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. 

The Stories We Save May Include Our Own

by Matt Malyon

 

I. Birdwatching

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.  No—it reels, dizzy in the vibration of its unplanned encounter with steel.  It flaps its huge wings and begins to make sounds that might best be described as cries of terror, as it moves in and out of cars unable to stop their hurtling forward for the sudden and surprising descent of the large white bird.

*

I spend most Wednesday afternoons with youth in orange jumpsuits, holding a yellow No. 2 pencil between my fingers, and leaning over a black-marbled cover notebook.  Our county’s incarcerated youth have landed “inside” for various reasons—gang related incidents like drive-by shootings or territorial violence, domestic disputes, harm to animals, or items involving alcohol and drugs.  Unless they write about their past, which they often do, we leave such matters at the door. I shake their hands and welcome them as equals. After introductions we settle into the work at hand—reading literature together and responding to it through discussion and creative writing.

In the early days of facilitating Underground Writing workshops, I began to notice our tendency to bring literature of a darker vein.  These included, among others, Dante’s dark wood, Sherman Alexie’s poetry of lament, the non-fiction-fiction of Tim O’Brien, the wars and adventures in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the migrant experience of Juan Felipe Herrera, environmental issues in Martha Serpas’ poetry, the tragedy and loss in the poems of Langston Hughes, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Osip Mandlestam, Suji Kwock Kim, and Natalie Diaz, and the darker undercurrents hidden within Robert Frost’s well managed forms.  

I caught myself introducing workshops by saying things like, “I know we discuss a lot of darker stuff, but . . .”  In time, I realized our students did not share a similar anxiety. They recognized their own stories in this very type of difficult literature.  

The truth is that our Underground Writing students, in one way or another, are struggling—the youth in the adult crimes they wake to discover they have committed; our adult students in the physical and mental aftershocks of drug addiction and incarceration; our migrant leaders caught in the intricate web of cultural and familial tensions, in a country seemingly half against them.  Such darkness needs to be named, and the dynamic discussions we’ve been having indicate our students intuitively know this.    

*

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.

The story that opened this essay was a story told during a workshop by my friend and colleague in Underground Writing, Chris Hoke.  Chris has a gift for images, and this one stuck with me for some time.  I could see it. I could hear it. I wanted to include it in a piece of my own writing.  But it wasn’t my story.  

In the days that followed, however, something began to evolve.  

I recalled what came to mind immediately in the workshop when I heard the story—my father in an auto parts store in Anaheim, California in January of 2000.   

Two months before my father’s death—returned home from the hospital after his fifth surgery, and unknowingly a few weeks away from hospice care—he decided to get new seat covers for my mom’s car.  He would have nothing to do with anyone telling him anything different. And so, with a body emaciated from years of radiation, cobalt, and chemotherapy in the 70s, and again during the return of his Hodgkin’s Disease in 1999, my father climbed carefully into his golden yellow Volvo 1800 sports car and drove to the local auto parts store.  He was nearly a ghost by this point. A perfectionist for his entire life, he had only recently given up shaving due to a lack of energy. He weighed less than a hundred pounds.

I was in Iowa at the time, so I wasn’t there to see him walk gingerly down the aisle, past the various car fluids, on his way to where the seat covers were located.  And I didn’t hear the break, as somewhere between the ankle and the knee his tibia simply snapped. My beloved father, a man of dignity and grace unlike I’ve ever known, fell to the floor in agony, surrounded by bottles of motor oil and antifreeze, his brief descent ending as he rolled onto his back, stunned by the white light and the faces above him appearing quickly from all angles of his vision.

*

As Underground Writing has grown, as we’ve journeyed from the adrenaline burst of new beginnings, articles in the press, and T-Shirts into the settled rhythms of a more established program, one of the facets of what we’re doing that has become increasingly important to me is how our stories overlap, how they connect us.

In January 2016, my beloved mom passed away.  It was a grief unlike I had known in years. Part of the intensity was due to the fact that both of my biological parents are now gone.  When I shared this news at various times at each of our sites, invariably the room grew quiet. It was as if I could see in slow-motion-time-release the change in the students’ perception of me—white, middle-class teacher to fellow human in a shared journey.  We were now strugglers together, and with a common language. We sat together in that moment of silence. Mere seconds, usually, but it often felt as if time expanded so as to contain the gravity of death. And I suspect we each sat in that silence with images and stories flickering through our minds.  Stories of blood and lineage and loss and grief, the students unconsciously experiencing a transformation as my narrative merged briefly with theirs then faded into other thoughts based in their lives, their stories.  

*

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole . . .

