Not a Prison Artist

by Danny Ashton

Of my art and illustrations, I appreciate each and all the valued interest, criticism and opinions.

However, I would like to draw attention to (no pun intended) the request that I am not to be known as a “prison artist.”  As decades before my incarceration, I took art courses and completed my requirements for a Bachelor’s degree in art education at Eastern Kentucky University.  At the time, I moved to Arizona, and was working on my Master’s degree in Art History. At the high school level in public school districts, I have many years of experience teaching art courses. Also, in the years prior to my arrest, I had attained tenure.

Many years before my incarceration, I’d also been a freelance illustrator.  I’ve been asked to illustrate newsletters, design screen prints for t-shirts, as well as business signs and logos.  All of this was before computer graphics took over. My interest and activity in art related projects began years prior to my incarceration.

I appreciate the groups who are fighting for rights of prisoners, especially the groups fighting for awareness of the private prison fiasco and hysteria caused to fill those prisons.  However, I would like it to be known that although I’m in the prison system, I’m not of the prison system. I don’t want anything that I do to in any way be related to or depict my prison experience.  Therefore, I will decline requests to draw any moods or inner emotions involving my feelings of being a prisoner. I choose instead to continue my work as an illustrator. My choice is to continue drawing the things interesting me.  By doing so, it gives me a sense of my normal home routine. Again, I’m in the prison. I choose to keep my mind actively pursuing other topics as to not become part of the prison. Upon my release, I have ideas for oil paintings. Until then, my art is sent home to my wife who scans them and keeps the originals in binders protected in plastic sleeves.

I have varied interests including but not limited to anything historical.  I have a creative imagination and tend to become part of the era when my drawing takes place.  Yet, referring to my incarceration and the charge that got me to this point, I will not create any reminders.  Along with any drawings/paintings that I complete while my life is on hold in prison, I’m happy to share any images of oil paintings, sculptures, watercolors or photography that I’ve done pre-incarceration.  My challenge while incarcerated is that I don’t have the proper tools with which to work creating the shades, lighting and textures. I’ve had to in a sense, use what I have. I’ve seen a lot of art depicting life in prison.  I find it all depressing and some of it bordering on sick or psychotic. This is not my style. I refuse to sell out to something of this nature. The only drawing I’ve done depicting any jail situation was done the Christmas before my sentencing.  I called it Inmate at the Manger. It’s a simple pencil drawing of an inmate in cuffs and shackles kneeling at the manger of the Christ child surrounded by members of the Nativity. This was done at the request of another inmate to use as a Christmas Card.

I hope to make it understood that while efforts and passion for bringing awareness to the incarcerated artists and making our present situation more tolerable are greatly appreciated, I choose not to participate by using my time to limit myself to prison art.  I’d like my art to be recognized for the level of talent, practice and passion I’ve put into it rather than the few years, where for a bad choice I once made, I’ve spent paying a debt to society.

Please visit our online galleries to see more of Danny’s work.

From Justice Arts Coalition Managing Director, Wendy Jason:

JAC often receives requests and calls for submissions from other entities seeking artwork for exhibitions, publications, websites, etc. We typically pass these requests on to the artists in our network so that they can determine whether or not they would like to participate. Most of the time, artists are eager to submit their work — they’re excited about opportunities for increased visibility, to connect with and educate people on the outside through their creative endeavors, to support causes they believe in. Sometimes these opportunities offer a way for artists to provide some financial support to their loved ones. Once in a while, though, there are requests that blur the line between opportunity and exploitation. Even after nearly a decade fielding inquiries, I’m still tuning my radar, learning to spot the red flags, and figuring out how to react and respond when something doesn’t feel quite right. Because I want the artists who’ve grown to trust JAC to experience as much of a sense of agency as possible, I find myself torn. Do I stand between them and the risk of further exploitation, choosing not to share requests that seem to lack integrity? Or, do I share even the requests that don’t sit well in my gut, so that artists have the chance to choose for themselves? I tend to lean towards the latter, but not without first expressing my concerns to the individuals making the request, and offering guidance around redesigning their projects if they’re interested in collaborating. Fortunately, most are.

