Teaching Artist Spotlight: Peggy Rambach

Recently we talked with Peggy Rambach, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Peggy facilitates pastel workshops and creative writing classes. She speaks on discovering art “late in life,” learning from her students, and what it’s like teaching in two seemingly disparate mediums.

 JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art? What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

PR: “I can barely draw a stick figure.” This is what I hear again and again when I go into the units to recruit interested students for my pastel class. Three years ago, I would have said the same thing. So, I am impressed and inspired by my students’ willingness to take the risk and try to work in pastel in my class. I’m not sure I would have to same courage. 

 I have identified myself as a writer for the past 40 years and since I began working in pastel so recently, and so late in life – at the age of 59 – I am still unable to say aloud that I am a visual artist. I am more likely to think of myself as an imposter! But the majority of the women in the Women’s Program who choose to take my class, stick with it through the initial fear of failure and humiliation — along with the inevitable early frustration and confusion, since pastel, at the start, “looks like a big mess,” I say to them, and only later in the process, will they create recognizable images through the use of light and dark. 

 But stick with it they do. So, if my students have an impact on my art, it is to make me stick with it too when my confidence wanes, or when I, too, am frustrated with my attempts to achieve on the paper what I see in the world. 

 I also encourage my students to choose any photograph to work off of that they wish, any image that appeals to them, and they’ve chosen photos of foxes, of peacocks, of farmland and farm houses, of salt marshes, Irish cliffs, and mount Kilimanjaro with elephants grazing in the valley below. I look at their choice, make a big sigh, and say, “Okay. We’ll figure this out.” And together we work on developing the technique and choosing the layers of colors necessary to create the image– images that I have certainly never painted or drawn myself in my short tenure as a pastel artist. So, there’s no question that with my students, I’m learning all the time, both as an artist and as a teacher. 

 I know many of my students have been through unspeakable trauma and are living with uncertainty and under the stress of confinement, so I am sensitive to their moods and well-being. As a teaching-artist in Corrections or in any setting that is non-traditional, one must always be alert and flexible and innovative. For instance, I have no studio. We work on classroom walls and windows.  And after two years I finally have a full cabinet all to myself in which to store my supplies.  

 But I’m not complaining. I’m grateful that I received the supplies from the Sheriff’s Department in the first place, and that the Sheriff’s Department recognizes the value of arts in Corrections. And clearly, I like the challenge of the environment along with the kind of diplomacy it takes to work with, and not against, Security. 

 I also teach creative writing and that is a little different. Visual art can take one out of oneself, be meditative and calming. Writing too, is a deep and meditative experience, but the writer must be willing to go to more uncomfortable places as a means of revealing greater universal truths about human experience. So, the process of writing a poem or short story or essay can be emotionally challenging, but also emotionally restorative and healing in a deep and lasting way. And writing is just plain hard: making a swirl of thoughts and emotions into a recognizable and communicative form is, understandably, daunting. So those who join my class and stick with it, are often driven to get an experience down – many times as a means of putting it to rest or as a way of grieving for someone they’ve loved and lost. 

 And of course many simply love language and are willing to undertake the discipline required to endure my “chicken scratch” as one student calls it – to revise, to go deeper, to learn the techniques necessary to make an experience not just a written record but a work of art that leads to epiphany. My students, like all of us, are fragile under their public exteriors. But that is not a reason to lower my standards for excellence. The environment in which I’m teaching them, should not lead anyone to assume that they are less able to achieve the kind of excellence we require of students in traditional academic settings. And when they do achieve what I know they can, they are grateful. And when they thank me, they thank me for pushing them, for not giving up on them, for having the faith that they can and will bring something into the world that is beautiful and meaningful, and that will last. Often this achievement is their very first one like it. And for me, their triumph is undeniably gratifying. Art, and teaching two forms of it to my incarcerated students fills my life with meaning and purpose.

 JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

 PR: I would like to go to regional conferences of teaching-artists in Corrections and share our experiences and practices. I’d like to know who is out there, really, to meet them in-person. I don’t have a lot of time or the patience to read a lot online. But I’d take the time to attend a gathering in my state of Massachusetts, maybe listen to a few speakers and offer to speak myself. I think we should reach out to young artists in MFA programs who might be interested in the field. When I possibly retire from my position in 5 to 7 years, it saddens me to think that no one will take my place and the program, and all of its value, will simply disappear.  

