The creative process enables us to see good in the world and people around us. Brian Hindson’s story and his collaborative work with other incarcerated artists exemplify this exceptional power of art.
His creative story begins, surprisingly, twenty-two years after leaving art school. Although Brian attended art school for a couple of years after graduating high school, he didn’t reconnect with art until he was in prison, more than two decades later. Now, he uses a variety of different styles, paints, and materials to express himself through his art.
What does it mean to be an artist? Brian would say voice. In elementary school, Brian drew his classmates, who in turn considered him an “artist.” He continued to enjoy artmaking throughout high school simply because of his natural talent, although he began to struggle in art school due to what he guesses was a mix of “outside distractions” and “immaturity.” Afterward, he didn’t continue with art as a path because he didn’t have a voice to share through his body of work.
The years passed while Brian pursued other things over artistry, and he eventually ended up in prison. While inside, he “found a voice, a re-discovered talent, and more so peace” from artmaking. Prison can be isolating and at times devoid of hope. For Brian, art has helped him keep his sanity. In fact, it is his surroundings that inspire him: “There is a LOT of negativity in prison,” he writes, “Everything’s bad…I try to see the positive things – the good things.” He searches for the sparks of hope that are so often overlooked. Relating art to character, he concludes that his way of looking for the good is how he hopes others will look at him, “as a person.”
Access to materials has always been a unique challenge to incarcerated artists, and Brian has adapted by using whatever paint or drawing tools he can find. Although he prefers acrylic paint, he is capable of creating not only with any materials but also in a variety of styles – from “realistic to fractured.” Balancing rigorous thought prior to artmaking with a flexibility and fluidity during the process, Brian allows his paintings to morph when needed.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, materials have been even more difficult to find. The pandemic “has been horrible for artists in prison,” says Brian, “with mostly no access to art materials” and no way of getting to their art lockers. He himself currently only has a black pen and paper, or handkerchiefs.
What can we do to support Brian and other incarcerated creators at this time? “Highlight artists,” Brian says. “People love praise.” Brian recently created and organized a collaborative project with several other incarcerated artists. To learn more about the process and see the final collaborations, please read on. We encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments below!
Brian Hindson’s collaborative project:
Brian Hindson’s original painting was made for the NLADA Social Justice Art Auction. After discussing and deliberating an idea with others, he chose to add a paintbrush to the painting: “something meaningful to me.” He had always wanted to do a collaborative piece and thought this could be a good opportunity.
Brian started by tracing his original painting to make a black and white version for the copy machine — keeping only the details he felt were important. The process was more difficult than expected when the first copycard he bought didn’t work well. He was finally able to get successful copies for 15 cents each, noting that 15 cents is “more per hour than most inmates earn in jobs in The Box.”
After making copies, Brian distributed them with basic instructions to “paint, color, decorate or add anything you want.” Brian kept his directions simple because he didn’t want to influence what people returned to him. However, reflecting on the pieces he got back, Brian found it interesting that no one added anything into the hands. Some did choose to add words, and as Brian describes, “some of the added words, well they speak, while some yell.”
Click for a closer look:
Brian was especially impressed by William Brown’s interpretation, who made his piece using collage. “William surpassed my hopes for what someone could do with my directions and his creativity.” Brian describes watching William search for resource materials to use in his collage, “being very judicious in his selections of colors and not settling.” In the end, Brian thinks William’s art is a better piece than his original, and “that makes me happy!”
You can view more of Brian’s work in his portfolio. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
“When you paint and when you draw, to me, you create a capsule with time and space, and it’s imprinted in life forever at that time.”
When Nhut Vo arrived in the United States at nine years old, it was not only his first time in a new country, but also his first time meeting his father, who had immigrated from Vietnam when Nhut was born. “I was a shy and quiet kid. I was an introvert,” Nhut says, reflecting on his childhood. Most of his thoughts and beliefs were based on assumptions because he spent a lot of time by himself, not venturing out of his comfort zone or engaging with many people. “When I came to this country, I did not feel like I was part of this country,” he explains. It was only when his parents got divorced and they moved to another district that things began to change.
