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.

Becoming Whole: the Joy of Creation

by Tomás

I find it incredibly difficult to describe what it is like being an artist in prison. There are so many physically and emotionally conflicting paradoxes at play. If I were never imprisoned, I would have, most likely, never taken the time to explore the artist aspect of myself. On the other hand, my environment places many restrictions on my creative process. I can’t just create whatever I want to. I am limited to certain resources that I am allowed to purchase and subjects that I am allowed to draw or paint. These limitations are frustrating at the best of times but do not diminish my gratitude for the joy of creation. The best way to describe all of this is to tell the story of the most meaningful painting I have done in prison.

It all started when there was a change to the monetary system in my prison. Although inmates are not allowed to purchase things from each other, they do. It is hard to stop the entrepreneurial spirit, especially among a group of people known for their hustling. Last year, the value of our main form of currency, postage stamps, was raised and that change left a glut of old stamps that no longer had any value. These stamps were worn, used by hundreds of inmates over the years, and frankly, beautiful. They fascinated me so I decided to “paint” the American flag using these old, worthless stamps as a medium. I wanted to show another side of the American economy, one that most people don’t see, and through that, the nature of prison itself.

I really love this part of creating art. The ideas are starting to form into a tangible, living thing. At this point, I am no longer myself, no longer in prison, but an active participant in a conversation that has been going on for the length of human history. A conversation that can trace its roots back to the first markings on cave walls. I am filled with a desire to express my experience of life in a way that will transcend my own life. This is what art is about for me. And I love it. This love sustains me through all the ups and downs that come with making something that has never been made before.

I started off by letting everyone know that I was interested in doing an art piece and was looking for as many old stamps as I could get my hands on. Most know me as a nice, but eccentric artist, and several people were willing to help me by giving what they had. Still not having enough, I was forced to trade items from commissary to people who needed motivation to donate to my artistic endeavor. This quickly became an expensive project. I then researched the official dimensions of the American flag in the U.S. code found in the law library. It turns out that there are very strict rules and I was glad to learn them. Armed with this information, I cut a piece of canvas that I had purchased ahead of time. I am the only artist here who stretches his own canvas as most can only afford the student grade canvas panels since all art supplies have a thirty percent markup added by the prison. After measuring out my lines on the unprimed canvas, I decided to paint the white strips of the flag and leave the rest of the space as unfinished canvas. The emptiness will be filled in with stamps or left as negative space.

Once the canvas was prepped, I needed to find a place to work. I am very fortunate to have an easel to paint on in the recreational building, but for this project I needed a flat surface. There is only one table available in the art room, and it is in too high of demand for me to monopolize for several hours. So, I folded up the canvas and snuck it back into my living space on a different floor. We are only allowed to paint in the art room and what I did was very much against the rules. One of the first lessons I learned in prison was rules are flexible and that most guards don’t care what you do… until they do. Finally in my room, while using my bed as a work desk, I lost myself to the wonders of art making. Every now and then I would hear the jingle of keys and try to hide what I was doing from the patrolling guard. Most likely, he knew that I was not doing anything really bad and left me alone. Finally the piece starts to fit all together. The stamps were purposefully falling out of place, emphasizing the crumbling nature that is so prevalent in the prison system. Still, I felt that the overall message wasn’t showing through. At this point, inexplicably, an inmate whom I had never talked to before stopped by my room and asked me what I was doing. I explained the piece and the problem I was having. He quickly pointed out the I could move one stamp down and it would solve my problem. He was right! And then he was gone. I never did talk to that man again, but that is a common prison experience, randomness. Finally finished, I spent several hours gluing the stamps down, then rolled it up and snuck it back into the art room.

I was so happy with the finished product. It really had the feel of the prison economy and was visually striking. I felt as if I added something substantial to this world and transcended being in prison. We can’t just mail out art projects but have to wait till special days when the recreation officer in charge of the art program can inspect and sign off on them. So I waited, and then mailed out as I have done many times over these years. But my parents never got the package. Weeks went by, and nothing! Finally, I found out that the officer who approved the project didn’t appreciate my use of stamps in an art piece, and without telling me, confiscated my painting. I sought out a higher level prison official to find out what I rule I broke. They then accused me of trying to export currency from the institution and said that my work was to be destroyed. Oh the irony! It would have been funny if it wasn’t so frustrating and painful. I pled my case several times but was told that the painting was a threat to the security of the institution. When that phrase is used, that is the end of the line and the decision is permanent. My favorite painting, one created to comment on the unseen nature of prison, will never itself be seen by the outside world.