In the days following my hearing of this tale, I realized that the stories I was hearing in the workshops were no longer easily defined as something other, as “theirs.”  And the stories I was sharing from my life were not exclusively “mine.”  In fact, my friend’s story was becoming mine, or a part of it, as were the stories shared by our students.  In my hearing of them—my taking them in, as it were—they had not been merely received. They had some sort of agency, something that is ongoing.  The stories, I believe, are generating connections with stories from my life. They are intertwined with my own and are changing my perception of my past.  My stories are also becoming part of others’ stories. Located in the Skagit Valley for a little over a year now, I join them. My life now includes these lives.  I am being changed day by day, reeling in the reverberations of such beauty and sorrow.

*

Weeks later, I recalled a photograph famous in our family for its seeming absurdity.  In the foreground my beloved father and his brother are horsing around with their father, my grandfather, on the west-facing, hard brown sands of Manzanita, Oregon, our family’s preferred place of sojourn for four generations.  My cousin is building a sandcastle in the background, and behind the small edifice, the Pacific Ocean in all its glory—deep blue, brightly glistening under the evening sun. The lighting is appropriately the golden hour. My father, who is on the left side of the photo, separated by a human-width gap from his father and brother, has his hand held up and out like one side of a cross.  Far in the background, but clearly visible, and seeming to rest on my father’s fingertips: a gull, its wings expanding, about to take flight.

 

II. Gravedigging

In our line of work, my colleagues and I often talk about bringing life into places of death.  Whatever a literal resurrection might entail, I’m learning most people need first to discover their entrapment.  They also need hope, something that is in scarce supply for many of the students with whom we work. What little remains often needs to be exhumed.

We use creative writing as a shovel.  

It’s hard work, but the willingness to dig is quickly evidenced in the discussions that follow our group reading of a text.  And the soil, prepared by the literature, is pliant. By the time the writing prompts are finished, students—through some grace moving in language itself—have often dug down deep enough into the self to reach a grave.

*

Spaces like these are shelters for decay, narratives of darkness.  I hear such stories on a weekly basis . . . The young man who confesses to me he’s locked up for killing his grandma’s dog and doesn’t know why he did it, who then proceeds to tell me of his long history of physical abuse at the hands of an angry father; the man in his twenties I’m asked to speak with on the phone in the glass-protected booth, who is missing an arm he himself sawed off, who has swastikas below his eyes and “perdition” written backwards on his forehead so he can read it in the mirror, who tells me he’s from Manson’s farm; the look on the guard’s face the other night when I asked if any pastoral care had been given to the Cascade Mall shooter, who is currently being held in Skagit County Jail; the young man I counsel who tells me he’s having flashbacks of standing over a rival gang member he’s unwittingly stabbed six times in self-defense, listening to him beg for mercy.

*

There are other movements in the darkness, too.

We’re privileged to see some of our students on a regular basis and build long-term rapport.  It’s satisfying to see the maturing work they produce. Many of our students, however, we see only once, maybe twice, for an hour or two at most.  These are the students I wonder about. Will their notebooks ever get used for creative writing again? Will the impact of encountering literature in a given session spark something, anything?  Will they contact us on the “outs”? Will they remember writing is a gift and a tool for life? I continue to hope. I continue to believe that literature read together in a hospitable atmosphere, paired with writing prompts connected to both the readings and the students’ lives, begins something beyond what we can quantify.  Words matter. Literally. They take shape, and form a space in which things can grow.

Leaving the workshop with a notebook full of words and photocopies of good literature is not our only goal, of course.  We’re seeking both inspiration and transformation. This may take the form of a participant’s continuing to pursue the craft of writing and reading in a more purposeful manner.  It may simply mean they read more. Or it may mean they discover writing as a tool to help process a world that usually leaves them confused, angry, and sad. Whatever the case, we endeavor to resuscitate and nurture hope, something tangible that can be built upon, furthered to the point that an imagination of a different future begins to arc toward what they might become.  It is across this bridge of the imagination, as it were, that the participants can begin the long journey towards embodying a different future.  

I’ve seen writing work this way for two of the students who participated in our program’s initial week of workshops.

R. is from another state, but when I met him he was being detained on various charges in our local area.  Although he was noticeably quiet, I often caught him grinning at certain things read aloud or said in our workshops.  There was a light on. I liked him immediately.  

A month or two after Underground Writing’s debut, our workshop group was discussing the letters of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time.  “Letters can be literature,” we told the youth.  “Let’s try it, too.” For our writing prompt, we asked them to write a letter to someone.  When it was open-share time, R. decided to read. “I call this one ‘Dear System’,” he began. 