In his new neighborhood, Nhut found himself facing even more challenges. He began struggling in school because he couldn’t speak English very well and with his two older brothers starting to have their own lives, Nhut’s “self-limiting beliefs” and feelings of loneliness were heightened. In junior high school, his life reached a turning point when he was first exposed to the gang culture in his neighborhood. His feelings of isolation hadn’t subsided: “I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.” His search for a sense of belonging coupled with the culture of rebellion he was introduced to by his neighbors and brother led Nhut to begin associating with gang members who were older than him. Nhut describes how they fulfilled his need for validation and became the role models he had been looking for. Nhut started getting in fights and at 15, he joined a gang. “It was a camouflage for me to hide my insecurity, hide my shyness.” Through the world he now found himself a part of, Nhut developed a kind of “false self” defined by recklessness: “I thought that was who I was — that’s my identity.”
When he was only 16 years old, Nhut was involved in the crime for which he would be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
After Nhut was first arrested, he was placed in a cell with a man who sold drawings done on handkerchiefs. Nhut had long held a curiosity for art, but never really invested time into learning about it. He can’t remember if he was interested in art when he was young, but he recalls practicing tattooing on some friends (“they probably still hate me for it now,” he jokes). Nhut remembers watching his cellmate work: he’d start with a picture and then trace and color it. “I figured I could do that. Can you help me do that? And he showed me.” And so began Nhut’s journey with art, looking at pictures in the newspaper until he found something that interested him, at which point he would simply cut it out, trace it, and do his best to replicate the image. As Nhut felt himself improving, he spent more and more time drawing.
Nhut started his term in a maximum security prison that didn’t allow any drawing supplies, so he learned to draw with pen. Working in pen is extremely challenging, Nhut explains, as you have to “barely allow that ball pen to touch the paper” in order to shade with a very light tone. Nhut spent years developing his technique, becoming skilled in the delicacy and precision required for the difficult medium.
After the Supreme Court ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a child to life without parole, Nhut was able to return to court for resentencing and in 2016, he received a reduced sentence with the possibility of parole. He was moved to a lower-level prison that offered many more program opportunities, including a painting class. Though he had never painted before, Nhut’s talents with pen and colored pencil allowed him to pick up the new medium with ease. “I go, oh, this is amazing! I can just cover a very large space with just one big brush rather than sitting there and scribbling.”
His talents did not go unnoticed and shortly after picking up his first brush, Nhut was invited to paint a mural in the prison. He took on the project and painted a large mural inspired by another program he was part of called the Pawsitive Change Program. The mural was just the beginning and Nhut’s painting took off.
At first, Nhut’s artistic process was about replicating exactly what he saw. His mental state when creating was focused on the result and how people would respond to it: “How people will perceive it, how they would experience it.” He would feel disappointed if he showed somebody a piece and they didn’t like it. But once he started painting, Nhut began to appreciate the artistic process itself. Working with color, both colored pencil and paint, takes a long time, especially when adding detail. It was in spending that time with color that Nhut learned to value the process — “enjoy it to an extent where it’s okay if they don’t like it.”
When Nhut is painting, he tries to stay fully engaged, enjoy the process, and not think too much about what the result will be. This mindset helps him not feel frustrated when he makes mistakes. “I’ll add the wrong color. I’ll add black when I know I’m not supposed to. And I constantly try to remind myself, you know, it’s an engagement with life.” This outlook has allowed Nhut to find far greater joy in his painting. Of course, he still finds it rewarding when audiences like his work, but, in Nhut’s words: “I think it’s fair to say I paint for myself.”
Now, Nhut describes his creative process as a formula. Inspired by his Buddhist practice, Nhut follows what is called the eightfold path, specifically one of the paths known as “right effort.” Nhut explains the formula: “First, you want to engender a wish to do something, and then you put forth the effort, and then you search your mind, and then you set out to do it.” Especially during his incarceration, this formula helped Nhut find the motivation to work: “A lot of the time you allow the environment to get to you, and you just don’t feel like doing things sometimes… you kind of have to psych yourself up.”
