:
We have little value, no voice, no rights. So art is a creative process by which I say I am here. I am a human being. I exist.
Gary often waits until the evenings, when the daily sounds of the cell block finally settle down. As the melodies of his music replace the noise, he enters his creative world and gets to work. “It quickly becomes the favorite part of any day!”
Gary’s creative process is simple: he needs only to see a photo that interests him, and from there he can begin to sketch in his mind. Before touching pencil to paper, Gary allows the image to take on new life in his head, often mentally altering the picture so much that it barely resembles the original. He finally brings his mental drawing into reality with a 2H pencil. Once the image has taken shape, he uses color pencils to develop the minute details that are a hallmark of his art. “Whether it’s items in a store window or detail you must look closely to see, I believe it is these which bring life to my work and set it apart.”
Landscapes, and more specifically cityscapes, are Gary’s specialty. Occasionally, he ventures out of his comfort zone and creates wildlife pictures or other material that moves him, but he is most inspired by buildings. From Art deco to Victorian, and the “ruffles and flourishes of architecture,” Gary supposes his fascination with buildings is one legacy of his father’s work. “The Chrysler Building, The Smithsonian ‘Castle,’ N.C.’s own Biltmore House, the canals of Venice, colonial charm of Williamsburg, the majesty of London, and the romance of Paris – all inspire me.”
One of the challenges Gary faces as an incarcerated artist is the difficulty of accessing adequate art supplies. “This was not a challenge in the ‘real world’ but behind these walls it is often difficult to acquire materials to work with.” Gary explains that in North Carolina, families are not permitted to order supplies for artists inside, so the artists are responsible for obtaining their own art supplies. In addition, they are only allowed to order from approved vendors, so it can get quite costly. Gary goes on to describe that there are often art supplies for sale “on the yard” but one has to be cautious and know who you’re buying from: “I’ve seen far too many purchase stolen art materials.”
This past year, Gary faced an even bigger challenge where he worried that his art days might be over for good. He needed to have surgery to reattach the retinas in both eyes and feared he would lose his vision and be unable to continue making art. Thankfully, the Duke Eye Center in Durham, N.C. successfully completed the surgery and saved Gary’s eyesight. “They are truly amazing,” he reflects gratefully. Gary has gone on to create dozens of pieces since his surgery, including submitting 36 pieces to his recent prison art show.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unexpected catalyst for Gary’s art. While thankfully Gary’s area has not been hit with a Coronavirus outbreak, the prison is still under restriction, which means no visitors, volunteers, religious services, classes or programs. As everyone finds themselves with an abundance of time, Gary is filling it with art. He comments, “I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the “new normal” that Covid-19 has ushered in. Yet, it has provided ample time to focus on my art.”
Gary wishes more people could see the remarkable impacts of art, stating, “you seldom hear of the positive effects of art on inmates and the trickle-down benefits for society.” He emphasizes the transformative power of art in penal facilities, explaining that a dollar spent on art in prison actually saves thousands of taxpayer dollars. “The arts are humanity’s greatest achievement and our most civilizing influence.” As he writes at the end of his poem titled “Revelation”:
A poem is a way to strap on your own armor – even if only for a moment.
So slide a pen from your holster,
unsheath a pencil from your scabbard,
lock and load the words you choose and
use them to cry, shout, whisper but
Just step up, come forward and let your revelation speak.
Loud. Proud. Strong.
You can view more of Gary’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like Gary, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
Gary K. Farlow attended Guilford Technical Community College, majoring in Administration of Justice. He completed undergraduate studies at the John Marshall School of Law in Atlanta, and earned a Juris Doctorate from the Thomas Jefferson College of Law at Head University in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. He also holds degrees from Western Illinois University, South Piedmont Community College, Montgomery Community College, and Southeastern Theological Seminary. He is past chairman of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission; represented North Carolina Governor James G. Martin on the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Nursing Home Administrators; represented North Carolina at the 1984 national Conference of the Aged; was a Reagan and Bush Administration nominee for the African Development Foundation; served on the United Arts Council of Greensboro, Greensboro Historical Museum and Society, and the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. He is a former vice president of the Gate City Jaycees, the Lions Club, and the Founder of the Senior Theatre Consortium. Mr. Farlow’s previous writings have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul, the Volunteer’s Soul, and The African American Soul, as well as Serving Time, Serving Others, Serving Productive Time, the Journal of the American Health Care Association, and two poetic anthologies of the National Library of Poetry, Essence of A Dream and Visions. He is the author of both Prison-ese: A Survivor’s Guide to Speaking Prison Slang, first edition published by Loompanics Unlimited, and The Cellblock Gourmet: Inmate Recipes From The Big House and Doin’ Time: How to Survive and Thrive in Prison, both published by the Graduate Group. Mr. Farlow is a Former Associate Editor of the East Triad Press and The Greensboro Sun; sports reporter for The High Point Enterprise, and has written various features for The Greensboro News and Record. He is a recipient of the PEN Award for Prison Writers and has written several play scripts including Sticks, which deals with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the nation’s prison system; Beyond Bars, dealing with the difficulties faced by those transitioning back into society after incarceration; A Homeless History Lesson, which explores the plight of the homeless and substance abuse in America. His poetry has been released on audio-cassette by the National Library of Poetry entitled Visions: The Poetry of Gary Farlow. Mr. Farlow has travelled extensively and has been a guest lecturer at Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg, South Africa, and at the Medical University of South Africa in Pretoria. He has appeared on Eye on Washington and Good Morning South Africa. His poetry has also been released in two additional anthologies, Collections, by Iliad Press and The Best Poetry of America, by the National Library of Poetry.
An accomplished artist, specializing in urban landscapes utilizing colored pencil, Mr. Farlow’s works have been on display at Art With Conviction in Tucson, Arizona, the Prisons Foundation and Safer Streets Art Foundation in Washington D.C., and at the Durland Alternatives Library at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
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 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.
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!
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?
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.”
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.”
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