Dear System,

Ever since I was born you’ve been there.  You were there when my biological mom would relapse and let my sister and I run around free.  You were there again as I began to realize how to work on my own and take care of my mom and little sister.  You were there when my biological dad went into a rage and hit someone. You were there when my mom used up her last chance.  You took me and my little sister from her. You weren’t there when I passed from family member to family member. You were there to give me a new family.  You were the one who put both my parents in jail. You put my biological dad in prison. Now you are here again, but this time just for me. You are here putting me in JRA for the same reason my biological dad’s locked up.  You have brought me nothing but pain in the 14 years I’ve known you. You have torn apart my family time and time again only to put me in a new one where I’ve done nothing but disappoint or make people angry. So, System, before I finish this letter, I just want you to know I will never forgive you.

R.

The room was silent.  Not only because we’d just heard a sort of foundational text that solidified we were on to something important, but also because R.’s writing was inarguably powerful.  In five minutes, his emotions had been honed into something concise that moved beyond mere self-expression. He’d interacted with literature in a dialogic manner, and by the look on his face, something transformative had happened to him during the process.

R.’s out of state now, so we stay in touch these days via letters and the phone.  During the course of our last phone conversation, he told me he’s working on a section of a long autobiography project, as well as completing a set of song lyrics.  His letters, too, bear witness to the continuing impact of writing . . .

I’m happy that “Dear System” is helping people.  That’s a side of my writing that I never considered.  I am still writing. So far I have gone through three notebooks . . . I miss going to Underground Writing sessions.  I liked it there, I always felt welcomed.

I’ve also seen it in J.—a native to our county, held inside for a record number of months, due to the serious nature of the charges against him.  J.’s interest in writing has had extremely tangible benefits. In our workshops he was always eager to share his work.

Thinking

So I’m in deep depression now

There’s nothing I can do about it

I’ve been sleeping all day

I get real tired when I’m this way.

I start thinking and thinking

And my mind goes crazy.

I get the same thought

Over and over—

What would things be like if

I ended my life today?

I stare, and I stare

I think everyone

Who loves me hates me,

Who wouldn’t care

If I just disappeared one day

I think and I think—

Wouldn’t it be better if it all

Just went away.

J. is determined to survive.  Likeable from the start, he’s a person I’ve come to appreciate for his strong desire for change and restoration.  In the fifteen months I’ve known him, he’s taken to writing as if it were an iron lung. His first letter to me implied it might, in fact, be something of the sort.

As you know, I missed creative writing.  I was really bummed out because that’s my favorite programming that I look forward to all week.  I’m a ‘security risk’. I’m really stressed out and just going crazy.  I’ve never had such severe, strong, and sudden emotions.

Near the end of his stay, we began meeting once a week.  I met with him as a teacher or a chaplain, determined by his need on any given day.  By the time he was finally sentenced and sent to a juvenile prison, we’d also written seven letters back and forth.  

So I made it to [prison]!  I was in Shelton for about 3 hours then they took me.  I’ve been here almost 24 hours. I’m not sure what to say about this place other than it’s definitely a prison…I found a small section for poetry in the library, but they have like 80% Shakespeare and really old stuff . . . I’ve been writing a ton but most of it is private stuff or my new book, ‘To My Love’.  I’m really excited to hear what you think about my prologue. My mom is sending all of my writing from the outs and Juvie. It is so much that she had to put it in a package in the post office.

When I look back over the past fourteen months, writing is the thread that is so apparently woven through J.’s future progress and restoration.  More so, what I believe propels J. is what to one degree or another propels all writers and poets—he has encountered the self through writing, and, in that process, imagination, mystery, and hope.

Our correspondence has notably increased in the six months since his transfer, most of it being driven by J.’s own desire to continue learning the craft of writing.  He is an exemplar of our program’s hoped-for impact. In 41 letters and counting, we’ve edited and re-edited draft after draft of various poems and short stories. We’ve shared a bit of our own stories.  And we’ve also been working on a co-submission to a literary journal, an item that has facilitated further momentum toward change for J. 

I’ve been inspired once again to be a part of Underground Writing or a similar group/organization when I get out.  This program changes lives. I am a prime example. I now have something to work towards, to strive for. I have something I want on the outs.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, I was able to visit J. in another part of our state.  Amidst a room full of families and loved ones visiting their sons, their boyfriends, their dads, I sat with J. for one and a half hours.  We talked about life in his new surroundings, as well as his hopes for the future. He’s feeling settled in his living unit, and his medications have finally stabilized.  There have been challenging and good reconnections with his family. He’s just turned eighteen and is registering to vote. He’s applying to take classes through a local community college, and is determined to use what little money he has left to help his mom in paying for his tuition.  In my estimation, the hope for change has transformed into actual and definable progress.  

