Marlowe Brown was born in Asheville, North Carolina but moved coast to coast and back again before he was old enough to go to school. He describes having had “a typical childhood of a young person of color”: he went to school, joined the track and field team, and participated in other school-related activities. But things changed, and ‘typical became atypical’ when Marlowe’s classmates noticed he had blue eyes. The girls seemed to like it, but the boys didn’t, resulting in a couple of fights a week. Although the fighting came naturally to him, talking to girls did not. Girls liked him but conversing did not come easily: “I would often get tongue-tied.”
Marlowe Brown first became ‘O.G. Blue’ when a particularly pretty girl passed him a note in class. He wrote back and was able to say exactly what he felt on paper. She shared the note with her friends, and after that, every girl in the class wanted a note from him. He wouldn’t label himself as the smartest kid in school, but his favorite class was English, where, he says, “I did learn one thing, which was that pen and paper are a powerful communication tool.”
Blue’s creative process is simple. “I think of exactly what I want to say, sort of like putting a puzzle together in my head, and when it’s done, I lay down the completed puzzle.” These days he finds inspiration in a lot more things than he was able to when he was younger. When he first started writing poetry, it was only about a particular idea or person, but later in life, he discovered he could turn anything into verse. “Real people inspire me, smart people. A happy situation inspires me; a special lady inspires me, one that you think of even when you’re supposed to be concentrating on something else.”
Writing has helped him throughout his years of incarceration because, through his text, he can paint a picture with words, whether he’s writing to family, friends, or for business purposes. “When I was in high school, I could actually relate to people and situations better through pen and paper rather than in person, but as I grew, attended a few civic organizations, I can speak and express myself in person, even public speaking now.”
Writing has also helped him in processing his experiences and emotions. He says that a lot of his writing is inspired by real-life: “[Everyone knows that] the sun doesn’t shine every day, and I bring that to a point.”
“Poetry and writing awaken my mind to things that I could only dream of and I wanted to hold onto that thought for as long as I possibly could; therefore, I put it to pen and paper for a lasting reminder.”
Although O.G. Blue’s primary focus is poetry, he is currently expanding his portfolio and writing three thriller novels: High Anxiety, Why Are We Here?, and Never Die Alone. Writing comes to him more naturally now, whether in verse, letters, or novels. The real challenge he faces with writing is when it comes to legal matters, and he says his difficulties in that area exist for a reason. “Most people of color are laymen with the judicial system. After all, it was meant to be that way”. The COVID-19 crisis has made Marlowe feel more aware of life because, for now, the world is in a vulnerable position like never before. He reflects on his personal losses and shares: “An old associate of mine just recently passed due to the COVID virus, everyone that knew him would acknowledge him as Old Joe, he will be remembered”. Things have never been this different. He misses the idea of the ‘old world’ — a world older than COVID, a time with fewer technologies. A simpler time, “when you could tell the make of a car just from its sight, a handshake was prevalent, and when you were invited into your neighbor’s house, you could take your shoes off and sit a spell.”
“The mental picture on the poem, ‘Old Friends’, was how life was in what I consider now, ‘the old world’, when you could leave your windows up on a hot summer’s nite, a handshake between men sealed a deal. When a man’s word represented him even bad things had a reason, not accepted but they were less complicated and demented. When our kids went to school and returned safe and sound.”
“The poem ‘Between Us’ was based on the fact of something all humans long for. In other human-beings which is trust, compassion, understanding and respect. Once these emotions are acquired and acknowledged; it’s like magic. Then you have a relationship as strong as King Kong.”
You can view more of O.G. Blue’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like O.G. Blue, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
“I want to show the world that in imperfection there is beauty.”
For David Green, every day is a struggle to express his creativity. Hindered by his institution, it would be easy for David to give up and stop making art. Still, he is determined to keep creating, saying, “I will continue to try and reach and hopefully help others in the world know that no matter what we go through in life, be it poverty, death, or losing someone or something, something beautiful is there in the end and we can overcome.”
Though David never received a formal education in art or poetry, he has always been able to discover new ways to improve his drawing and writing. Every time he closes his eyes — since the day he started creating at a very young age — he is flooded with ideas: poems to write or ways to better his art. He laughs, saying, “I have suffered from a long life of insomnia since I was six.”
It’s not always simple or possible for David to create. He describes how the people he is incarcerated with, the staff, and the lack of funds for art supplies all pose challenges. He adds with a laugh that the lack of tables and chairs also hinder his art making. But David views these difficulties as minor problems. The greater obstacle is that “there is a time when people’s ungratefulness makes one discouraged from wanting to draw.” Yet, despite these challenges, David finds ways to continue making art and writing poems.
