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.

 

The Becomings of a Master

by artist R. Zumar

What makes a master artist? How does one achieve that title? Become a master in their own right? Is it going to school for decades and being under the tutelage of an artist? Achieving several degrees and certificates that look good on paper like a good resume? What is it?

I remember maybe a year ago I had a piece of artwork on the table. It was a passion flower. Everyone commented on it, even officers asking who did it and how did I get it to look so real. One dude in here asked if someone white or a Spanish guy did it and I thought, how ignorant can you be and told him as much. He apologized and said it was excellent work, he just didn’t think Black people did things like that. Oh, by the way, he was Black. I wasn’t mad at him, but mad at the fact of how deep that statement really went. Then I looked back and realized in my environment we don’t expose our kids to what’s out there in the world. Well me coming up I wasn’t exposed to art and theater, rocket science, clean energy, space travel, etc….
Trust me the list goes on. And the thing is now I have a profound interest in it all.

With all that being said, I have found myself through art. It allows me to express my thoughts visually and create sceneries that I have love for. Like how I feel, nature scenes with animals, and endangered species.

Some ask how long have I been into art and don’t believe when I say I just got into it within the last 5 maybe 6 years and that it was just a way to pass time. I really got serious about it within the last two years and started getting into color. I drew one thing when I was a kid cause I liked the thing, that’s the Rock Man from the Fantastic Four, and never drew anything again after that. There’s a whole story behind that, but we’ll save that for another day.

I’m not schooled in the arts, have no formal training, and don’t really know or understand the jargon dealing with art. All I know is that I have a love for it. Now I’ve started reading up on it and just learned about tint, tone, and shade, scumbling, burnishing, glazing, and things like that. I didn’t know what light fastness was until yesterday, funny isn’t it. It’s also funny that I have an understanding of these things through trial and error. I have no one to guide my hand and tell me what I’m doing wrong. My hand is guided by God, my imagination, and my patience. I wish I had let my life been guided by those principles. Either way, what makes a master artist? Is it the atelier way? I say that cause I just read a book on the subject saying you can’t become a master unless you have proper schooling and the atelier is the best way to go about it. That doesn’t make sense to me. I ask, who taught the first master artist? He learned from doing and figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Truthfully I’m glad that I’ve learned this way. The more I read the more I discover what I’m already applying to my work. Now I’m just learning what it’s called.

I’m not a master as of this date, but I will become one. Not because some books or some people say I can’t, I don’t really care what others think is possible for me. But because my love for art will show through my work and my work will show my understanding and speak for itself. I’m still learning and hope I will always discover more as I go. This is The Becomings of a Master.

Struggle to Climb by R. Zumar

About the guest contributor:

“I’m Rayfel Zumar Bell known as R. Zumar and discovered my passion for art while incarcerated. I’m a self taught who strives to break into the art world even from a cell. I spend the lions share of my time thinking about and creating art, the rest working out and my favorite pass time, snacking :)! Through art I want to help others and contribute to various charities I care about; cancer, autism, sponsoring kids in need around the globe, and preserving wildlife.”

Contact Info: You can email me through Jpay.com and typing in 1067546 or reach me through snail mail at
Rayfel Zumar Bell #1067546
RNCC
329 Dellbrook Lane
Independence, VA. 24348

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