Teaching Artist Spotlight: Annie Buckley

We recently talked with Annie Buckley, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Annie Buckley is a professor and the director of the School of Art + Design at San Diego State University and the founding director of Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. PAC provides multidisciplinary arts programming and peer facilitator trainings in 12 prisons across California through an innovative partnership between California State Universities and state prisons. Buckley’s writing on contemporary art is published in Artforum, Art in America, The Huffington Post, and she is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Buckley has written a series of  four blog posts for The Justice Arts Coalition excerpted from the series, “Art Inside,” published by Los Angeles Review of Books. The four blogs will be posted every other Friday starting September 18th.  

photo by Peter Merts

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

AB: I have always loved art and had a passion for social justice so I have worked at the intersections of these in various ways for most of my life. In bringing art to prisons, specifically, I am inspired by my mother, who was a volunteer in juvenile detention for nearly 20 years, and by her friend and mentor, Gregory Boyle, S.J., the founder of Homeboy Industries.

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

AB: I think what is most unique about Prison Arts Collective is that we have a comprehensive arts facilitator training in the prisons to empower and support those with arts experience to teach others. We started this program in 2015 and our first graduates have been leading weekly classes in the prisons since then, cultivating creative community within the institution. We visit monthly to offer mentorship and support. I remember on one of those visits, I happened to be in the hallway when a student arrived late. He looked flustered so I asked him if I could help and his reply made me smile, “Oh no,” he said, rushing past, ‘I’m looking for my teacher.” It didn’t matter that I came from outside, or taught at a university, or any of the other markers we might assume grant authority to help or answer questions. He was looking for his teacher, the person that guided him and had formed a bond for him to grow as a musician. I loved that moment.

I think the second thing that is unique to our program is that our teaching teams are collaborative and include university students as well as alumni, interns, staff, and faculty. Rather than one expert or master teacher, we are community-based and our model integrates a variety of experiences and voices. Each term, we try to offer at least two different courses per site so that we always give our participants the opportunity to make a choice. We want to encourage them to have a voice and to have agency in the process as much as possible within the many restrictions.

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

AB: It is really hard to say what is most rewarding about teaching in prisons and growing a program to support others to do this incredibly rewarding work. I feel strongly that it is a gift to be able to teach and build community with individuals that are so largely forgotten. I have met so many amazing people in the prisons that inspire me and help me to be a better person and teacher.

Another thing I have gained is a reconnection to the real meaning and purpose of art. I have two degrees in art and have written for international art publications so I am very familiar with the contemporary art world. What drew me to this work is my passion to expand access to the arts for all yet what I gained is a renewed connection to art as a transformative human experience.

JAC: As you know, the Justice Arts Coalition 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?

AB: Prison Arts Collective is a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. We are fortunate that AIC allowed its programs to continue in alternative formats. The last day we went inside the prisons was March 12, which was a couple weeks before the institutions stopped programs from going inside. But we felt it was important to protect our team and our participants so we paused in-person programming. Right away, we started planning what we could do instead.

Collectively, our teaching team has made and sent in over 1,200 packets to participants in 11 prisons and we are currently creating new packets for the fall term. In addition, we collaborated with faculty and outside artists as well as our teaching team to create a new video series called Outside:Inside Productions. We have already created nine videos in this series and are working on two more. Finally, one of our newest volunteers, Sabrina, a student at CSU Los Angeles, developed a partnership with a local radio station so that we could create radio content, both for those in the prisons to listen to as well as for people on the outside to connect with this work.

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?

It probably sounds like a corny soundbite but I think what stands out most to me now is not the many obstacles we face but the opportunities for evolution. Systemic racism is not new but the new national dialogue is powerful. How can we leverage this to create real and lasting change? The pandemic is tragic on so many levels and for so many people all across the globe, including being a nightmare for those in captivity, so there is no way to put a positive spin on it. My hope is that we use this experience to evolve as a society. In my own life, I have learned and grown more in my darkest moments of grief and illness. I hope we do the same as a world today.

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?

AB: I hope that people awaken to the reality that we are interconnected. There is no us and them, just us. The sooner people recognize the depth of that truth and we develop systems — including education, justice, healthcare, and more — based on that idea, the better off we will be as a society. The justice system is one of many interconnected systems that have led to mass incarceration. We need to address the poverty and wealth gap and give all people a living wage. We need to ensure that no one in this incredibly wealthy nation is without access to a home. I would like to see what our country could be if we re-designed our systems with an ‘us’ not ‘us and them’ mentality, with the sense that when we lift up one, we lift us all up.

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?