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Pastels by Peggy’s students

Peggy Rambach, M.A., M.F.A. has received grants and awards for her writing, and for her contribution to literacy and the Healing Arts. She is the author of a novel, (Steerforth Press), a collection of stories, (Ampersand Press) and the editor of two collections of memoirs (Paper Journey Press) that emerged from her community writing workshops  She is one of three artists featured in the documentary: The Healing Arts; New Pathways to Health. (From Peggy’s website, which you can view here!)

 

Read our last Teaching Artist spotlight, featuring Hakim Bellamy.

 

 

 

Artist Spotlight: Cedar Mortenson

This month, we’ll be putting our Artist Spotlight on Cedar Mortenson. JAC asked Cedar some questions, and below you’ll find Cedar’s response. But first, an introduction in Cedar’s own words:

 CM: Thank you for contacting me, for your correspondence and notifications. I hope this letter finds you well, in good spirits and warm. There is quite a lot of snow outside here, from what I can see on the weather channel anyhow. I haven’t been outside for over 6 months. I dream about the sun on my face, rain, wind, snow, dirt under my feet. I usually chef at one of the local ski resorts in Northern New Mexico near where I live at so I can get my free lift pass that goes along with the job, then all my extra time is spent upon the mountain with my snowboard or playing with the dogs and the horses in the snow. Sometimes I get snowed in where I live way up in the mountains so it’s just us til the snow melts enough to get out or my SUV can get through the snow pack. I miss home a lot. It’s hard to be incarcerated so far away from home.

untitled
Untitled, Cedar Mortenson

 JAC: What inspires your artwork?

 CM: Life in general, mostly the impact that life occurrences have on my heart as the pencil and paper is a channel to that. It’s a form of therapy in here. I exercise, I shower, I sleep, read, write, draw. I miss the people I love so much that it’s hard to write them or call, plus phone calls are expensive and I don’t want them to have to come out of their pockets for my bad choices, so I write but it hurts a lot; drawing is a better way to convey my love and thoughts. I draw them portraits and dreams. My dogs and horses inspire my artwork. I am a naturalist, activist, chef, poet, freestyle cage fighter, and outdoorsperson among being an armed robber apparently. I go to sleep every night looking at photos of my dogs. We have a pack. I’m the leader. We need to be together. My brother is looking out for them but he doesn’t love them like I do. He doesn’t embrace them and squeeze their fuzzy faces against his own and kiss the top of their heads, and sing them their songs. They each have their own song, and they get so happy when you sing to them. “There was a sailor dog named Blue… She sailed across the whole Atlantic Ocean…” So begins Blue’s song. Blue and Pepper are sisters. Rocco, Doodle, Midnight and Amos are Pepper’s sons. Midnight has gone missing since I’ve been incarcerated,

 I also have horses. This is my family. I am responsible for taking care of them. I enter art competitions with hopes of placing to win cash awards to send to my mom to buy dog food and hay for them, and my motives are accelerated now with winter here.

The Eye of the Joshua Tree
The Eye of the Joshua Tree, Cedar Mortenson

 This is my main challenge as an incarcerated artist, is trying to find ways to support my furry family and my family too. When I’m free I’ll always help my mom with wood for the winter and hay and bring her groceries. She lives on a rural reservation with her husband and is elderly. Giving time to the elderly is really important. 

It’s a challenge finding a continuum to remain proactive about environmental issues. The jail gives us our food in styrofoam containers. I retail biodegradable compostable products and packaging for 5 FDA approved U.S. companies and can offer them a more cost efficient and completely biodegradable alternative but of course as an inmate they won’t use the resources I offer. 

 Persistence can crack an egg though it’s a challenge to find the most direct outlets for writing and drawing proactive issue work materials that I feel may have the most influential impact. How do I reach people with my art and writing from here? I’m grateful to JAC for the opportunities they provide to do so, and I believe this coalition will grow and prosper in its ability to reach more and more people over the course of time. It’s a challenge as an artist/muralist to be limited to 8” by 12” paper with colored pencils, pen, ink that are 3 inches long and grow shorter with use because apparently they can be used as weapons if they are longer than 3 inches. I’ve recently discovered the white paper lunch sacks. When carefully deconstructed from about an 18 by 24 inch platform to create on and can easily fold back up to fit in a regular business size envelope. This discovery came after continuous write ups from ripping up the facility’s linen sheets to use as canvasses to draw on. So far they haven’t confiscated any of my paper sack artwork yet.

