About the guest blogger: Michael Zinkowski has taught college-credit writing classes at Oregon State Penitentiary as well as youth correctional facilities in Oregon.
Yesterday I was an audience member for a play-in-progress entirely written and performed by inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary. For the last year, I’ve taught college-credit Writing courses there and one of my students invited me, looking for my feedback on the script he’d largely written. As both inmates and members of the “general public” entered and took their seats in the Chapel room, two guitarists and a keyboardist, all inmates, jammed together. It was a soaring prog-rock instrumental that carried us into the headspace we’d need to be for the play.
I took my seat towards the back right and saw my student (we’ll call him David) perched atop the radiator in the opposite corner of the room, behind the musicians. He sat there, shoulder-length dreads and thick-framed glasses, his hand covering his mouth like The Thinker. With his own office and a thousand responsibilities on the education floor, I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so still or unmoving. In his late 30s, over 20 of which have been spent inside prison walls, he’s possibly the most positively-driven and focused person I’ve ever met, using every waking moment to spread love and compassion, to atone. As I took my journal out to take notes, he looked out through the barred window.
What I didn’t know, is that the play had essentially already begun. After a lanky, older guy wearing a transparent latex glove passed out chocolate chip cookies and cups of water to the crowd of about 30, David stood up, continued to glare at the world out the window, out over the walls of the prison, and began a boisterous, gripping monologue. It felt like a sermon.
His imagery wove everything in the cosmos together, including the “invisible population in the middle of a city.” He functioned as the spoken-word narrator of the play, speaking from the all-knowing perspective of a bird who’d flown into the hospice care room here at OSP. The play featured many vignettes and characters, including the personified voice of Cancer, surrounding the story of a dying inmate, Michael Popper, Sr. David’s wisdom-inflicted bird interjected to help tie the narrative together.
To underscore just how invisible a man becomes dying in hospice care inside a maximum security prison, no one performed the role of Michael Sr. Instead, family members, prison guards, a doctor and nurse all spoke to a voiceless piano bench. Michael Sr.’s silence and invisibility was powerful because it turned our attention to the interconnectivity of all these other characters, each one essentially speaking to themselves but about related struggles. We can put someone inside the walls of a prison but we cannot, the play suggested, no matter how hard we might try, sever the connections they have with the world.
After a “talk-back,” in which members of the audience offered praise and critique, I got up and congratulated David on his performance, on the script, on his ability to make it all work somehow. The audience clapped and cheered as loud as they could without calling too much attention to itself. We were inside a prison after all. However, by no means was this the first time I’d been impressed with him or any of the other student-inmates I’ve had. In fact, my sheer delight and excitement I felt reminded me, unfortunately, that I sometimes reinforce commonly held beliefs about the abilities, talents, and intelligence of the human beings who live inside the prison’s walls.
Without being too scientific about it, it’s probably safe to say that American culture assumes the worst about prisoners. I don’t simply mean of their ethical choices or their “criminal nature” but of their potential and their capacities. And though the last year has taught me nothing but how smart, focused, artistic, grateful, and compassionate my student-inmates can be, I’m sometimes left asking myself: why should I be so surprised over and over?
Realistically, yes, I’m allowed the smile across my face whenever a student here reads a moving, original poem or performs a gripping monologue from the perspective of a talking bird or shows me a hugely improved draft of a 20-page research essay. And, of course, I do. I’m allowed the instinct I have to say “that was amazing,” “great job,” or “I can’t wait to hear the next draft!” and so I do.
Sometimes, though, I struggle with the origins of my excitement. If I’m surprised, is it because I, too, carry with me this idea that these guys shouldn’t be as smart as they consistently prove they are? If I’m moved, is it because the level of work is higher quality than I expected? Did I have low expectations in the first place? And did I have these expectations because I, too, hold the belief that being a prisoner necessarily means one has intellectual or artistic limits?
Probably. It’s something I continually work to deconstruct. It’s probably also true, though, that the quality of their work often surpasses that of my students at “regular” community colleges and that the odds are often very stacked against them and have been before they even got here. Can I not feel, then, that the high quality of work they produce, creatively or academically, is indeed a triumph?
My student-inmates know the world thinks the least of them. Sometimes their families do. Sometimes they, themselves, are burdened by these expectations. Is it in spite of those attitudes that these men excel, or because of them?
