by Treacy Ziegler
unsignificantly off the coast there was
a splash quite unnoticed
William Carlos Williams’ poem on Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting – Landscape with the fall of Icarus:
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.
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.
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.