Artist Spotlight: Brian Hindson

by Melissa Wang and Isa Berliner, JAC Interns

The creative process enables us to see good in the world and people around us. Brian Hindson’s story and his collaborative work with other incarcerated artists exemplify this exceptional power of art.

His creative story begins, surprisingly, twenty-two years after leaving art school. Although Brian attended art school for a couple of years after graduating high school, he didn’t reconnect with art until he was in prison, more than two decades later. Now, he uses a variety of different styles, paints, and materials to express himself through his art. 

What does it mean to be an artist? Brian would say voice. In elementary school, Brian drew his classmates, who in turn considered him an “artist.” He continued to enjoy artmaking throughout high school simply because of his natural talent, although he began to struggle in art school due to what he guesses was a mix of “outside distractions” and “immaturity.” Afterward, he didn’t continue with art as a path because he didn’t have a voice to share through his body of work.

The years passed while Brian pursued other things over artistry, and he eventually ended up in prison. While inside, he “found a voice, a re-discovered talent, and more so peace” from artmaking. Prison can be isolating and at times devoid of hope. For Brian, art has helped him keep his sanity. In fact, it is his surroundings that inspire him: “There is a LOT of negativity in prison,” he writes, “Everything’s bad…I try to see the positive things – the good things.” He searches for the sparks of hope that are so often overlooked. Relating art to character, he concludes that his way of looking for the good is how he hopes others will look at him, “as a person.”

Access to materials has always been a unique challenge to incarcerated artists, and Brian has adapted by using whatever paint or drawing tools he can find. Although he prefers acrylic paint, he is capable of creating not only with any materials but also in a variety of styles – from “realistic to fractured.” Balancing rigorous thought prior to artmaking with a flexibility and fluidity during the process, Brian allows his paintings to morph when needed.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, materials have been even more difficult to find. The pandemic “has been horrible for artists in prison,” says Brian, “with mostly no access to art materials” and no way of getting to their art lockers. He himself currently only has a black pen and paper, or handkerchiefs.

What can we do to support Brian and other incarcerated creators at this time? “Highlight artists,” Brian says. “People love praise.” Brian recently created and organized a collaborative project with several other incarcerated artists. To learn more about the process and see the final collaborations, please read on. We encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments below! 


Brian Hindson’s collaborative project: 

Brian Hindson

Brian Hindson’s original painting was made for the NLADA Social Justice Art Auction. After discussing and deliberating an idea with others, he chose to add a paintbrush to the painting: “something meaningful to me.” He had always wanted to do a collaborative piece and thought this could be a good opportunity.

Brian Hindson

Brian started by tracing his original painting to make a black and white version for the copy machine — keeping only the details he felt were important. The process was more difficult than expected when the first copycard he bought didn’t work well. He was finally able to get successful copies for 15 cents each, noting that 15 cents is “more per hour than most inmates earn in jobs in The Box.”

After making copies, Brian distributed them with basic instructions to “paint, color, decorate or add anything you want.” Brian kept his directions simple because he didn’t want to influence what people returned to him. However, reflecting on the pieces he got back, Brian found it interesting that no one added anything into the hands. Some did choose to add words, and as Brian describes, “some of the added words, well they speak, while some yell.”

Click for a closer look: 

Brian was especially impressed by William Brown’s interpretation, who made his piece using collage. “William surpassed my hopes for what someone could do with my directions and his creativity.” Brian describes watching William search for resource materials to use in his collage, “being very judicious in his selections of colors and not settling.” In the end, Brian thinks William’s art is a better piece than his original, and “that makes me happy!”  

William Brown

You can view more of Brian’s work in his portfolio. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

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. 

Artist Spotlight: Reginald Dwayne Betts

by Melissa Wang, JAC Intern

“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.

Reginald Dwayne Betts.

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.”

Cover of Felon.