“You’re doing great,” I say to J. as we shake hands.  “Really great. So glad to see it.” I tell him I’ll return in a month or two.

He smiles.  “You’re going to send out our submission next week—right?”

*

Reading Flannery O’Connor recently, I was reminded of a story received from the ancient tradition of the desert fathers and mothers.  There was a hermit living in the region of Scetis who had become seriously ill.  His fellow monks, upon visiting him one day, discovered that he had died, and began to prepare his body for burial.  All of sudden, he awoke, opened his eyes, and began laughing. After recovering from their surprise, the brothers asked him what he was laughing about.  He told them he was laughing because they feared death, because they were not ready for it, and, finally, because he was passing from labor into his rest.  With this he rolled over and died.

Death for such monastics was a way of life.  A way to life.  And reportedly, some monks in ages past did indeed sleep in their coffins.  When presented with this bit of history, my son tells me the monks were probably hiding from something.  I asked some of the youth in Underground Writing what they thought.

A: “To get away from everything for a while.”

O: “Maybe it was part of their praying.”

L: “Because they’re getting ready to die.”

In some sense, all of these answers are correct.  Monks have always been consciously mindful of death.  Sleeping in coffins was simply a more obvious way of facilitating this.  It was likely their way of hiding from the very act of hiding—a way to actively seek an encounter with reality.  Whatever the people in surrounding communities may have thought of the practice, to say nothing of the explanation, it was not a sorrowful thing.  Nor did it lead to depression. In fact, a monk’s literal descent into his future place of death allowed him to more fully engage life. It became a conduit for joy, allowing a monk to wake to the freeing realization of his mortality.  

In the literature we discuss with youth and adults, in the writing we do as a generative response, we more often than not enter into the darkness of our lives.  These unlit places may be as simple as a general lack of clarity or as complex as navigating the extrication of oneself from the clutches of drug addiction, gang involvement, or repeating cycles of shame and perceived failure.  Whatever a student’s degree of darkness, by directly descending into it—through the profound mystery of reading/writing—something begins to happen. They begin to voice the ineffable. Words become sentences become beauty. In less than an hour, it’s surprising to witness the claustrophobic encasement of each student’s life opening up a bit.  So begins a fissure. And through such gaps daylight begins to filter in. 

About the guest contributor:

Matt Malyon is the Executive Director of Underground Writing, as well as a jail and juvenile detention chaplain.  He is the author of the poetry chapbook, During the Flood.  His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has been featured in various journals— including the University of Iowa’s 100 Words, Rock & Sling, Measure, and The Stanza Project.  He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.

The essay above was first published in Iron City Magazine.

You can read Matt’s previous article on the JAC blog here.

 

It’s a start, but we’ve got a ways to go, still

by Kenneth E. Hartman

As I sit in the audience of assembled artists and corrections officials, writers and performers, along with a smattering of fellow returned citizens, I reflect on the magical nature of my own journey to this meeting, provoked to reverie by a tale of emotional torture and abuse told by a gentle, kind artist who once walked the same yards and felt the same arid winds of isolation I experienced for 38 years.

The story of a prisoner locked inside a cell, alone with his thoughts and fears, is a trope that defines prison narrative in fiction and movies. There is something both heartrending and heartwarming to consider in these tales of solitary “definement” – this act of finding oneself within the confines of the steel and concrete of a prison cell. While I listened to him recount his own harrowing experience of this, I became lost in nightmarish memories of other places and times. I could hear the clanking sound of heavy brass keys in the far distance. I felt the weight of those decades leaning on me.
But it’s October 16, 2018, on the vast, tree-lined campus of Sacramento State University in a large, windowed room in the Alumni Center. This is the California Art for Justice Forum; this is the place for “Addressing Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform Through the Arts.” Along one side of the room, tables are stacked with breakfast food: bagels and cream cheese, muffins and cut fruit. At the end of the last table, large brown Cambro drink dispensers – the exact size and color of the containers in the chow hall of the last prison I served time in, mere months ago. The coffee is much better here. Throughout the rest of the day a small army of food service workers keep replacing the offerings with new items. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser to serve the participants a box lunch like what prisoners eat every day.

In the opening panel, as the Chief of Rehabilitation in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation bats back requests for more programs, more art, more of anything, California Arts Council Deputy Director Ayanna Kiburi points out that eight million dollars a year is being allocated toward arts in the California prisons by her organization. I whip out my smart phone and do the math. It works out to about 7/1000ths of a percent of the twelve billion dollars pouring into the prisons for all the rest they accomplish for society. Obviously, art isn’t valued that highly.