Right now I don’t have a solid answer. I’m sure haven’t even asked all the right questions or listed all the variables at play. So I don’t think I need a solid answer yet, but I’d like to use this blog to explore some of the questions I’ve already asked and share stories to complicate our ideas about prisoners, about their potential, and how when we talk about “their” potential we really mean our potential.
Project: An anthology of writing by artists who lead/teach (or previously led/taught) arts workshops inside correctional facilities. I seek submissions to construct a book proposal for publication.
Submission Guidelines + Instructions: Writing must be inspired by your prison work. It does not need to be directly connected to a specific event, experience, or person. Please indicate where names/identifying information has been changed.
Writing may be fiction, non-fiction, prose, poetry, experimental, non-traditional, un-categorizable.
You may submit as many pieces as you like (though not all are guaranteed inclusion in the anthology)
No length restrictions
Previously published material is acceptable, though un-published is preferred
Submissions accepted now through September 15, 2015
About: My name is Leigh Sugar. I previously edited the Annual Anthology of Michigan Prisoner Creative Writing and facilitated creative writing workshops inside Michigan state prisons (both through the Prison Creative Arts Project). I have seen anthologies of writing by inmates, but never a collection of writing by the artists who facilitate or teach writing behind bars. My motivation to embark on this project stems from reflecting on how heavily my own writing has been influenced by my experience going inside prison, and not feeling like I have an outlet or a means by which to share that writing. I know I have this writing based on my time inside, so I know others must as well. It is critical that we strengthen our connections to each other and find ways to share our experiences and writing so we can expand the reach of the creative work that is generated in connection to the criminal justice system. I feel a real artistic resonance with other writers who bring their craft to prison and am committed to creating an entire collection of our writing. No contract yet exists for this volume; accepted abstracts will be organized into a book proposal, which I will then submit to publishers.
Transforming Grief is rooted in the belief that the most potent stories—the ones most capable of informing critical shifts—are those that emerge from our hearts and lives, our learning and intervulnerability. This anthology will bring together writers from a variety of perspectives striving to unearth the transformative value of grief as an individual and collective experience through creative nonfiction.
The works in this collection will include compelling narratives and strong arguments that embody a deep exploration of ideas and themes, using concrete, lived personal and/or communal engagements with a spectrum of losses to illuminate larger questions about the sociopolitical forces at play in the world and our lives. As a body of writing and thinking, this compendium will also look at the ways in which grief is a natural response to present-day social systems, and can be mobilized to generate prefigurative experimentation in self-organization while reclaiming our imagination and humanity.
About the guest blogger: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 voluntary 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.
Time for the prisoner is often imagined as an endless dimension of doing nothing. Not surprisingly then on hearing that I provide in-prison art workshops and through-the-mail art projects for prisoners throughout the United States, people sometimes respond, “There is so little to do in prison – they must really welcome the programs you provide,”
But prison time is not always as it seems.
For some prisoners (those with shorter sentences, or those about to get out – and for a maximum-security prison, “about to get out” may mean “in a year”) the experience of time is the contrary. They experience a lack of it. These prisoners spend their days completing the required laundry list of things needed for parole; a list including such things as anger management classes, drug rehabilitation, counseling and in some states, the required GED a prisoner must obtain before paroled.
Art is not on that laundry list and I can only assume that the prison system shares the same values on art as the public school system. Art is superfluous; perhaps what some guards refer to as “finger painting.”
Because of the required tasks for parole, many of the prisoners who participate in my prison workshops and through-the-mail projects are those prisoners known as “lifers;” folks who are going nowhere and can treat the laundry list with a certain amount of disregard.
And yet, even the in-prison art classes for which only lifers may have time, there is a selection process. It is not surprising that a person in SHU cannot attend. However, I am surprised to find that many of my classes are often primarily white, particularly when one considers that the majority of the prisoners are black and Latino. When I ask, “Why?” I have been told on one occasion, “Blacks get more tickets.”
We do not live in a post-racial society and anyone thinking otherwise might want to spend an afternoon in prison – focused not upon the racism between prisoners but the racism of the entire structure that supports a prisoner’s racist inclinations. Prison survives by a racist structure of divide-and-conquer.
It is in response to this power structure of discrimination within the prison, that I develop through-the-mail art curriculums offered to anyone who wants to join. Death row? Solitary confinement? Tickets? No problem. Anyone in the 2500 member prisoner network of Prisoner Express through the United States who wants to participate in the curriculum can participate.
The basic curriculum is on drawing referred to as Drawing From Life. While it is not necessary to complete this drawing curriculum, it gives the prisoner a basic understanding of my philosophy on art and seeing.