With limited access to art supplies, David has found he can use any media he lays his hands on. When he begins a piece, David simply envisions the art or what is in his mind on the paper and draws it into existence: “I pick up, I look at my paper and just do.”
People often ask David what inspires him, but the question is harder to answer than it may seem. “I’ve lost so much inspiration in my life that I honestly do not know what inspires me.” Still, David is confident that this will not always be the case, saying, “I do know that one day inspiration will enter my life and when that happens, I will know.”
As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, David reflects that though at first he felt unaffected, he has grown increasingly concerned for his loved ones. “I do have many people out there in the world that I love no matter if they love me back or even remember me.” Feeling disconnected, David explains how, “It scares me not knowing if they are okay or not, I just hope they are okay.”
David is grateful that he can share his art with the world and hopes he can inspire others. He wants to share the following words:
“I love and count you all as equals in my life. Just pass what I give you to the next you see. Because we need that more than anything in this world.”
You can view more of David’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like David, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
At 10 years old, Gary Farlow was given his first set of pencils, markers, and pens. Growing up, he was never very athletic or outdoorsy, but while he couldn’t play sports, what he could do was draw. The son of an accomplished home designer and builder, Gary would “borrow” his father’s supplies so he could make art. When his father eventually realized the depth of his son’s creative passion, he purchased the boy his own art set, and as Gary describes, “there was no looking back!”
For as long as he can remember, art has been Gary’s refuge — helping him through his most difficult times. During his incarceration, art has become all the more meaningful, providing a much needed escape (“a bad word in prison!” Gary jokes). “When I am drawing, I think of only what I am drawing. I turn on a local classical music radio station and I’m no longer in prison – I am in my studio.” For Gary, art is a way of reducing stress, of feeling the satisfaction of creating something for others to enjoy, and perhaps most importantly, of affirming his self-worth. He reflects that this is especially true in carceral settings, as incarcerated populations are typically “out-of-sight/out-of-mind” for most of society:
We have little value, no voice, no rights. So art is a creative process by which I say I am here. I am a human being. I exist.
Gary often waits until the evenings, when the daily sounds of the cell block finally settle down. As the melodies of his music replace the noise, he enters his creative world and gets to work. “It quickly becomes the favorite part of any day!”
Gary’s creative process is simple: he needs only to see a photo that interests him, and from there he can begin to sketch in his mind. Before touching pencil to paper, Gary allows the image to take on new life in his head, often mentally altering the picture so much that it barely resembles the original. He finally brings his mental drawing into reality with a 2H pencil. Once the image has taken shape, he uses color pencils to develop the minute details that are a hallmark of his art. “Whether it’s items in a store window or detail you must look closely to see, I believe it is these which bring life to my work and set it apart.”
Landscapes, and more specifically cityscapes, are Gary’s specialty. Occasionally, he ventures out of his comfort zone and creates wildlife pictures or other material that moves him, but he is most inspired by buildings. From Art deco to Victorian, and the “ruffles and flourishes of architecture,” Gary supposes his fascination with buildings is one legacy of his father’s work. “The Chrysler Building, The Smithsonian ‘Castle,’ N.C.’s own Biltmore House, the canals of Venice, colonial charm of Williamsburg, the majesty of London, and the romance of Paris – all inspire me.”
One of the challenges Gary faces as an incarcerated artist is the difficulty of accessing adequate art supplies. “This was not a challenge in the ‘real world’ but behind these walls it is often difficult to acquire materials to work with.” Gary explains that in North Carolina, families are not permitted to order supplies for artists inside, so the artists are responsible for obtaining their own art supplies. In addition, they are only allowed to order from approved vendors, so it can get quite costly. Gary goes on to describe that there are often art supplies for sale “on the yard” but one has to be cautious and know who you’re buying from: “I’ve seen far too many purchase stolen art materials.”
This past year, Gary faced an even bigger challenge where he worried that his art days might be over for good. He needed to have surgery to reattach the retinas in both eyes and feared he would lose his vision and be unable to continue making art. Thankfully, the Duke Eye Center in Durham, N.C. successfully completed the surgery and saved Gary’s eyesight. “They are truly amazing,” he reflects gratefully. Gary has gone on to create dozens of pieces since his surgery, including submitting 36 pieces to his recent prison art show.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unexpected catalyst for Gary’s art. While thankfully Gary’s area has not been hit with a Coronavirus outbreak, the prison is still under restriction, which means no visitors, volunteers, religious services, classes or programs. As everyone finds themselves with an abundance of time, Gary is filling it with art. He comments, “I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the “new normal” that Covid-19 has ushered in. Yet, it has provided ample time to focus on my art.”