Danny’s post was written after receiving a couple of calls for submissions from well-respected entities that are doing good, important advocacy work. For the most part, they’ve been very open to receiving feedback while shaping their projects, which will ultimately provide the public with unique opportunities to engage with people in prison through visual art and writing. Danny felt very limited by the guidelines in their initial requests, and offered this essay in response.

Hillside High Art Students reach out to incarcerated artist with Artist Trading Cards and motivational messages

by Cynthia Garcia, Hillside High School Art and Leadership Teacher, Upland Unified School District

Artist trading cards made by the students

Hillside Continuation High School 11th and 12th grade students in Upland Unified School district in Southern California had the opportunity to connect with an incarcerated artist using their own art thanks to the Justice Arts Coalition pARTner project. The idea was inspired by the stories of students who have shared their own personal hardships. Many of these hardships revolved around having a family member, friend or themselves being incarcerated. Since I have family members of my own in the prison system, I felt it would be a great opportunity for students to have a chance to reach out and learn how to connect with other people who understand their circumstances. It would also help the students find hope, reach out to the community, and to think about making better choices.

I stumbled upon the Justice Arts website while researching prison art programs and was inspired by the stories and art of the incarcerated artists who were trying to use art to help them cope with prison life and give them opportunities to learn new skills. Around the time I discovered the website, the students were working on creating six artist trading cards inspired by the artist Steven Quinn and learned what it means to create a narrative by repurposing images from old dated history books and modern magazines. The idea behind the cards was to allow students to trade, collect, and give away cards to other students, family and friends. I had the students create digital artist trading cards, due to restrictions in the correctional facility, to be printed and sent out to our pen pals to trade and collect amongst each other. The theme was open for the most part, but I reminded them that the purpose was to tell a story that has some type of significant meaning to their own lives.

I had previously reached out to Wendy Jason, the managing director of the Justice Coalition, about my interest including Hillside art students in the program. She gave me all the information we needed to reach out to one of our pen pals, Mr. Cromwell, who was both shocked and very excited to receive our letter. In our first letter we let him know a bit about the school and the project we were currently working on. He was completely on board to help inspire and motivate our students and answer any questions the students had about his life in prison.

After the students finished up their final trading cards, I asked them what questions they would be interested in asking Mr. Cromwell in our next letter. Below are a few of the long list of questions asked by the students:

-Do you find being in the prisons unsafe?  I have a brother that is also in prison.

-Do you have a family?

-Do you get commissary? 

-How do you make a spread?

-Do you play sports?

-What is your ethnicity?

-What were you sentenced for?

-Would you take back what you did?

-Do you like art and what type do you like?

-What do you plan on doing when you get out?

-How old were you when you got in?

-How tall are you?

-Do you get into fights?

-Are the prison guards nice?

-Do they let you watch TV?

-What are the hours of your phone calls?

-Do you get visits from your family?

-Where you born in Louisiana?

-Were you the only one involved in the crime you commited?

-Is prison punch real?

In the letter I let Mr. Cromwell know he was in no obligation to answer any question he was uncomfortable with and explained that the students were curious to know these things. I felt as their teacher it was necessary for them to be honest with their questions. Included in the letter was a large set of our trading cards for him to distribute, collect, and spread around the correctional facility. Below are a few examples of the student’s work using a free online program called Pixlr.com:

It took a while before we got our letter back from Mr. Cromwell due to him relocating to a new area in the facility. Inside the envelope was not only his letter, but artwork from him and another incarcerated artist named Mr. White. It was a surprise for the students and myself since we only expected one letter back. 

In his letter, Mr. Cromwell shared that he loved the trading cards and decided to share his cards with his friend Mr. White. Mr. White was interested in being a part of the exchange after seeing our cards and letters. He wanted to contribute by answering questions the students had and included his own artwork. As we read Mr. Cromwell’s letter he did leave some details out of his responses to the students questions including what he was sentenced for, but he did share words of wisdom and encouraged the students to stay in school, finish their education, stay out of trouble, and stay positive even if times get tough.

In Mr. White’s letter, he was more open about sharing his experience and told us that he has been incarcerated since he was 19 and is now 44 years old. This elicited a big response from the students and prompted some to share their own stories about their families in prison. One student asked about violence in prison which Mr. White replied, “Yes, but you only fight when you need to. Getting into a fight only means you couldn’t think your way through a problem.” We spent some time talking about this particular question. I asked the students what happens when they get into a fight and the majority of them said they would “black out” and not remember what happened because they were full of anger.