My experience, and therefore my curriculum, often goes against what prisoner artists have been taught or what they experience as art.
My primary experience is that art is a conversation existing of more than a single entity participating in the experience; hence making art a conversation rather than a monologue. In this way, the creative process emerges more as a dynamic “listening” than as an individual expression.
This “conversation” develops on three levels. The first level of conversation involves the uniquely personal exploration between the artist and the world. For the visual artist, this exploration often takes the form of drawing.
The second conversation takes place between the artist and the medium (paint, clay, ink, pencil) transforming that initial exploration into metaphor. Here the creative process is dependent upon a call-and-response conversation between the materials and the artist; the marks on the paper or the rakes on the clay revealing itself to the artist like a Ouija board forceful in where it wants to go. Like the Ouija board, the paint, the clay or the ink has a life of its own.
The third level of conversation is between the art and the viewer. On this third level of conversation, the artist retreats allowing the art to speak directly with the viewer.
These levels of conversation do not exist in prison art: one assumes there is nothing to visually explore in prison; the artist’s materials are often reduced to just computer paper and an interior of a pen (particularly if the prisoner is in solitary confinement); material with too little authority to speak on its own; and the main focus of prison art is the prisoner, the art never speaks for itself. In fact, without the “prisoner” label, much of the work would be ignored. Interest in the art tends to be based upon the fact that the artist is a prisoner not because of the work itself.
Evidence that the first level of conversation does not exist in prison is the numerous drawings I receive from the 2500 prisoners.
Most of the work is tightly rendered drawings that I can classify into five main stereotypical sources for inspiration: photos of loved ones or famous people, tattoos, copying Playboy-like magazines, cartoons, and Bob Ross, or sometimes Thomas Kincaid. I know that the drawings are not an intimate exploration of the world because I see the same images over and over again from many different prisoners across the United States. The drawings suggest the craft of copying – very good copying, but copying.
When I mention in the Drawing From Life curriculum the five sources of drawings that I see in their art, several prisoners, such as Vonderic, write to me in agreement:
“It is true what you write about the five sources of art in prison – that is what most art is about here.”
Some of the prison work is very strong; what I would expect of a high school student who was destined for art school.
Herein lies the first problem. The prisoner, much like the high school student, is not working from his or her intimate visual relationship to the world because like the high school student, the prisoner is the ward of a higher authority forced to see the world through the eyes of another. That is why is it so common for both high school students and prisoners to use the photograph as the primary source for art – not trusting what it is they see themselves. Perhaps it is too late. By the time we are teenagers, the visual world is forgotten in favor of a conceptual world where it is enough to understand that the sky is blue and grass is green. Forgetting that in the direct experience, the sky is not simply blue and grass is not merely green.
Herein lies the second problem for personal visual exploration to occur in prison: It is better for overall prison maintenance if the prisoner keeps to the formulaic sky of how-to art books assuring that the prisoners’ eyes are kept inward or looking at the false clarity of a contrived world. No landscape drawing classes on the lawns of prison yards exploring the palette complexities of the sky.
Some prisoners write to say they prefer working from their imagination. Not knowing that an imagination without exploration develops into redundancy, makes the imagination just another prison.
Prison art is often associated with outsider art. But the outsider artist’s imagination is fueled by a keen sensitivity to the world – operating not without the world, but in the world where the rubber hits the road. James is a prisoner who does work intensely from an acutely wired imagination. This is from a series of drawings James did of toy zoo animals I brought to class. His art is not as interesting when working solely upon his imagination without the external excursion.
In the Drawing From Life curriculum my primary concern addresses the first level of conversation – developing a personal exploration of the world.
Prison is a bleak world and a common complaint I receive from prisoners writing to me is, “There’s nothing here interesting to draw!”
But the sum of an artist’s world is not the sum of objects found in that world. Instead, the artist’s world is sets of relationships that are always changing: light and shadow, form and flatness, tonal variations, near and far. It is a world that is not concerned with conceptualized value-based “things.”
The curriculum invites the prisoner to explore this ever-changing world of relationships in a series of exercises. The first exercise is simple:
Sit in your cell – or any room wherever you are – and explore the pattern of light and shadow. A light colored room works well. Start at any corner of the room and see how bands of light and shadow emerge; most often the corner has a light band. Moving your eye out of the room’s corner, you will find a dark band, moving your eyes from that dark band you will discover another light band, – this continues forever. Dark, light, dark, light, dark, light, infinitum. Light and shadow make up our universe.