Gary wishes more people could see the remarkable impacts of art, stating, “you seldom hear of the positive effects of art on inmates and the trickle-down benefits for society.” He emphasizes the transformative power of art in penal facilities, explaining that a dollar spent on art in prison actually saves thousands of taxpayer dollars. “The arts are humanity’s greatest achievement and our most civilizing influence.” As he writes at the end of his poem titled “Revelation”:
A poem is a way to strap on your own armor – even if only for a moment.
So slide a pen from your holster,
unsheath a pencil from your scabbard,
lock and load the words you choose and
use them to cry, shout, whisper but
Just step up, come forward and let your revelation speak.
Loud. Proud. Strong.
You can view more of Gary’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like Gary, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
Gary K. Farlow attended Guilford Technical Community College, majoring in Administration of Justice. He completed undergraduate studies at the John Marshall School of Law in Atlanta, and earned a Juris Doctorate from the Thomas Jefferson College of Law at Head University in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. He also holds degrees from Western Illinois University, South Piedmont Community College, Montgomery Community College, and Southeastern Theological Seminary. He is past chairman of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission; represented North Carolina Governor James G. Martin on the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Nursing Home Administrators; represented North Carolina at the 1984 national Conference of the Aged; was a Reagan and Bush Administration nominee for the African Development Foundation; served on the United Arts Council of Greensboro, Greensboro Historical Museum and Society, and the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. He is a former vice president of the Gate City Jaycees, the Lions Club, and the Founder of the Senior Theatre Consortium. Mr. Farlow’s previous writings have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul, the Volunteer’s Soul, and The African American Soul, as well as Serving Time, Serving Others, Serving Productive Time, the Journal of the American Health Care Association, and two poetic anthologies of the National Library of Poetry, Essence of A Dream and Visions. He is the author of both Prison-ese: A Survivor’s Guide to Speaking Prison Slang, first edition published by Loompanics Unlimited, and The Cellblock Gourmet: Inmate Recipes From The Big House and Doin’ Time: How to Survive and Thrive in Prison, both published by the Graduate Group. Mr. Farlow is a Former Associate Editor of the East Triad Press and The Greensboro Sun; sports reporter for The High Point Enterprise, and has written various features for The Greensboro News and Record. He is a recipient of the PEN Award for Prison Writers and has written several play scripts including Sticks, which deals with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the nation’s prison system; Beyond Bars, dealing with the difficulties faced by those transitioning back into society after incarceration; A Homeless History Lesson, which explores the plight of the homeless and substance abuse in America. His poetry has been released on audio-cassette by the National Library of Poetry entitled Visions: The Poetry of Gary Farlow. Mr. Farlow has travelled extensively and has been a guest lecturer at Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg, South Africa, and at the Medical University of South Africa in Pretoria. He has appeared on Eye on Washington and Good Morning South Africa. His poetry has also been released in two additional anthologies, Collections, by Iliad Press and The Best Poetry of America, by the National Library of Poetry.
An accomplished artist, specializing in urban landscapes utilizing colored pencil, Mr. Farlow’s works have been on display at Art With Conviction in Tucson, Arizona, the Prisons Foundation and Safer Streets Art Foundation in Washington D.C., and at the Durland Alternatives Library at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
This is the first in a series of four blog posts for the Justice Arts Coalition, excerpted from the series, “Art Inside,” published by Los Angeles Review of Books. The full series is available here. Stay tuned for the second blog in Buckley’s JAC series, which will be posted on Friday, October 2nd.
For this series of posts, I am focusing on our Arts Facilitator Training (AFT) program with Prison Arts Collective (PAC). This is a program that is close to my heart as I developed it with the goal of empowering and giving agency to the hundreds of men and women that we are privileged to work with in prisons across California to develop and teach their own art classes. Initially, I fused elements of my art education classes at the university with skills to support leadership in cultivating creative communities in prisons. Since then, the AFT has evolved with input from peer facilitators in the prisons, my colleagues in PAC, and faculty and students in the four California State University campuses where we have PAC chapters. I am thrilled that the students in our first AFT program have been teaching weekly classes to their peers for the past four years. In addition, at least three have been released and two of them are working full time as teachers of rehabilitative programs in prisons.
It is 120 degrees out and yet the locals continue to insist that this is a cool July. I stopped noticing the constant sheen of sweat shortly after arriving here with team of student teachers to help lead a new class on the fundamentals of teaching art.
Our participants — and future teachers — are men that are incarcerated in two local prisons. They will eventually develop their own arts courses and teach their peers while cultivating creative community in the prison. On this day, we are midway through the 60-hour training designed to empower them to teach what they have learned, many while locked up, about painting, drawing, music, and poetry.