During the first breakout sessions, I walk around the room, listening when I can, standing back when I can’t, and what I see and hear leaves me with that kind of déjà vu that feels heavy. It strikes me that many people with obviously big hearts and real commitment are having an argument with the past. How do we measure this? How do we get the system on board? I think it’s different now, right? We shouldn’t ask for too much! When I came to prison back in 1980, it was at the tail end of the last rehabilitation surge. In those days, at Old Folsom, no less, whole sections of Five Building were dedicated to painters and sculptors. Art Alley it was called. It vanished into the maw of the “get tough” era that followed.

When keynote speaker Luis Rodriguez, former Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and both personal hero and close friend of mine, takes to the dais to address the crowd he’s vibrating with righteous energy. He compares the current moment to the “birth of a new era,” and I pray right there that he’s right. His poet’s voice rises and falls, emphasizing and exhorting, calling to action all assembled. In what holds personal significance for me, he makes the point that his own troubled youth was rescued by one adult who “cared him straight.” Like most of us who fall off the rails and land on the other side of the law and society, he needed to be seen and heard, to be cared for and nurtured. Instead, the system of mass incarceration had steel and concrete, isolation and suffering in abundance, ready to break us down and destroy our spirits. I discovered a vocation for writing, and I found a way to write my way back to humanity. That my spirit wasn’t destroyed is a testament to the power of the arts, but I am a lucky exception to the rule. A few millions buy a few programs; many billions buy lots of concrete and steel cages.

The second plenary session addresses the convergence of arts education and criminal justice reform. Two of the five panelists are fellow returned citizens. The wise and measured jazz musician, Wesley Haye, and the fiery, impassioned Shakespearean actor Dameion Brown, both provide the kind of experiential knowledge that only those of us who have lived inside the lethal, electrified fences can impart. Dr. Larry Brewster, a giant in the field of arts education in prison, spends a considerable amount of time explaining to the room the Gordian knot of proving to the uninterested that arts matter for the unloved. He is valiant in his commitment and radiates charm.

Breakout sessions again continue the debate from the morning and discuss the various systems and obstacles that hamper the provision of substantial and meaningful arts education within the jails and prisons. The well-meaning and the hopeful confronting the hard end of current reality is on display.

At the closing remarks, the voices of Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts, and Laurie Brooks, executive director of the William James Association, eloquently express appreciation for what change has happened inside the prisons and jails and the fervent, desperate desire for still more that has been evident all day.

My mind drifts back to Henry Frank, fellow returned citizen, and his gripping recounting of being able to draw on a used lunch bag while being held in solitary confinement. I could feel him slip back inside the terrifying isolation of a cell, alone, unsure how long he would be held out of touch, out of the healing rays of the sun. That he could call on his training as an artist is a wonderful thing, to be sure. That he was placed in a situation where all he could do to maintain his sanity was draw on the inside of a crumpled bag is a damning indictment of the system of mass incarceration.

This state, all of this country, still has miles to go to achieve something like a system that values human beings more than the infliction of pain. We must not ever forget that sad truth.

About the guest contributor: Kenneth E. Hartman served 38 years in the California prison system. He is the author of the award-winning memoir “Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars. “His other books are “Christmas in Prison,” and “Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough.” He lives and works in the Los Angeles area as a writer. Ken can be contacted at: kennethehartman@hotmail.com

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.

Additional forums have taken place at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta on September 28, at Sacramento State University on October 16, at the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University in Alabama on October 19, and the last forum will be held at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16 (register here). For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org.

Climbing The Walls: Incarceration and Art

by Todd Hollfelder
About the guest contributor: “Though I don’t like being labeled, or “summed up” by definitions, there are two tags I must live with.  First, I am an artist… I have been my entire life.  I dabble in different mediums and play with many forms of expression.  I call myself an illustrator because the intent of all my work is to share a story.  Places I’ve been.  Things I’ve seen.  Feelings I’ve dealt with.  Second, I am a felon… I will be one for the rest of my life.  I was released from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections custody in April, 2018.  I was allowed to concentrate on my work, watch it mature, and see other’s talents grow.  Through creative competition we became a collective.”   
Self Portrait 1 Hat
Self Portrait

Hi!  My name is Todd or, for the past 3 years, Wisconsin Department of Corrections #632011.  I will have my numeric “nickname” for the next 6 years in Community Custody.  For those unfamiliar with the term, I will be on “paper” and continuously monitored.  I was incarcerated 2/13/2015 for violating the terms of my bond and in July 2015 was handed a 4-year sentence, mandatory release date of February 10, 2019… my 51st birthday.  Fortunately, I’m a non-violent offender.  I integrated smoothly into the prison lifestyle and routine.  For this I was eligible for an Earned Release Program and cut 10 months off my ‘bid’.  Unfortunately, the time I saved on my time ‘in’ was tacked on to my early release.