In addition to the eightfold path, Nhut finds it helpful to set up a “physical condition” for his space that he can repeat whenever he’s creating. When he can see something in a certain place and have a consistent routine like listening to music and drinking coffee, it’s easier to get into what he’s working on. Nhut also likes to set out his materials as a way to almost force himself to begin. He describes how in prison, your bunk pretty much covers the whole cell and acts as your table, your furniture, and your living room. By laying out his books and dictionary when he was taking college courses or laying out his paints and canvas, he would have no space to sit and no choice but to start.
Sometimes, however, setting up his physical space isn’t enough. Nhut describes how his state of mind affects his ability to create: “If I am not in the mood, if I feel depressed or stressed out, it’s very hard for me to engage myself to paint. Even if I set everything up like that, I would still sit there and just look at the setting.” For Nhut, art is not only an outlet that can take him away from his immediate environment, but it is also an opportunity for self-reflection. Nhut thinks about the way his intention in creating has developed over time, originally being too focused on external validation — something he has struggled with his whole life. But over time, alongside his spirituality and his practice of meditation and Buddhism, Nhut has come to view his artwork and creativity on a deeper level, seeing value without outside validation and finding his self worth through art. “When I think of it that way, I think all my artwork is beautiful because I created it. There’s no second person that actually did that.”
“I think it’s how I show up in the world. What I want to share, what I want to present, and not really being shy about it, being genuine and authentic… It’s really understanding yourself and how you can be comfortable with yourself to an extent that you can reveal yourself to the world just as you are… And in a way art does that. It helped me to understand myself.”
Learning to appreciate his own artistic process also taught Nhut to appreciate other people’s art. “I used to look at actual art and go, ‘I don’t get it.’ And now that I look at it, I understand… I can see what kind of brush they use, I can see the layer they lay on top of each other. I can sit there and imagine and guess the process it takes.”
Nhut can look at any of his paintings and remember the moment he painted it. He describes how painting captures his experiences and just by looking at a piece he can access them again: “I remember I had my dog sitting right next to me while I was painting that. I remember the people who walked by.” Beyond the memory of his physical experiences, Nhut can also look at a piece and remember who he was and what he was thinking at the time that he painted it. Describing a piece he did shortly after his sentence was reduced, Nhut says, “When I painted this… I was a person that just recently found hope again… Before then, I thought I was going to die in prison.” Looking at the piece now, Nhut sees a person who was painting with enthusiasm and joy, knowing he would have the opportunity to earn his freedom one day, “eager to prove to everybody that he can be a lot more.”
At last, in July of 2020, after 20 years in prison, Nhut was granted parole. He is still painting and drawing, doing commission pieces and sharing his work on Instagram. He also does tattoos and works as a dog trainer. Now that he has completed the six month transition program, he gets to go home to a lot more space and freedom, both literally and creatively. He says, “I have no idea what I want to do, but it’s almost like I’m just going to throw paint on the wall just to see how that feels.”
You can view more of Nhut’s work in his portfolio. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
Rikers Island, all them dudes I was, uh, locked up with
E block, F block, lower H
N-I-C in Rikers Island
All the peoples I met along the way
Better days is comin’ homeboy, keep your head up
“Better Dayz” by Tupac ft. Mr. Biggs
“The words to this song is my life.”
Creativity runs in Daniel Martinez’s family. When he was young, his older brother Jesse would bring him drawing supplies, showing him new artistic techniques. His cousin taught him and his other brother Tommy how to tattoo, working with a homemade tattoo gun on orange Gatorade lids. One of Daniel’s sisters also grew up to be an amazing artist. In ninth grade, his art teacher told him, “If it wasn’t for you, I would quit my job.” Daniel looked around and realized he was the only one drawing – everyone else was goofing off. “That stuck with me until this day,” he says.