Chiaroscuro is an alluring phenomenon that is not lost on prisoners and Dan writes:
“Now that I see chiaroscuro, I see it everywhere! The patterns of light through the window, the floor, the light bands cast across the corridor. The light that comes through the cell window!’
Another exercise asks the student to draw light and shadow bands by drawing a sphere. Leon, a prisoner who has never drawn before and lives in solitary confinement from Pelican Bay State Prison sends in his assignment of the sphere with notes:
The toilet paper roll or the coffee cup comes in handy when trying to understand light and shadow and the chiaroscuro of the world. Leon’s sends his drawings of both the toilet paper roll and his sneaker:
When Leon draws his cell, he makes a discovery.
Leon discovers that although it had always been hard to describe living in his cell to his family in words, he can describe it through drawings.
However, chiaroscuro is a phenomenon that challenges the basic structure of most prison art and for that matter, most high school art. The majority of drawings I receive are based upon the “line”: and although the use of line seems “developmental”, it is not basic and stands contrary to the visual experience of the world.
A line drawing of an apple has the caption asking: “What is this?” Obviously it is an apple and the only way the prisoner knows that it is an apple, is the line defining it. However, when I ask, “ Where is this line on the apple?” it cannot be found. Lines do not exist in the visual world. A line perceived in space is really a shadow – a thin shadow that is created by two forms coming together. Lines are symbols and serve as the basis for language. Using line in drawing bypasses the perceptual experience and goes directly to language. I suggest that if the student is going to draw this:
then the student might as well draw this:
Obviously, many great artists include line, but at this stage of exploration, line is kept at a distance because I want the prisoners to experience the world before the assertion of the line and its demand for conceptualization. How do you draw without a line?
Raymond sends me a drawing where he literally tries to make the drawing without lines – so soft there is no drawing. This is a literal interpretation of the assignment. But Raymond is not ignorant, perseveres and eventually gets it. This is Raymond’s interpretation of a drawing by Rembrandt – full of shadows and light.
Drawings of toilet paper rolls do not qualify as art any more than the countless drawings of big bosom women smiling at the viewer that I receive from prisoners. The drawings of toilet paper are not art. The drawings are a way of developing another access to experiencing the world. My friend Esther, a retired psychologist described how she saw the world differently when she was taught to draw light and shadow, and Joe, a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts student, explains, “I move differently through the world since I learned to draw…I sense things in a different way,” – noting that drawing is not just an “eye thing” but a total body thing.
Billy, a prisoner, writes,
“My mantra for falling asleep is, “It is not an apple. It is light and shadow.”
Lester in solitary confinement, writes to me,
“I want to draw what I see reflected in a drop of water on my desk,”
This sets off a series of letters between us about the Japanese wabi sabi – the Japanese aesthetic centered on change, decay, and imperfection.
In a later art curriculum, Points Of A Compass, I ask, “Where is the horizon in prison?” and Lester writes,
“I was copying horizons out of a magazine for the assignment, then all of a sudden I realize, these are not my horizons! I am a man without a personal horizon!”
My next question to Lester is, “What does it mean to be a man without a personal horizon?” Will Lester become an explorer, not to seize and colonize, but to find a self in relationship to place with the recognition that place is always shared, thus undermining the forced solitariness he is forced to exist?
The fatal flaw
But of course, art has a fatal flaw – one that exists both in and out of prison.
When Vonderic writes agreeing about the five sources in prison that get repeated, he also mentions that this is because
“… art in prison is about money.”
Art’s fatal flaw is that it can be so readily – and willingly – made into a product; turning conversation into profit. Art has always been associated with money – even when describing the negative as in the phrase ”the starving artist.” We associate art to success, and then narrowly define “success.”
So while art can be transformative at times, most often it is not. The difference became very distinct to me this fall when I attended Rutgers University’s art in prison conference, Marking Time.
At the conference I saw Bruce Levitt’s theatre group at Auburn prison where the prisoners-actors perform improvisational plays reenacting their own crimes – revealing both to themselves and to the audience, the prisoners’ profound sense of grief, remorse and pain. This filmed performance left me haunted for days. I listened to the biographical poem/prose recited by an incarcerated woman made so intense by her lack of affectation; the recitation guided only by her pain and the pain she caused.