Let me tell you a little about where I come from!  I grew up in an upper middle-class suburb of Milwaukee, WI.  My family isn’t what I would call wealthy but we definitely were raised “privileged”.  We were never denied anything and rarely heard the word ‘no’.  I believed I was invincible… my family would get me out of every situation I got into.  If I was broke, they’d give me money.  If my bills were late, they would catch them up.  When I got arrested, they covered my bail and got me the best possible legal representation.  I was a well-adjusted kid who never got into any trouble… well, except getting suspended for smoking on school grounds and skipping gym class.  I have 7 DUIs under my belt now and never was in prison.  This time there was no getting out of it!  The Judge told me clearly, “… you’ve gotten away with this too many times and haven’t received enough punishment…”.  He handed down the sentence of 4 years in, 6 years out for a grand total of 10 years, the maximum punishment he could legally impose.

So, here I am at 47 years old on my way to the prison Intake facility!  I’m in handcuffs and shackles, locked in the back of a bus, with a bunch of ‘real’ criminals.  Most of these guys are murderers, rapists and abusers (they’d done things I couldn’t even fathom).  My offense didn’t hurt anyone… I’d had no accidents or damaged any property.  I’m thinking, “OMG”, what are these people going to do to someone like me?  Am I going to have to live with these men or be housed with ‘lesser’ offenders?  What are the living conditions going to be?  We’ve all seen the movies… is it really like that?

Warut Visitation Rules
Visitation Rules

I wasn’t so much scared of my situation, it was more anxiety that dominated my mind.  The more I was around these soon-to-be “roommates” the more I decided I wasn’t going to be around them.  I withdrew into reading novels.  I found it a way to transport myself to other places, different stories and a better class of people.  In Intake we weren’t allowed to have much.  I read about 5 books a week, all day and night long, to take me away and avoid speaking to the characters I was forced to room with.  I was so thankful when I got moved out of intake into a regular medium-security location where I could finally purchase my own clothes, shoes, TV and hobby supplies!!

I found television to be a very temporary, mindless escape… maybe solely a distraction from the world I was residing in.  Books are great but reading became more of a tedium than a diversion.  I had ordered a sketchpad and some drawing pencils, colored pencils and pastels but I hadn’t actually created anything in a long time.  As we all get older, responsibilities and obligations often force us to put our passions to the side.  While I’d created art on the outside, and I was devoted to it, I didn’t have the time to express myself the way I truly desired to.  Now, on a forced break from reality, I didn’t have to worry about anything.  I had no bills to pay.  I had no commitments to family or work.  Even though it was barely edible, I didn’t have to think about what I was going to eat, go grocery shopping or cook.  I could go to bed and get up whenever I felt like it… except for count times and the occasional fire drill!  It seemed to be the perfect time to return to my first love, drawing.

My first attempts were primitive, at least in my eyes, but they impressed others.  I didn’t care about, or need, the approval of others but it was flattering.  These drawings were/are a part of me!  I could transport myself to new worlds, make them tangible and be however I wanted them to be.  My fellow inmates would sometimes question my images.  They didn’t understand artistic vision doesn’t have to be representational… it doesn’t have to consist of recognizable imagery.  My work wasn’t for them though, it was for me!  I refused to draw portraits for them.  I absolutely wouldn’t make greeting cards!  My work is art… not crafts!  Later on, I did start to do portraits but there were a few conditions.  I didn’t set a “price” for my work but they had no input into the finished project and I would accept tokens of gratitude.  They couldn’t view the piece until it was complete.  And don’t bother me, it’ll be done when it’s done.

I must explain that I’m not an anti-social kind of guy!  I’d made a conscious decision to separate myself from the environment to which I was subjected.  I didn’t want to get to know anybody.  I knew I’d do my time for me, get it over with, and never have to see any of these people ever again.  The chances of myself, and most of the others, being in the same social circles and spaces on the outside was slim.  In this context, my art became my downfall.  The more I created the more others wanted to talk to me.  They wanted to see my work.  They wanted to talk about my projects.  They wanted to show me their talents… with words, visual images, crochet, needlepoint, leathercraft, beading, some dance and the list goes on within the perimeters of the prison’s restrictions.   For many this was their first exposure to expressing themselves in ways that weren’t destructive to themselves or others.  And they were proud of their work.  They valued my opinions and asked for my suggestions as to how to improve their visions.  Even though I was keeping my distance and not letting down my “walls” (I thought), I developed superficial (again, I thought) relationships… more than acquaintances but not quite friends.