In and out of prison his whole life, and now serving a ten-year federal prison term, Daniel has continued to create. Artistic collaboration flourishes inside, where Daniel has picked up new styles and ways to be creative from other artists. He calls art his “escape in a place like this…medicine to my soul.” With over 1000 pieces created for other incarcerated folks and their loved ones, he reflects on how good it feels to “put a smile on someone’s face” as well as how “art can reunite a relationship.” Art is heart-song for both maker and viewer.
His drawings, for example, are the only method he has to communicate with his daughter. “I love my daughter so much but all I have to give is my art…I’ve only watched her grow through my drawings. I don’t know what to really write on her drawings, all I know is that me drawing pictures of her helps me make wise choices…She’s my everything, she’s all I live for.”
“Sometimes God doesn’t change our trails, but instead changes us in the midst of the trails.”
Throughout the chapters of Daniel’s life, some violent and others fragmented, art has remained a constant, accompanying him through his personal changes. Having lost his father at four years old, so young he didn’t even know to cry at the funeral, Daniel was raised along with his five siblings by his single mother. His family slept on the “hard, cold wooden floor with blankets.” He wore only hand-me-downs and blamed his mother for the shame it brought him at school. “I would blame her for everything,” he writes. “I was wrong for it. I regret it.”
As a child, Daniel didn’t understand why they always had to walk home after grocery shopping, or why he had to carry the heavy gallons of milk. “It brings tears to my eyes as I’m writing this now,” says Daniel while recounting how he used to complain and make her life harder, not realizing that his mother was bone-tired and struggling.
Anger built in him as he was made fun of for his worn shoes, and he fought other kids at elementary school, especially those of other races. Toys were too expensive, so the only things he had to play with were coloring books and pencils. By high school, drawing had become an everyday routine, more interesting and engaging than classwork. Simultaneously, Daniel had also joined a gang.
Because his mother worked graveyard shifts, his apartment at night was full of his friends and other gang members, including his cousin, a tattoo artist. While on juvenile house arrest, he received his first tattoo, and from then on, got countless more. “I loved the art,” he writes. “Art, period, was my passion.”
Throughout high school, however, he continued to participate in gang activities, getting his family evicted multiple times. “I was never there to even help her, or my family, move all the boxes. I was out in the streets being selfish. I had LBPD break down my mother’s door at 4 AM. I had her go through so much…I was lost.” Even during times when Daniel was just hanging around with his friends, the police had it out for him. Over-policed and constantly surveilled, Daniel and his friends were brutalized by cops who had arrived to deal with a neighbor’s problem, just for sitting around.
The police blindly tasered the people in the apartment, and Daniel notes that two people were struck and “dropped to the floor screaming.” Singled out by the cops, Daniel was cuffed while four officers took turns stomping on his back and punching and kicking him. It felt like his lungs were collapsed, and it was only thanks to a passerby ambulance worker who stepped in that he was taken to the hospital. After the incident, there was no one to coach him through legal proceedings; instead, he turned to art.
In response to the attack, he drew a cop car being shot up, with the words “fuck pigs.” The police officers later returned, found the drawing, and began to target him even more. At that moment, he thought back to an encounter with his tenth-grade history teacher.
Although deprived of a father figure from a young age, Daniel recounts the importance of having someone who believed in him. In tenth grade, Daniel drew a picture of an armed man standing over four dead bodies, depicting the ways in which the world presented itself to him. “I would draw in class so much the teachers would…tell me to put it away. High school is where drawing really started to be in my everyday life.” It just so happened that his history teacher noticed Daniel’s drawing and asked to meet him after class to discuss the contents of the artwork.
His teacher asked him if his home life was alright, if there was anything he wanted to talk about. Daniel didn’t understand the concern. The teacher pointed at the man holding the gun in the drawing and asked who he was. It was then that Daniel processed all the red colored pencil he had used for the dead bodies and realized he was in trouble.