And that, essentially, is what it is like being an artist in prison. I still grieve the loss of my painting. At the same time, I feel more whole having made it. When I paint something, I never know if any one will ever see it, but the act itself is incredibly satisfying and fulfilling. Before coming to prison I was a mess. I was so busy trying to destroy my life while at the same time trying to maintain it. There was no time for self-introspection or doing something self-affirming. Now incarcerated, I have the time, and art is the vehicle that provides for both. With this powerful tool, I finally feel like a productive member of society, even if I have been removed from it.


Click each image to read a statement from the artist.

An important message from PAC’s manager — please read on!

Dear PAC Community,

I’m excited to share some big news with you! Over the coming months, the Prison Arts Coalition will undergo a transformation to incorporate as the Justice Arts Coalition (JAC), a 501c3 nonprofit organization. In the spirit of the vision that drove PAC’s founders, the JAC will become an organizing body for institutions and individuals across the globe that believe in the power of the arts to ignite change. The JAC will unite people at the intersection of the arts and justice, cultivating community among system-involved artists, their loved ones, educators, scholars, activists, and advocates.

Through hosting in-person trainings, workshops, and conferences, in addition to serving as an online network and archive for resources such as curricula, grant listings, and program evaluation materials, the JAC will foster a collective voice and increase visibility and advocacy for artists working in and around justice systems.

Woan Crocheting - Part 2 of Bars Triptych
by Carole Alden

The JAC’s development is the culmination of the efforts of a Steering Committee comprised of teaching artists and arts advocates that formed at the 2015 Arts in Corrections: Opportunities for Justice and Rehabilitation conference. It is being made possible with seed funding generously contributed by California Lawyers for the Arts and the Warhol Foundation, and fiscal sponsorship provided by The William James Association

You can look forward to changes here on the website. All of the current content will remain intact, but there will be new pages, resources, announcements about ways to get involved with and support the JAC through membership opportunities, donations, and events. We’ll be sharing updates via social media, and plan to roll out a crowdsourcing campaign in the near future, so be sure to follow PAC (soon to become the JAC!) on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to stay in the know. And, we’ll be introducing the JAC in June at Arts in Corrections: Reframing the Landscape of Justice. We hope to see you there!

White Tiger
White Tiger by Daniel Owens

I’m thankful to everyone who has helped to grow and shape PAC over the years. I’ve met so many inspiring people through my work behind the scenes here. These relationships have fueled me, and they serve as reminders that while all of the information, stories, and artwork that PAC has been able to share is incredibly important, it’s the human connection sparked by the sharing of these resources that matters most of all. I’m honored to be a part of the JAC’s efforts to expand and strengthen this web of community.

If you have questions about the JAC, or ideas for the founders to consider as we take our next steps, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at pacoalitionadmin@gmail.com

With gratitude,

Wendy Jason, PAC Manager

If you would like to contribute to the development of the JAC, please follow this link to make a tax-deductible donation through our fiscal sponsor. We need and value your support!

Remember Me

by Rosie Worster, Director of Programmes at The Fair Justice Initiative

Adwoa, Abena, Agnes, Ama A, Mary, Lamisi, Ama Y, Esther, Akosua, Salamatu, Zelia and Talata
Portraits by Francis Kokoroko for The Fair Justice Initiative’s “Remember Me” project

Nsawam Medium Security Prison is the largest in Ghana, located not far outside the capital of Accra. It is a place associated with utmost shame, particularly for the eighty or so women held in the female section. Crime is thought dirty, ungodly, unfeminine. Many of the detainees hide the fact of their incarceration from their families, deliberately isolating themselves to avoid that rejection. Others maintain a desperate line of contact with relatives who as the years pass change their numbers, visit less frequently, or forget them altogether.

It’s difficult to link this to the series of brightly coloured portraits in ‘Remember Me’, one for each of the 12 women serving death penalty and life sentences at Nsawam Prison. That contrast is deliberate, as part of an attempt to change the conversation around incarceration in Ghana. Rather than seeing these women as irredeemable, lesser and other, the project tells a story of creativity, hope and connection. It seeks to grant these women the validation of being remembered as people with identities more complex than their incarcerated status. 