At this particular prison, our class was placed in an area designed for vocational training. Because of this, and the high security level of the institution, the students were strip searched before each class. They could tell this saddened us and offered the kindness of shrugging off the indignity to save our feelings. Being in that room also meant that they couldn’t bring any of their art or writing. So, until this day, we had nearly completed the 60-hour training without seeing any of their artwork.
On this special day, we were given access to another space where the men were allowed to bring their art: paintings, poems, cardboard sculptures, ink drawings, songs. We oohed and aaahed over detailed pencil drawings, paintings made of coffee, cardboard helicopters to rival model ones, and colorful animated characters. After a moving performance by the band, it was time for readings. We heard the most ingenious rhyming fairy tale, a moving apology letter that left many misty-eyed, poems that our musicians wanted to set to song, stories that opened up a window into someone’s life, and reflections on art and imagination and life.
The last reader was the youngest in our class. He was tall but baby faced. His piece was about expectations and implored listeners to find their voice: “Let it be your answer. Let it be your truth.” When he was done, an older student said with admiration, “You’re a philosopher, man!” Another mentioned that it was really hard to write in the second person and that he had done it so well. “What’s that?” The young philosopher asked with genuine curiosity. Later, I saw them talking. The youngster wanted to know more, saying, “I want to sign up for your class.”
This is what I love about this program. We provide tools but they build the house. In a few months, these men who may not have spoken to one another on the yard before this, begin to see one another as artists and mentors. Over time, this is reflected back at them through their peers, and they begin to see that in themselves.
About the Author:
Annie Buckley is a professor and the director of the School of Art + Design at San Diego State University and the founding director of Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. PAC provides multidisciplinary arts programming and peer facilitator trainings in 12 prisons across California through an innovative partnership between California State Universities and state prisons. Buckley’s writing on contemporary art is published in Artforum, Art in America, The Huffington Post, and she is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, where you can find the full series of “Art Inside.”
Peter Merts has been photographing California’s prison art programs for 15 years; his images have appeared in the New York Times, The Economist, and the Huffington Post. He co-published, with Dr. Larry Brewster, a book on the topic—Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (2nd ed)—and is on the advisory board of the Prison Arts Collective.
In the early years of the New Millennium, I was watching a series about famous artists on the little black and white TV in my cell in the federal supermax courtesy of PBS. I don’t know if they even made black and white TVs. The ones issued to us were color TVs. They had turned the color all the way down, then removed the menu button so it stayed that way. They wouldn’t want us to have it too good in our tomb, I guess.
The series profiled Caravaggio, David, Rembrant, Van Gogh and Rothko. Caravaggio was an outlaw. He died on the run wanted for killing a man in a sword duel. David sat on the French Revolutionary panel that sent a great number of aristocrats to the guillotine. Rembrant got himself blacklisted insulting the social elites… All the artists featured had controversial histories.
I read up a little on Caravaggio. Turns out artists his age ran around in “gangs” ( for lack of a better term), hung out with hookers and occasionally went at each other with swords. It wasn’t just him! All those iconic religious paintings they left to prosperity. I had the impression there was an abundance of devout artist monks 500 years ago… Not so much. It was more a case of the wealthiest commissioners of art where the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Artist made ends meet painting what paid. But the character’s wielding the brushes were rebels at the heart. Not to put myself on their level but I feel a certain affinity for them.
A psychologist in a program I participated in told me I had creative personality type. Mind you they tell everyone in maximum-security prisons that we are all sociopaths. It makes them feel better. America, in case you thought manufacturing here was dead, let me tell you you are leading the world in the production of psychos. But creative personality?
I got a little buck and that myself reading about myself. Seems my brain is wired a little differently. I traded all your practicality for my creativity and I’ve been paying for it for as long as I can remember. If you are reading this and saying that too. We are 2 out of 100 I read. It isn’t easy to be a dreamer in a practical world. My mom sent me my fourth grade report card when I tried to explain this to her. One Ms. Speak wrote, “Chris is very bright but he refuses to concentrate on the lessons.” no doubt I was gazing out the window, doodling and daydreaming. Misunderstood I picked up the fundamentals out of the corner of my ear.
I started to get the feeling I was a problem very young. I didn’t act out until I began to believe it in my early team. I became creative at finding trouble.
There are a lot of creative people in prison. They channel their creativity in different ways. I’ve seen feats of technical engineering that would awe MacGyver. In prison, making something out of nothing is how one lives. It manifests itself in food, creature comforts, crafts, art, and myriad other ways. Creativity abounds. Crafty people tend to thrive. If creativity is the expression of the Soul then prisons have souls.
They say there’s a shortage of creativity in America these days. I wonder why. I bet Caravaggio, Rembrandt and all the crazy artists could relate to that.