Instead of punishing Daniel for the violent drawing, the teacher had his next period class wait outside as he talked to Daniel about changing his life. “He cared about me and kept my drawing in his hand. He ripped it in front of me and threw it away. He promised not to call the principal,” remembers Daniel. As long as Daniel promised to let the teacher check up on him periodically about changing his life, and as long as he promised not to draw things like that again, the teacher would not report him.
“I wish I had listened to him,” reflects Daniel on the situation with his drawing of police. The teacher transferred schools shortly after Daniel’s tenth grade.
Coincidentally, however, Daniel frequently skipped all his classes except art class to “catch three busses to make it to Lakewood High School.” It was the only way he could see the girl he liked. He didn’t expect, one day, to lock eyes with that history teacher in the classrooms of Lakewood. At that very moment, the teacher paused his class to ask Daniel how he’d been. He asked Daniel if he was still drawing.
Although the teacher asked Daniel to come back after school to talk, Daniel ditched the meeting to spend time with the girl he liked. “I never had the chance to thank him for caring. He was a good man and cared for his students. Thank you for caring,” Daniel writes now.
Since then, Daniel has gone through great personal change. Now out of the gang life, he is focused on fatherhood and publishing his own biography, passing down a lineage of care threaded through his family growing up to his partner and daughter now. “As you see,” he says, “all my artwork used to be about violence but in today’s life they’re all about love and my daughter.” He asked Justice Arts Coalition to share a message of gratitude: “I would like to thank my future wife, Shauna. We have our ups and downs. I understand how hard it has been for you, but no matter what you are still here. Eight years locked up and I have never been without, because of you. I love you.”
Daniel also expressed appreciation for Jayme, the JAC volunteer he corresponds with, saying, “Every letter you send me becomes another stepping stone in my art life. Not only do you speak highly about my artwork, but you also take the time to check on my well-being. Your words describe my art in ways I’ve never heard before. You motivate me to see my own artwork as if the world needs to see them.” Finally, he thanked President Biden for choosing a woman as a vice president. “Women to me mean power and I see her making changes for everyone. She just made history.”
His passion for art and for creating these networks of care and gratitude are deeply intertwined; since those little orange Gatorade lids, his creative practice has followed him through his personal transformations. Acknowledging his prejudiced attitudes in the past, he now says that he “grew out of that hate against other races. A lot of people say racism will never go away. I strongly believe that is wrong because I grew out of it. I would like to take this moment to apologize to everyone, or anyone, I have ever hurt in life.” His story exemplifies the ability of the human character to evolve, grow, and move toward better futures.
You can view Daniel Martinez’s portfolio here. If you would like to view more artists’ work and provide direct feedback, please attend our virtual ArtLinks event! If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
JAC is proud to feature the work of Kenneth Reams, an artist and activist who has been incarcerated on death row for twenty-seven years. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and in order to raise money for his ongoing fight for freedom, Kenneth is auctioning off this 8.5″ x 11″ framed portrait of MLK Jr, done in graphite on acid-free paper (above). The auction will end on Friday, January 22nd at 5pm PST so be sure to check it out soon! More information and instructions for how to enter can be found here.
We have also had the honor of hosting Kenneth as a facilitator for our online workshop series Create + Connect: In The Box with Kenneth Reams, and we welcome you to join us on Thursday, January 28th at 4pm PST for week 5 of the series. Come, enter the Box, and join the conversation around the intersection of law, activism, and the transformative powers of the arts. From the confines of solitary confinement, Kenneth hosts interviews, entertains, and reshapes the narrative with some of the nation’s leading criminal justice activists, lawyers, and artists. Register here.