Fantasy Family Portrait
Fantasy Family Portrait

To elaborate on the ‘I thought’ statements.  I believed I was hiding behind “walls” to protect myself from getting to know the other convicts in my personal space 24/7/365.  What I failed to recognize was that my work, and my input into theirs’, slowly exposed pieces of myself.  I gained insight into their lives because, when asked to view or make suggestions on their works, I could see into their minds.  I could read their emotions about where they’ve been, are currently and where they want to be in the future.  We developed an unspoken form of communication.  A way to maintain our masculinity while “discussing” our feelings of fear, on relationships, about caring for one another.  All the things men don’t usually talk about with each other.

One of my favorite statements, I heard it all the time, was “I can’t draw.” Or “I can’t do that”.  There is no right or wrong in art.  There is no good or bad in creation.  I’d tell people, “Yes, you can!”.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a stick figure or a colorful “scribble” with colored pencils.  “I’ll help inspire you!”.  “Are you having fun?”, “Relaxing?”, “Releasing the frustration of another taxing day?”.  The point being, are you feeling anything?!!  Art is about reaction.  If you have an opinion or elicit a reaction you’re alive.  You’re expressing a view, a viewpoint and that’s creation.  I was able to introduce technique but had to remind guys not to try to do what I do… one of me is enough.  Be your own person!  See through your own eyes!  Interpret according to your own beliefs and values!  Of course, one of the toughest principles is always OBSERVE, OBSERVE, OBSERVE!  Shut your mouth and listen… don’t just hear, LISTEN.  Open your eyes but don’t just look, SEE!  Absorb the good and the bad around you.  Visualize what makes you happy.  Express the things that piss you off.  Whatever it is, get it out!!

The arts are one of the few positive things about prison.  For me, it allowed the opportunity to see my craft mature.  Looking at my early works with only #2 pencil on typing paper to what I’m accomplishing, and still growing, now is amazing.  I saw others experiment successfully in a variety of mediums.  One of my co-artist inmates, who claimed he’d never been creative, composed a spectacular “collage” (all hand drawn and cut out) representing his favorite football team, the San Francisco 49ers.  Others did brilliant portraits from photographs of their loved ones using a grid technique.  Patterns were available for purchase to those who preferred to work in brightly colored yarns.  Some got their friends and family to send them adult coloring book pages to enjoy and release tension.  It wasn’t unusual to see groups of guys sitting around the same table conversing and immersed in their activities of choice!

Sometimes, however, our efforts were stifled by the subjective rules of the DOC.  For example; I drew a New Orleans Mardi Gras scene in which there was a woman flashing her breasts to get beads that were thrown from the balconies.  Another inmate drew a very artistic topless woman with large boobs.  He got cited for “inappropriate material” where, when the correctional officers were questioned about it, my drawing was considered acceptable because of the context.  We had to be very careful about anything depicting violence but not all was seen as unacceptable.  Subjects construed as racist could land one in the “hole” but, again, it depended on context.  I illustrated my frustrations about the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri (I forget what year that was) depicting a racially diverse group defending themselves against the police while stores were being looted and cars were on fire.  It wasn’t considered unacceptable since the violence was implied more than vivid.  It was tricky to sometimes push the line as serious disciplinary action could be imposed upon you.  But really, who wants to concentrate on drawing bunnies and pretty flowers in a place where it is difficult to wake up in the morning and smile at your cellie!

NOLA 1949 Mardi Gras Gay Krewe
Mardi Gras 1949 – Krewe of Yuga

It’s really fascinating to look back on the whole experience now… even though it hasn’t been that long.  To think about the conversations that started over a drawing, a poem, or a song.  The feelings that were communicated without speaking.  The bonds created by my knowing, somewhere, someone may be thinking about the positive aspects of being incarcerated because my work is hanging on their wall or framed on their desk.  Even if it’s just held by a magnet on a refrigerator, I’ve impacted somebody else’s life in any number of ways.  A reminder of where we’ve been, where we’re going and to be thankful in the moment that we’ve survived (hopefully overcome) our shortcomings.  I like to believe some of the men I inspired, and who inspired me, have continued to pursue their newly found freedom of expression.  A constructive outlet for their emotions.  A diversion from returning to where they’ve been.  A way to create a future they can visualize.  In some way everyone is in a prison of their own creation….