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.
You can view or buy Betts’s work on his website

Artist Spotlight: William Brown

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

Art can be a source of joy, an outlet for emotions, and an opportunity for self-expression. For some, creating is all this and more, becoming a means for survival. For William Brown, drawing started as a way to cope with a traumatic childhood filled with mental, physical, and sexual abuse. When he was as young as 7 or 8 years old, William remembers making pen and pencil sketches of the cartoons he saw on TV. From Ninja Turtles to the Simpsons to Disney movies, these drawings became his “portal to the world.” Only allowed to leave his room to go to school, William would draw what he could see outside his second story window: kids playing, people going to and from work, “people just living the life I never got to.” Sitting at his window, drawing people doing “day-to-day” things, William would capture the emotions of the people he saw and “so was born my fascination with human expression.”

William’s happiest memories growing up were the times he spent in his high school art classes. With no real friends, art class became his “home away from home.” He recalls how his art teacher became his only friend, helping him learn to translate his feelings into something visual. “I was able to escape into the created pieces and show the world how I felt and saw the things around me.” As he grew up, William continued to use his portraits and figure drawings to express his emotions and “deal with the life that was thrust upon me.”

As an adult, William discovered photography and instantly felt connected to the media. He was drawn to the idea of documenting “real life” and capturing what people usually “glance over or ignore.” William saw photography as a way to bring to light that the world isn’t always perfect and happy. As a portrait artist, he loved to capture moments where people could be themselves, “when their walls were down and their purest emotions were exposed.” Glimpsing these moments allowed William to feel like a part of the people he photographed, slowly breaking down the feelings of loneliness and disconnect he has felt since childhood.

“Being incarcerated has stripped me of not only my freedoms, but the medium through which I was able to connect to others.” Without access to photography, William lost the invaluable sense of connection he’d found through his work. He recalls waiting for sentencing in county jail with only a pen and paper, “reviving the lost love of drawing that had gotten me through the tough times when I was young.” Since that day, William has continued to refine his graphite drawing skills, going on to work with acrylics, watercolor, and even collage, before finding he feels most expressive with oil paints. “The common thread throughout, from my photography to my oil paintings has been to express raw, unfiltered emotion in my subjects.”

Ever since his first drawings out the window of his childhood bedroom, William has continued to be inspired by people. As a result of his isolated youth, William has always felt disconnected from those around him and struggled with his identity: “Who am I? Who do ‘they’ want me to be? Why do I not feel the way others around me seem to feel? What do I need to feel “normal?” It is these questions that have driven William to express and document human emotion. The desire to connect with others and to “feel accepted and normal” has motivated William to try to understand and explore his own emotions in hopes of someday finding the answers.

For William, creating is an immersive process. When he begins a new piece, William tries to surround himself with the feeling he wants to convey: “Be it happiness, grief, loneliness, pride, whatever, I try to invoke and maintain that same feeling in myself throughout the rendering of the piece.”

“If, for example, I am conveying happiness, I’ll work around others, chatting, laughing, having fun while I create. If I need to cultivate a feeling of solemnity or grief, I’ll isolate myself, reminiscing on troubled times in my life, bringing those often suppressed feelings to the surface, giving me a chance to share them and help heal them.”

William also uses music to help him channel the feelings, memories, and experiences from his life that he tries to bring into each piece. This thorough process allows William to feel more connected to the piece when it is completed. He also thinks others may be able to connect to this sincerity, so long as they “open themselves to more than merely looking at the piece, but seeing it.” For those who really “see” his art, William’s pieces are the most raw expression of who he truly is and how he truly feels. “Having this outlet has given me the opportunity to hold on to my true self and to be honest in a way that the brutality of incarceration aims to beat out of you.”

These days, however, William has been struggling to create, saying “I am truly disappointed in myself. The COVID-19 crisis has all but stopped my work.” William is at a facility that has been designated a “quarantine facility,” which means there are extreme restrictions on their movement and supplies, limiting William to mostly sketching. For the last 7 months, William has been in “quarantine lockdown,” only allowed to leave his cell for 45 minutes, three times a week to contact family and 15 minutes, three times a week to shower. They’ve recently added Rec Yard time, allowing William one hour, three times a week, but the rest of his time is spent in total lockdown in his cell. William is frustrated with himself because “where there is a will, there is a way,” and others have found ways to still create under the stifling circumstances but William feels numb. Every day is exactly the same and he can’t find his “creative force.” The situation has suppressed William’s ability to create and killed his morale: “It’s left me feeling like a failure to adapt to my new normal.”