Letters and Artwork from Mr. Cromwell on the right and his friend also serving time Mr. White on the left

Before we worked on sending our final letter, I wanted to get more in depth with discussion about art in the prison system. I had the students watch a small segment called Prison Art Thrives in Mexico. We watched the video in class and afterwards I had the students answer the question, “Do you agree or disagree with allowing prisoners to create and sell art? Why or why not?” The following are responses from the students:

“Yes I agree with prisons allowing inmates to create and sell art. Not all prisoners have family to support them while in prison so if they are able to make money it will be able to help them keep up with their art. Also it’s a good distraction for them it can keep their mind off of things as in trouble or as in keeping their minds of their time.”

“I say no because they decided to give their rights up when they decided to break the law.”

“I agree with the prison allowing inmates to create and sell art because there are a lot of people in the prison that want to express themselves and fulfill their goals and dreams through art. They should be supported and even provided with materials. They can explore themselves and express their emotions.”

“I agree because some people are locked up for uncertain reasons. Not everyone should have to struggle to make money in prison because no one knows the full story. Art can help prisoners make money while escaping the prison walls through their imagination.”

The majority of students responded positively and felt that inmates creating and selling art would help them to minimize stress, build new skills, and focus on staying out of trouble.

For their final letter we let Mr. Cromwell and Mr. White know how much we appreciated their honest responses and that their words will help to educate our students about making better choices and that making mistakes is a part of learning. We also included motivational posters created by the students. They were asked to pick a quote that uplifted them in a time of need so they could spread the message to other incarcerated individuals inside the correctional facility. Below are a few quotes chosen by the students:

At the end of our last letter I included these final words to Mr. Cromwell and Mr. White:

“With these final words said, thank you for inspiring our youth and showing them that despite our mistakes, we can learn from them to help use make better choices. These students just need another chance and someone to listen and guide them on the path of success.  I will leave you with a quote from my favorite educator Rita Pierson, “Every child deserves a champion, an adult that will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insist they be the best they can possibly be.”

Overall it was an eye opening experience not only for my students but for myself as a teacher. It showed us that art can create powerful connections with the community and help to show support to those in need. I plan on continuing to work with the Justice Arts Coalition project and I’ll have my next group of students reach out to more incarcerated individuals through different art projects. I hope this post will encourage other educators and individuals to get involved and reach out to more incarcerated artists. I look forward to another great year working with the Justice Coalition Project and our artist pen pals.

Kudos For Memoir About Teaching the Arts in a California Men’s Prison

From Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, LLC 

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(Knoxville, TN, July 23, 2019) In her unforgettable memoir, HUMMINGBIRD IN UNDERWORLDreleased this week by She Writes Press, Deborah Tobola intertwines the story of her rowdy family and occasionally tumultuous childhood with the story of her nine-year stint as a teacher of arts and creative writing at the California Men’s Colony, a prison in San Luis Obispo, California.

Tobola’s teaching changed lives, allowing prisoners to see that they were also poets, dramatists, and artists. The creative writing and performances her students pursued were a respite from the drudgery and violence of prison life, but even more, they brought hope. Over the years, Tobola battled officers who thought prisoners didn’t deserve programs; bureaucrats who wanted to cut arts funding; and inmates who stole, or worse. Yet Tobola loved engaging prisoners in the arts, helping them discover their voices: men like Opie, the gentleman robber; Razor, the roughneck who subscribed to the New Yorker; and Do Wop, a singer known for the desserts he created from prison fare.

Tobola enjoyed wonderful success as a teacher: her students in prison won writing awards, published their work locally and appeared on local and national radio. Each year, Arts in Corrections students produced original plays with music, under her direction. But in the end, her programs were eliminated in budget cuts.

HUMMINGBIRD IN UNDERWORLD is fascinating, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and memorable, and it powerfully depicts both the endurance of the human spirit as well as the importance of the arts in all of our lives.

DEBORAH TOBOLA is a poet, playwright and co-author of a children’s book. Her work has earned four Pushcart Prize nominations, three Academy of American Poets awards and a Children’s Choice Book Award. Tobola graduated with high honors from the University of Montana in 1988 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona in 1990. She has worked as a journalist, legislative aide and adjunct English faculty member in Alaska and California.