The portraits are the last stage in a collaborative and participatory art project conceived by photographer Francis Kokoroko and artist and stylist Rania Odaymat, and facilitated and supported by The Fair Justice Initiative, a local NGO. Throughout 2018, Rania and Francis visited the prison to conduct different workshops that would encourage the women to express their own aesthetics, views and aspirations. The first focused on collage making, the results of which were later used to provide direction and inspiration for the final portrait making session. A second image-making workshop using a Fujifilm Instax instant camera explored body language and expression, a way to circumvent the prison restrictions on photographing faces whilst the permit to lift that ban remained pending. Finally, permission for the final portrait session was granted. The portraits were produced within a stipulated two-hour time window with the assistance of a team of volunteers from Dark and Lovely, and from make-up artist Sandra Don-Arthur.

In each photograph, the women swap their blue and white prison garb for traditional dress, elaborate headpieces and carefully coordinated accessories. They are strong, beautiful, and smiling. These are women who want to be remembered not just for their crimes, but for being Adwoa, Abena, Agnes, Ama A, Mary, Lamisi, Ama Y, Esther, Akosua, Salamatu, Zelia and Talata.

After being shown as part of the ‘Make Be’ exhibition at La Maison in October 2018, the advocacy work of the project is expanding to new forms. Rania, Francis and The Fair Justice Initiative are working to develop a coffee table book to present to diplomats and politicians in Ghana with the power to influence policy change. The book contains both the photographs and testimonies from the women themselves on their challenges, hopes and dreams. It is hoped that a second edition and a calendar will also be produced to raise awareness through sale to the general public, and that the exhibition will be able to travel to new audiences.

 

Rania and Francis’ work is available to see on their Instagram pages, @accraphoto and @rania_odaymat. You can follow the development of the ‘Remember Me’ project through The Fair Justice Initiative’s social media (Instagram/Twitter/Facebook) at @fairjusticegh, and on their website www.fairjusticegh.com.

About the guest contributors:

Rania Odaymat is an artist, stylist, creative facilitator and curator. She is one of the founding members of the Beyond Collective, a Ghanaian non-governmental organisation whose aim is to promote creative awareness and education, as well as facilitate artistic exchanges and collaborations. She is also a trustee of the Fair Justice Initiative.

Francis Kokoroko is a creative and photojournalist with a keen interest in documenting the ever-evolving cultures and everyday life on the African continent. He uses his images to communicate a personal message, and believes that emotion is the most important element of any picture.

Rosie Worster is the Director of Programmes at The Fair Justice Initiative (FJI), a Ghanaian non-governmental organisation (NGO) working primarily with detainees at Nsawam Medium Security Prison. Their mission is to combat discrimination and prejudice against current and former inmates, ensure equal access to effective legal representation, and improve the conditions of confinement in Ghanaian prisons.

 

A note from PAC’s Manager: Though PAC typically focuses on programs and artists in and around the US justice system, when we learned about the Remember Me project, we were eager to help expand its reach. We hope you’re as inspired by it as we are.

 

 

As the End Comes (a tribute to Alice Walker)

by Mardie Swartz

Mardie Swartz has spent 29 years behind bars in Texas. This poem is about the time approaching when she will finally be beyond bars.

I remember beginnings –

The first time I was molested

Sold, abandoned, raped

The first drink, snort, shot of

Whatever would numb some

of the pain. The first time I

ran, and the first time I

just stayed and closed my eyes.

The first time I tried to hang.

 

I recall pissing on myself

In fear when I entered jail

at sixteen. The smell of

vomit, stale bodies, and

broken lives seeping into my

skin and hair as

I huddled in a corner

trying to be invisible again.

 

I can still feel the smooth

slice and burn of steel parting

flesh. The pulse of my lifeblood

racing forth when I tried to

Give the state back my seventy-five years –

The easy way…….

A cascading red necklace

made of anguish and despair.

 

As days became months,

became years

then decades which melded into

monotonous monologues with different

faces but familiar themes,

hope became dust motes in a sunbeam –

briefly glimpsed, but intangible,

Weightless

Subjective

Meaningless

 

And yet.

With the changing of the

calendars, the changes in

the mirror, came the

changes in my soul –

Emerging from the shattered

mess of degradation and shame

arose a survivor, a warrior

an unconquerable heart

who dared to look up,

lift my head,

and piece together a life amid the dross and dregs

of the irredeemable.

 

As the end comes,

I realize

everything I’ve heard

about it

is false.

 

Betrayal no longer matters

Hatreds are forgotten,

forgiven. Abrupt

Partings for weird reasons

are resolved, and love

comes crashing against

my heart’s door.

 

There is no longer fear

of the unknown

but a gripping, relentless

excitement

as months become days,

become hours,

minutes,

seconds –

 

And I walk out the gates

to a new beginning

toward my own

until now unimaginable

destiny

without fences and bars