Thinking back to some of his finished pieces, William reflects on his graphite drawing of a “nude woman sitting on the floor drinking from a bottle of Ketel One vodka.” He explains that it’s funny because his mother can’t see past it being “the crying drunk woman” but the piece is probably his most vulnerable. Inspired by a photo he saw, the drawing embodies William’s struggles with identity.

“Feelings of who I am and how to express myself have always conflicted with who others expected me to be and how they felt I was to behave. In this piece, I am showing my internal identity, as I was on the street. Feeling alone, emotional, trying to use my body to gain acceptance and satisfaction from others, drowning the emptiness in alcohol and tears, this was my everyday, my ‘normal.’”

In creating this piece, William realized how far he has come. He describes how he now has more confidence to “let my outside match my inside” and feels he will have the strength to be more himself in spite of people who may be intolerant or unaccepting.

“My incarceration has been a continuous struggle with identity; who I am versus who I need to be in order to be safe and secure in a microcosm of violence and hatred.” Creating allows William, but also others who view his work, to understand his thoughts and feelings at any given moment. “Art, to me, is a way of sorting out what my mind and senses throw at me” — a way of bringing thoughts and emotions into focus. No matter what media he uses or how he’s currently feeling, William expresses how, “I feel comforted knowing I will be able to tell my story to the best of my ability. Art and its expression has helped me through these rough years of being in a strange and uncomfortable world by allowing my voice to be heard.”

You can view more of William’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like William, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Artist Spotlight: David Green

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

“I want to show the world that in imperfection there is beauty.”

For David Green, every day is a struggle to express his creativity. Hindered by his institution, it would be easy for David to give up and stop making art. Still, he is determined to keep creating, saying, “I will continue to try and reach and hopefully help others in the world know that no matter what we go through in life, be it poverty, death, or losing someone or something, something beautiful is there in the end and we can overcome.”

Though David never received a formal education in art or poetry, he has always been able to discover new ways to improve his drawing and writing. Every time he closes his eyes — since the day he started creating at a very young age — he is flooded with ideas: poems to write or ways to better his art. He laughs, saying, “I have suffered from a long life of insomnia since I was six.” 

It’s not always simple or possible for David to create. He describes how the people he is incarcerated with, the staff, and the lack of funds for art supplies all pose challenges. He adds with a laugh that the lack of tables and chairs also hinder his art making. But David views these difficulties as minor problems. The greater obstacle is that “there is a time when people’s ungratefulness makes one discouraged from wanting to draw.” Yet, despite these challenges, David finds ways to continue making art and writing poems. 

With limited access to art supplies, David has found he can use any media he lays his hands on. When he begins a piece, David simply envisions the art or what is in his mind on the paper and draws it into existence: “I pick up, I look at my paper and just do.” 

People often ask David what inspires him, but the question is harder to answer than it may seem. “I’ve lost so much inspiration in my life that I honestly do not know what inspires me.” Still, David is confident that this will not always be the case, saying, “I do know that one day inspiration will enter my life and when that happens, I will know.”  

As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, David reflects that though at first he felt unaffected, he has grown increasingly concerned for his loved ones. “I do have many people out there in the world that I love no matter if they love me back or even remember me.” Feeling disconnected, David explains how, “It scares me not knowing if they are okay or not, I just hope they are okay.” 

David is grateful that he can share his art with the world and hopes he can inspire others. He wants to share the following words: 

“I love and count you all as equals in my life. Just pass what I give you to the next you see. Because we need that more than anything in this world.”

You can view more of David’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like David, please sign up for our pARTner Project!