Tobola began teaching creative writing in California prisons in 1992, taking the job of Institution Artist Facilitator at the California Men’s Colony in 2000. Tobola retired from the Department of Corrections at the end of 2008 to begin Poetic Justice Project, the country’s first theatre company created for formerly incarcerated actors, where she serves as artistic director. Tobola returned to prison work five years ago and currently teaches creative writing and theatre at the California Men’s Colony. She lives in Santa Maria, California.

For more information, or to check out Deborah’s events,  please visit her online at www.deborahtobola.com.

“With Hummingbird in Underworld, Deborah Tobola has found what Rumi calls, “the infinite moment when everything happens.” It is luminous and tender. The reader is given passage to poetry and humanity; to compassion and even to a bright proposal to change our prison system. Remarkable.”—Gregory Boyle, Founder, Homeboy Industries

“Tobola came to the California Men’s Colony with a dream to make the arts program a lighthouse in the dreary sameness of prison life. With open-mindedness and empathy, Tobola explores how systemic issues play out in individuals’ lives as they grasp for light in the darkness.”—Booklist 

“…a deeply moving reflection…beautifully wrought…”—The Indypendent

“…a treasure of a book in multiple ways.”—Foreword Reviews


Teaching artists & educators working in prisons, please take a moment to read and respond regarding copyright empowerment for incarcerated people

From John Whitman, Director, Intellectual Property for Innovation, Museum for Black Innovation and Entrepreneurship

There is a long history of written and artistic work stemming from prison and the experience of incarceration. Many in detention today are creating
literature and art. What is not so clear is whether they are aware of their
Constitutional right to protect their intellectual property and, moreover,
understand how to register their copyrights to ensure such protection.

I am engaged in a nonprofit program to provide free materials to prison
librarians willing to learn how to help their clients register copyrights and
also to publish their works online. To better understand the scope of the
problem, the level of interest among librarians, and ideas for dissemination, I am asking for your kind response to a very short survey here:
https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/92VPQ7R

Note that the survey appears directed to prison librarians; however, whether or not you are a librarian or can share this with a librarian, please respond to indicate your level of interest and suggestions for dissemination.

This program, called Intellectual Property for Innovation is a voluntary undertaking by the Museum for Black Innovation and Entrepreneurship in consultation with the Institute for Intellectual Property and Social Justice, as well as with other literary and arts educational programs.

Those who provide an email address will receive the results. Many thanks for responding as soon as you can!

For more information, John Whitman can be contacted at whitman@mbiedc.org

Ida B. Wells by William. B Davis


Celebrating a successful opening night…and a video launch!

by Wendy Jason, Managing Director of the Justice Arts Coalition

On Saturday, May 25th, at Rhizome DC, the Justice Arts Coalition celebrated the opening of Becoming Free, our first exhibition of works by incarcerated artists. We were joined by nearly 125 community members, each one helping to fill the space with warmth, care, and a genuine appreciation for the six artists, their stories, and their work. Quite a few guests took the time to write notes to the artists, which I will be mailing off this week. The sense of validation and connection that comes from receiving this feedback means the world to them.

Members of the Tributary Project set the tone for the night with their infectious rhythms and gorgeous melodies, and friends from local partner organizations Free Minds Bookclub and Voices Unbarred read poetry — both their own, and pieces written by men in a writing class at a nearby prison. We screened two short films by Logan Crannell, and showed our own film, Making our Meaning — which was beautifully edited by Logan — for the first time. Much of the artwork was for sale, and each of the artists has generously offered to donate a portion of the proceeds to the JAC. Local businesses 3 Stars Brewing Co., Green Plate Catering, Mark’s Kitchen and Olive Lounge contributed everything we needed to stay well fed and hydrated, and Ecoprint donated graphic design and printing services resulting in vibrant flyers for the event and new informational brochures to have on hand. If you’re in the DC area and would like to visit the exhibit, which will be up until June 22, please contact me at wendy@thejusticeartscoalition.org.

Check out more photos from the opening here, and please watch (and share!) the video below!

If you joined us for the opening, and have photos or videos you’re willing to share with us, we’d love to see them! Please email me at wendy@thejusticeartscoalition.org. Thank you!