Joan Rivers Cadillac Alone
Joan Rivers Alone in a Cadillac

 

Sports or Arts?

by Treacy Ziegler
About the guest contributor: Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 2,300 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.

Binaries are a way of being:  We can choose either “this” or “that;” or we can take this binary to the interpersonal where there is a “them against us.”   It is not surprising, therefore, that sports and arts are often pitted against each other.

Most often, sports and arts are in competition for financial support as in education with school boards asking,   “Do we drop sports or arts?”  Are sports ultimately privileged because of the much higher number of individuals attending sports events than those who attend art performances or exhibitions?  Why do we pay sports players more than artists?  How many contracts have been given to artists before a season in the studio?

In prison, arts often take a back seat to sports.  Jesse Osmun, prisoner at  Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution recently wrote to me about his concern that the arts program was losing ground over the gym programs.

Jesse writes:
“Here at FCI Ft. Dix, we have a program for Hobbycraft/Arts that is run by inmates under the supervision of the recreation department and assigned staff. For the entire time I have been here, this program has run smoothly and had a dedicated space at the top floor of the Education building with actual classrooms and instruction by inmate instructors. These classrooms have worktables, lighting, basic supplies/tools, and good ventilation. These are all necessary for the program. No complaints about the space ever really came up. The program as it stands has strong leadership and dedicated hours and so is running better then it has in the past. Materials are purchased and arrive within a reasonable time frame. Tools and basic supplies are available, and classes fill very quickly.

However, more recently the staff decided that the best place to have the program is in the gym, competing with other recreational programs such as basketball, soccer, etc. and crammed into space that is not properly ventilated for use of materials such as oil paint, turpentine, glues, etc. Many of these areas are cramped and do not have proper lighting for programs such as drawing and painting. These areas are also subject to gym hours, meaning if the gym is closed, these programs cannot run.

 My current drawing class has 5-7 students with 10 or more active participants working on art projects in the room. It has been very active and well utilized, as are all the programs.  If these changes are made, the classes will be ultimately abandoned with the only kind of instruction being art instruction books that inmate will need to buy for themselves.  In addition, the inmates will not have ta dedicated place to work on art even on their own.”

 It’s easy to assume that money is the basis of such changes, but there are other dynamics working.

When I was a volunteer art teacher in a mid-west maximum-security men’s prison, under the direction of the programming director, the prison had a sophisticated art room where prisoners were allowed to work on their art on a regular basis.   There were some classes taught – mine being one – but each prisoner who was invited to the room (based upon behavior and ticket records) also had a dedicated space in which they could work; areas that I referred to as their “studios.”  The program director had minored in art in college developing an experience and understanding of art beyond what I typically see in prisons.

When that program director transferred to another prison, the subsequent program director, while very supportive of programming, had no experience whatsoever in art.   His background was in sports and recreation.  Unfortunately, the program and room lost its integrity as a place to create art and became more of a space for busywork.

This inability to understand art seems to be common in prison.  Well, lets be truthful, an inability to truly understand the depth of art is common in and out of prison.  Art’s existence has been challenged for a long time.  Some might argued since Plato threw out the poets from his Republics.  But an irrelevance of art seems even particularly so in the United States – how often does the average person in United States go to an art museum?

This lack of art experience is typical for most prisons in which I have volunteered. But in those prisons that did support a successful art program, there always seemed to be someone in authority who had first hand experience in art; maybe, they minored in art, had a spouse as an artist and so on.  A commitment to art in prison seems to demand that someone in authority have this first hand experience of art – call that person a lover of art.  How many lovers of art run prison, though?

A big discrepancy between someone who has first-and experience/commitment in art and someone who does not is that the former understands that art is not a recreation. This became apparent when I volunteered at a maximum-security men’s prison and each week the guards taunted me as to how was my “finger-painting” class going?  What they didn’t understand, and what I didn’t tell them (because would they really listen to me?) was that art is a means to self-discovery, self-reflection and self-challenge.

But as readers of this blog, I’m speaking to the already convinced.  If you would like to voice concern to the warden at Jesse’s prison the address is: Warden Hollingsworth,  Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution, 5756 Hartford and Pointvile Rd. Fort Dix, NJ 08640.   Perhaps as artists involved in prison, you would like to share your positive experience with him (or us.)  Or share an experience where art and sports were integrated equally in prison (or anywhere).

A gallery selection of Jesse’s work completed in his art room at the prison:

1
Beauty Fades, Jesse Osmun
2
Detox, Jesse Osmun
3
New Growth, Jesse Osmun
4
by Jesse Osmun