In 1993, Kenneth Reams was an unarmed accomplice to a robbery that resulted in a fatality. Like so many, Reams was represented in court by a public defender. He was offered a plea bargain but refused to plead guilty, and at the age of 18, he became the youngest person sentenced to death by lethal injection in Arkansas. Kenneth Reams did not kill anyone, and yet he remains in solitary confinement without human contact to this day. Despite living in solitary confinement for the past 27 years, Reams has cultivated his practice as an artist, a poet, a writer, and the founder of the nonprofit organization Who Decides, Inc. Who Decides, Inc. is a national network of activists and volunteers working to educate the general public about the practice and history of capital punishment in the United States through various mediums of art. You can learn more about Kenneth on his website: http://www.freekennethreams.org
An attendee of one of Kenneth’s previous Create + Connect workshops reflected on the event:
“This workshop had a profound impact on me. This was my first window into seeing art as a vehicle and voice for incarcerated people. I was moved by Kenneth Reams’ personal story of perseverance… To witness incarcerated people creating the most profound and thought-provoking work with anything they can get their hands on in the most oppressive and restrictive conditions left me speechless and inspired.”
In next week’s workshop, Kenneth will be joined by Wanda Best, the Community Resource Developer for the domestic violence programs at Volunteers of America (VOA) of Greater New York. Wanda is also the founder and CEO of Art Transforms, Inc., a non-profit organization formed to bring art to communities of color. As a community activist she was one of the lead plaintiffs in the campaigns to reduce the cost of collect calls made by New York State prisoners to loved ones and the campaign to restore the right to vote to formerly incarcerated people on parole and probation in New York State. She is an artist painting the prison experience through the eyes of the families with incarcerated loved ones.
Much of Kenneth’s art is dedicated to illustrating the history and practice of capital punishment, and he also frequently depicts leaders in the civil rights movement and others who fight against racial and state violence. You can view more of Kenneth’s work on his website and in his portfolio.
If you’d like to support Kenny with a donation, you can do so here: Venmo – @micah-herskind Cashapp – @SK927 Paypal – email@example.com
At just 15 years old, Derrick Grantley was incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. At 17, he was placed into solitary confinement, where he has remained for 21 consecutive years. “With no end in sight, I am still fighting my case in the court,” Derrick tells us. Day after day, there is temptation to lose hope, but Derrick holds his head high and continues to advocate for justice, both for himself and for others.
Derrick’s fighting spirit shows not only through his attitude and actions, but most of all – it shines through his words. In 2003, Derrick discovered songwriting and poetry, and in doing so, found solace from the overwhelming stress and depression that had been taking over his life since the start of his sentence. Derrick explains that he uses writing “as a way to express indignation against the injustices I see or experience myself.” He channels the anger and dissent he feels into poetry, and the results are incredibly powerful.
Derrick focuses his poetry on what is happening in the world around him. He writes about racial injustice, America’s political climate, COVID in prisons, and other poignant issues. He only writes about the topics that truly light a fire within him. It is this genuine passion behind his words that make his poems so impactful. Every one of his poems is written with conviction, intensity, and zeal.
I can only write when I am caught up in the event at the moment in time. I have to be feeling the situation deep inside my bones and spirit, or else I can’t write about it.
Derrick takes his time to really think about what he wants to write before he gets it onto paper. Because of this, the pandemic has not hindered his creative process, but rather it has given him more topics to write about and more time to really sit and reflect on them. He has more fuel for his mental fire and more time to kindle it. Below is a poem called “Quarantine Wonders” that Derrick wrote to express his frustrations during the pandemic.
Will I live or will I die?
Is the question that I ask!
Co-vid 19, is in prisons,
on the attack
We were giving 2 mask
One soap, that’s it
For 7 months straight
I’ve been wearing the same s**t
Most officers walk thru,
with their face uncovered
Coughing and sneezing,
Everyday I’m worried
I know if I catch it,
my chance to recover,
As a Black man in the system
Is 1 out of a hundred!
What keeps Derrick going, even through the hardships he faces in solitary, is the fact that he is able to inspire others through his writing. He loves being able to share his work and to know that it is reaching people. “Receiving letters and feedback from people in the free world motivates me, and makes me proud to see that people are genuinely appreciative of my work. Knowing that there are some people who really care about people on the inside, also helps to inspire and motivate me to keep writing.”
You can view Derrick Grantley’s portfolio here. If you would like to view more artists’ work and provide direct feedback, please attend our virtual ArtLinks event! If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration, please sign up for our pARTner Project!