 I could go on to list more challenges but in all honesty the blessings are as great, thank God I have an imagination, a sense of humor, the ability to create and the tools that are accessible and approved to create what I can. God is good to me. I am humble and grateful. Where I’m at is no one’s fault but my own.

Genjis Horse Murasaki
Genji’s Horse, Cedar Mortenson

It is enough that our time with loved ones is taken from us in penalty. Our voices and hearts. Expression should have a continuum always, this is the essence of life and no one should be allowed to take that from any individual under any circumstances. So thank you so much for providing an outlet for this; it’s rewarding to me to have this form of expression, correspondence, communication. I sincerely hope this is reciprocated to you and the members of the Coalition committee who work to make this possible that they can continually feel their efforts are making a difference and receive a beneficial impact in their own lives as well. And of course I hope that people will buy my artwork through this experience as I constantly stress about my animals everyday.

 

 

Please consider joining our pARTner Project to connect directly with an artist in prison. Find more information and sign up by clicking here.

 

Who is Mark Andreason?

by Mark Andreason*

I'm Tired
I’m Tired, Mark Andreason. From Mark’s friend: “Mark tells the story of being tired of feeling like he is in a fish bowl where others ogle at him while in his cell.”

The question has been coming up a lot lately. I enjoy creating art, but I know that I am more than my work. I create the art to escape from this life I have been leading behind bars. It has been a horrible experience, and I would not wish it upon anyone, but I take responsibility for the bad things I have done. So, when I ask myself, “Who is Mark Andreason?”, I recognize that I am on a path of self-discovery since taking this leap of faith that my art will take me anywhere but here.

I find myself smiling more as a result of feeling like a kid again. I am becoming more aware of what is simple beauty. The other day, I noticed a squirrel that ran to me for food. It was awesome to see this creature in my surroundings that usually does not sustain anything attributed to nature. Prison life has been hard and hardened my outlook on life. Yet, the squirrel’s lack of fear toward me made me feel like I am approachable. It put me at ease in my own space.

My Ol' Lady
My Ol’ Lady, Mark Andreason. Described by Mark as, “the woman who has been behind [me] in the shadows, supporting [me] while incarcerated.”
I wonder sometimes if my negative outlook blocked me from openings because now that I am moving in a direction where I allow myself to be free, opportunities continue to come my way. I found out this month that “I’m Tired” is being published in Average Art, an art industry magazine based in London. Wow! I still can’t seem to wrap my head around the good feeling that has come over me, but I am excited because my artwork is out in the world—at least internationally—for everyone to see it. 

If that is not enough, I have also received a Special Merit Award from LightSpaceTime.art, which is featuring “Beginnings” on YouTube for their 8th Annual Animals Online Exhibition. My mind races with how many people will be exposed to my work. It is amazing to me that I am experiencing such good fortune. The way I see it is that if my work is in the world, then I am in the world.

So you know, I don’t know if I am the same Mark Andreason anymore, but I do know that I like this guy. I can look at him in the mirror even with all of his faults and past transgressions. What I know about this guy is that he is talented based on the recent public opinions of others. He’s also a man who appreciates the natural unfolding of a new chapter in his life. Mark Andreason is growing every day. In some ways, he is a kid again with a fresh pair of eyes and a grateful heart. Wouldn’t you know it? That guy is me!

The Markabo Swell
The Markabo Swell, Mark Andreason. “My transgressions have cost me more than 30 years of my life behind bars. Once upon a time, the thought of being released seemed overwhelmingly out of reach. No more. The love of one good woman has shown me how to believe in my talent and not fall to temptation. And we go forward together.” 