AB: The idea of a national coalition is exciting and powerful. I like how we can learn from one another. When I teach socially-engaged art at the University, I always ask students if they believe that art can change the world. Many say yes, but not all. When I teach art in the prisons and ask if art can change the world, there is never any question; literally every single incarcerated person I have asked this to has said yes. This is power. And I believe that we are more powerful when we work together. I am excited to see what we might grow from these shared conversations and how we might evolve our practices to educate and empower not only those behind bars, but those outside, too, to imagine and ultimately build a more just world.

photo by Peter Merts

Charlie Ghost

by Chelsea Garner-Ferris

I first met Charlie on a humid, London summer’s day in June 2016. A true mountain of a man he was tall, broad, and covered from shaven head-to-toe in elaborate tattoos. We were meeting for the very first time to begin our Mentor/Mentee relationship at a crowded museum café, amidst crowds of people chatting over their designer coffees and overpriced baked goods. I remember being nervous; not because I was meeting someone who had been to prison, but for more common and rational reasons such as: Would he like me? Did I have enough experience to help him? Who was I to think I was in any position to mentor someone else, someone older than me, especially someone who had been in, and then out of prison?

As soon as we started talking, we hit it off. Charlie is smart, charismatic and confident. He presents himself very professionally and is well-spoken. He is a talented artist. He proceeded to show me some of the work in his portfolio as well as the many tattoos that cover his legs, arms and hands that he designed himself. The ultimate goal is to graduate, earning a BA degree in Contemporary Art and Professional Studies, and to also be an exhibited and selling commercial artist. Anyone who has spent time working in the lucrative art world knows, this is no easy feat for anyone in the industry regardless of background, connections, means, etc.

La Vie en Rose
La Vie en Rose, Posca paint pen on card

Over the next year we would meet once a month, usually somewhere in London. We would traverse the city, visit museum and gallery exhibitions, discussing our findings over lunch at Pret-A-Manger. We would work on his Artist Statement, Biography and CV, research the launch and use of a website, as well as integrating social media to try and get his name and profile out into the art world. We would canvas, critique his work, and usually end up discussing rugby or American football at least once every session – he’s a big fan.

I think I was always most impressed by Charlie’s drive and entrepreneurial spirit. He has sold spray-painted shoes, tote bags, T-shirts and canvases locally and at Camden market stalls. He was always the first to strike up a conversation with gallery owners or fellow artists. He had cards and stickers made, which he designed. He entered (and was often selected for) countless exhibitions and art contests. He bought an old VW caravan and restored it for use as a traveling studio space. He is, and always was motivated and keen to succeed.

Tea for Turk
Tea for Turk, spray paint

The next few years were not always easy for Charlie. He faced criticism, had trouble finding steady employment because he legally has to disclose his past, and put himself through school which was a financial strain. All the while he persisted and maintained this intense, but also very assertive positivity. He was always incredibly grateful for my time, but in all honesty I think I probably learned more from him than the other way around.

Dead Ringer
Dead Ringer, Charcoal on Fabriano Paper

There are moments in Charlie’s past that he is not proud of… events that occurred that if given the chance to do over, he would behave differently. But don’t we all have those moments in life? I realized that we were more or less the same, he and I, one life-altering difference being that I have never had my mistakes made public, my dirty laundry hung out for everyone to see. I made the decision then that it was not within my rights to judge him. As part of the mentoring program’s privacy and security, the details of their participants’ offenses, and their legal names, were never disclosed.

My time working with Charlie through the Koestler Trust program came to an end after about a year of meetings, and a couple of years later my husband and I moved back to the US. We keep in touch though, via email, and I try and check in on his website from time to time to see what he’s been creating. Recently we were in touch and he had some great news to share: he recently graduated and completed his degree with First Class Honors (the highest level of achievement in the UK’s degree system); his artwork was recently shortlisted, making it through to the final round of the juried Royal Academy’s 250th Summer Exhibition in London; he is employed full-time at a local Tattoo Studio, some of his recent work can be viewed on his Instagram feed; and he has been selected as one of Posca Pens/Uniball’s sponsored artists for their upcoming marketing campaign.

If Horses Were Wishes, Beggars Would Ride
If Horses Were Wishes, Beggars Would Ride, charcoal on Fabriano Paper

I wanted to write this post and tell his story because I believe his efforts, and his artwork deserve recognition. To this day, I do not know what Charlie was convicted of or why he served time, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is his unwavering determination to use his love for art, and his talent and skill to create a fulfilling life for himself and his family moving forward. I hope by sharing this, it will inspire and encourage others. I am immensely proud of his accomplishments and to know him, and wish him every ongoing success in future.

Charlie resides in the United Kingdom and goes by his artist’s pseudonym Charlie Ghost, his mural tag is Ghost13 Murals. You can see further artwork on his website, http://charlieghost.wixsite.com/cghost and his Instagram handle is @charlieghost1886.

About the guest contributor:
Chelsea Garner-Ferris resides in Florida after spending nearly a decade in London, UK. She holds a BS degree in Interior Design from The Florida State University and an MA in Art History and Visual Culture from Richmond, The American International University in London. Chelsea has experience in the contemporary art market, artist liaison and mentoring experience through the UK-based Koestler Trust. She is also a freelance writer, editor and published author. Chelsea can be contacted via email at chelsgarner@gmail.com.
In Crust We Trust
In Crust We Trust, acrylic on wall
In Crust We Trust
In Crust We Trust

All artwork by Charlie Ghost.