During the conference, I took one night off and attended a cocktail party at a Sotheby’s fundraising for an NYC art school. In contrast to the art of the prisoners, art here was not directed at transformation of the spirit. Instead art became the reflection of glamor and money with the emphasis upon the celebrity of the artist and the dollar amount of their work.
On the train back to the conference feeling the superficiality of this art world that demands so much attention, I cried.
I cannot be surprised then when James writes to me saying that he asked a number of prisoners on his block to join a particular art project,
“But they said, ‘nah, they only do art for money’.”
Art is constantly made to justify its existence. It is demanded to fit into an economy; even when the economy is not money. The unassuming idea that art is “therapy” maintains an equation that reduces art to a tool utilizing the formula of “if this; then that”.
Art can only be transformative when existing outside all economic structures, be it money; corrections or therapy; and the strength of art is that it has the right to exist without justification – like a person.
About the guest blogger: Leah Thorn is an artist/activist, using spoken word poetry for the autobiographical exploration of identity and liberation. She frequently performs in collaboration with dancers and musicians and her work is published through performance, film, anthologies and magazines in England and the United States. Leah also leads poetry-as-empowerment workshops, primarily in prisons. In 2013 she received a Royal Society for Public Health Special Commendation Award for her contribution to Creative Arts and the Criminal Justice System.
I was recently invited to give a talk at a TEDxWomen event on a subject in some way related to women’s liberation. The event was part of the TEDWomen initiative that started in San Francisco at the beginning of December ’13 and inspired day-long events in over one hundred countries.
I chose to focus my talk on incarcerated women, feminism and the transformational power of poetry, mostly because issues of sexism and male domination are so starkly apparent within the setting of women’s prisons.
I go into women’s prisons as a spoken-word poet and as a women’s liberation activist. The starkness of prison keeps me rooted and alive to the rawness of sexism, male domination and misogyny and to the lived experiences of working-class Black and white women. I have had a two-year writing residency in a high security women’s prison and I undertake short projects, for example with women who self-harm or with older women. In my workshops and one-to-one sessions I enable women to express their thoughts and experiences through talking, writing, publishing and performance and provide a safe place where they can release pent-up emotions. This can lead to a sense of empowerment and agency and a development of trust and openness. Although the focus is not to produce crafted work, many women do. I also speak out as a poet/performer on issues of women’s liberation and incarceration. It often feels that this is a deliberately well-hidden subject.
in a naked state
the women who name
those women have to be contained
those women who disclose, expose
those who show, too eager to show
show scars, who hurting
take them, scapegoat,
I write from the perspective of living in England, the ‘lock up capital’ of Europe, where 45 out of every 100,000 of the general population are in prison. I have also had the opportunity to see first-hand the female System of Corrections in the United States, the carceral nation of the world with 724 per 100,000 of the general population in prison. The situation for women in the two countries is very similar, understandably so as sexism is sexism and there is a universality to women’s narratives. The stories and poems I heard were interchangeable in the similarity of their detail and emotion. Once a safe creative space is made, women tell hard stories, eager to share with each other, often for the first time. In both countries I have been audience to poignant poems and monologues on themes of domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and involvement in prostitution.
A woman’s pain is universal.
A woman’s tears are global.
We love the same. We cry the same.
We lose the same. We all settle for less of the same.
We prostitute our minds. Sell our emotions short.
Sometimes at no price at all.
We trust the same, fallin’ prey
as victims of abuse and misuse.
We are all the same. Our struggle the same.
Extract from a poem by Star
However, there are also some stark differences between the US and the UK in the treatment of incarcerated women. In the UK, there is a groundswell of alliances to end the incarceration of women. For example, the Corston report was commissioned by the then Labour government in the wake of a series of deaths of women in custody, with a remit to address the need for ‘a distinct, radically different, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach’. One of the successes of the report was to stop the regular strip searching of women – “Regular repetitive unnecessary overuse of strip searching in women’s prisons is humiliating, degrading, undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy. For women who have suffered past abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation.” Strip searching is still common practice in most states of North America.
Unlike the States, there is no regular shackling of women in the UK, nor a blanket use of uniform. There are also routine schemes in UK prisons that, although very limited, do go some way to supporting women – eg Storybook Mums, where women write, illustrate and record stories for their children; Toe By Toe, a peer literacy scheme; Listeners, offering emotional peer support; and programmes to support women who have experienced domestic violence or prostitution.
I hope the talk shows in some way that the community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm. More needs to be done to divert women not just from court but also from prosecution and to divert young women away from criminal activity before they start offending.