 

More about Mark:

Since 1986, California-based Mark Andreason has been honing self-taught skills. Mark was heavily influenced by the painters Julie Bell, Boris Vallejo, and artist Luis Royo. He uses only pen and eraser to develop urban Gothic drawings. “Someone asked me, ‘When do you create for yourself?’ I thought it was an odd question since I enjoyed drawing for other people and assumed that it was understood that I was drawing for me. Duh? But then I realized that what I was really being asked was to look to my art for what motivated me. It took on a different meaning and had a different purpose, especially dealing with my disappointment about not being free. I am now working from the inside by freeing myself instead of expecting those from the outside to determine my fate.”

 

*This post was originally published on the baddkarMA.net Blog, May 27, 2018, and used with permission from the artist/writer. Please visit the site to experience more of Mark’s artwork and writing.

 

The Becomings of a Master, Part 3: Hiatus

by R. Zumar

I’ve been pondering this in my mind over and over and over again. Trying to find a way to be able to keep creating work to send out for you to see without compromising the things I need in here. I find it to be nearly impossible to do from my position and I’ve failed to find that balance, and let things get to out of control.

So! Should this failure stop me from studying and creating artwork. No, I don’t think so. Even though I don’t have the money to continue to send my work out doesn’t mean that I should stop creating. So I’ll keep at my studies and work to be better, my becomings are far from over.

You may not see any work from me for a while cause I need to get my affairs in order in here. But once I do get things back on track you will see my progress, you will see how far I’ve come. You will see how I see beauty in all things though once upon a time all I saw was ugliness.

Like I said before, I’m fairly new to this art world and I’m learning as I go and there needs to be balance in art no matter how chaotic some of us may make a piece of artwork seem. There is still balance in it and we should also find this balance in our lives. We can only be made better for it. Trust, this experience has made me see things more clearly and can only hope it has done the same for you.

This is the becomings of a master! 

Bolgora
Bolgora, 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 artist 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.”

View the first two installments in the artist’s blog series here and here

A guest’s reflections on the Iron Cages exhibition

by Jennifer E. Tinker

The evening of January 9th, 2020 proved to be a cold one, yet the decade opened with warmth exuding from inside President Lincoln’s Cottage, where I experienced artwork celebrating the core of the human spirit at a well-attended opening. The physical space and its history lent itself to the celebration of courage and the undying strength of creativity. The Cottage was where Lincoln developed the Emancipation Proclamation, and it is now where the Justice Arts Coalition is displaying the work of 25 currently and formerly incarcerated artists in an exhibition that runs through the month of January. This tapestry of multiple mediums exploring the values of human dignity, internal liberty and hope is a beautiful partnership, in concert with the Lincoln cottage’s new program, A Home for Brave Ideas. This duo advocates for incarcerated artists to be recognized as having a voice and provides an avenue into public dialogue around the intersection of the arts and social justice. Through innovative guided tours, exhibits and programs, Iron Cages reflects the Mission of a Presidency caught between the crosshairs of a punitive society and the reality of our shared humanity. 

Photo by Bruce Guthrie

The evening of artwork by incarcerated artists and performances by local prison and reentry theatre program Voices Unbarred inspired visitors, bridged differences and made tangible a connection to the past while presenting a platform for the work still to be done. As a mother, daughter, sister, wife, teacher and American, I cannot urge my fellow citizens enough to take the opportunity to immerse themselves in this exhibit, participate in the dialogue through interactive pieces and share the experience with others. 

Ultimately, freedom of expression is the greatest freedom of all and no one can steal a person’s creativity, as it is theirs alone. The compassionate commitment to self-expression that these brave artists have shown through creating art in and around the US carceral system unites us all and allows us to understand that transformation happens from within. Please find the time to experience this healing and powerful art exhibit in our nation’s capital. 

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
― Abraham Lincoln

 

About the guest contributor:

Dr. Jennifer E. Tinker deeply enjoys literature, art and dance. Jennifer practices yoga, and has implemented school gardens in various U.S. educational locations. Eco-Literacy became a main focus of her educational framework from 2012-2016. Since, she has lead several workshops in language-acquisition and Visible Thinking Strategies for teachers in the U.S. as well as China, Thailand, Japan and the Philippines. Her strengths lie in the humanities, and she currently is a teacher in the D.C. Metro region. She continues her family’s tradition of creating and collecting art.

 

Exhibition tour information here.

Please join us on January 30 for a very special closing reception!