Teaching Artist Spotlight: William Head on Stage (WHoS)

We recently talked with Kathleen Greenfield (they/them, she/her), Kate Rubin (she/her), and Emma Zabloski (she/her), our newest additions to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. In addition to their work with the Justice Arts Coalition, they are also teaching artists and theatrical collaborators with William Head on Stage (WHoS) at William Head Institution in Victoria, BC.


William Head on Stage Theatre Society (WHoS): 

WHoS is the only prisoner-run prison theatre company in all of North America that invites the public into a federal institution to experience their shows.  WHoS has been creating shows for the public for the last 39 years at William Head Institution, which you will find tucked away on the windy coast in the forests of Metchosin, a 35-minute drive from Victoria, BC.   Members of the public may buy a ticket, enter through prison security to the prison gymnasium theatre and watch the fall play performed by the prisoners.

SNAFU Society of Unexpected Spectacles:

SNAFU has been collaborating with WHoS since 2010 and has co-produced 5 productions in the past decade.  SNAFU artists create live theatre, puppet theatre, and dance theatre, based in Victoria, BC and touring across Canada to theatres and festivals.  SNAFU is led by artists Kathleen Greenfield and Ingrid Hansen, who also teach speciality workshops in theatre, puppetry, playbuilding, viewpoints, and physical comedy.


JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

Kate Rubin: I had been working in the Greater Victoria area as a professional teaching theatre artist and always was interested in social justice issues and had worked on numerous projects over the years with other populations. I had heard about the work at WHoS from my colleagues and was curious and interested to be involved in some way. I was cast along with 2 other women for Macbeth in 2006 and have been involved with WHoS for the past 15 years in capacity as a performer, director, writer, facilitator, mentor and have helped launch initiatives within the prison like the Q & A, the first WHoS symposium, building a larger network of teaching artists, a screening and interview process for teaching artists wanting to work with WHoS, and general support of the men and the company in various ways that present themselves. I have spoken at a couple of conferences now about WHoS and am passionate about sharing the 40 year legacy of WHoS. 

Kathleen Greenfield: I went to see my first WHoS play when I was still a student at the University of Victoria in 2004. Over the years, many of my colleagues were hired to either direct, perform or design shows with WHoS and I would attend but my focus is on creating new work, and WHoS was working with classic published plays.

In 2010, I went to see CHALK which was devised and directed by my (new at the time) creative partner, Ingrid Hansen. This show blew my mind for all of its creativity. The entire show was non-verbal, movement-based and created from the stories of the incarcerated participants, but I wanted to make sure that I was confident enough with my boundaries and wise enough to share some skills before I stepped into the Justice Arts world.

In 2013, I was at the point in my career where I finally felt ready to devote my  time to a WHoS production. I was really inspired by the creation and storytelling work that the company was starting to produce with CHALK and Fractured Fables: A Prison Puppet Project. In 2014, after participating in some skills-building workshops to get my feet wet, I collaborated with Kate Rubin to write (and perform in) Time Waits for No One in 2014. I have since Directed two new plays, performed in three and collaborated in writing the five new scripts. SNAFU Society of Unexpected Spectacles has co-produced 5 plays with the WHOS board of directors since 2010. 

Emma Zabloski: I have always been interested in art-making that is rooted in community building and co-creation of experience.  My first experience with WHoS was going to see the production CHALK in 2010.  This was my first encounter with the prison system and it was an incredibly humanizing and humbling experience.  I was invited to join the artist team as a performer and facilitator by Kathleen Greenfield for the 2016 show, Sleeping Giants.  The experience was transformative and opened my heart to the power of art in carceral contexts.  Although I now live in Toronto, I have travelled back to facilitate movement and choreography sessions with the program and was slated to direct this year’s fall production, but… you know, Covid.  Since being in Toronto, I have also facilitated theatre workshops at a new drama program at Grand Valley Institution for Women.  These experiences inspired me to pursue social work studies, and I now have an MSW degree.  Moving forward, I am excited to continue exploring the intersections between art, social justice, and healing.

WHoS, Prison Puppet Project, 2013 - Photo By Jam Hamidi
WHoS, Prison Puppet Project, 2013 – Photo By Jam Hamidi

JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programming you have been creating?

KG: I feel that one of the most unique characteristics of WHoS is the fact that it is not a program that is regulated by Correctional Service Canada (CSC). It is a not-for-profit society run by a board of directors that are all incarcerated at William Head.  The WHoS board of incarcerated participants get a chance to develop or practice skills in production and project management and liaise with the outside artists, hiring us directly. It is also unique because we get to bring outside audiences  inside the institution to experience the performance.  And these are FULL PRODUCTIONS with sound, lights, costumes, and a set all built by incarcerated folks. 

KR: WHoS has been an organic creation, initiated and led by many people inside and out for the past 40 years and has had a very unique and varied life of its own. It is valued highly by the men involved (past and present), the larger community, and by many people in both the arts and corrections and social justice worlds. It has remained alive through different political and social upheavals and challenges, and every warden so far has seen the value in the men continuing to run and keep this company going. In the past 10 years, we have been mostly devising original work with the men and building the capacity of the company,  in the hope of providing more opportunity for the men inside to engage in all the aspects of building a show.  We are also building the capacity of those of us working in this field through trainings, workshops, discussions, forums, and building our own form of creative activism within the institutional systems that we work. 

WHoS Rehearsal Photo 1- The Crossroads, 2018 - Photo by Ingrid Hansen
WHoS Rehearsal Photo – The Crossroads, 2018 – Photo by Ingrid Hansen

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

EZ: I am grateful for the openings.  Where I get to witness residents take creative risks and step into their vulnerability.  Where unlikely connections and relationships are made.  Where I am constantly being surprised and having my assumptions challenged.  And where we get to collectively resist an oppressive system through the power of making art.

KG: I like the parts where I get to listen and then accept stories that I hear as little gifts. I like to collect these gifts and mush them all together into a collective story, puzzling the pieces  into one cohesive performance. I love discovering participants’  secret talents that maybe someone told them they weren’t good at as a kid. I like to keep an eye out when we are playing drama games, freewriting, singing songs or dancing  to see what gifts people don’t even know they have, and then push them just hard enough to feel confident to share it with each other and eventually an audience. I find this process to be very organic and something hard to teach to other facilitators … like it is my own special skill. 

KR:

  •  Seeing the effects this work has on an individual, be it a momentary delight or release, a small behavioral change, or a complete lifestyle change where an individual may never reoffend
  • Watching the delight and freedom of expression that comes in the moment to moment creative work and seeing the confidence of everyone involved grow as we build the play and then perform in front of many audiences over 5 weeks
  • Witnessing the moments of discovery and mutual understanding that can develop between the men and audience members in the 20-minute Q & A period after the show
  • Experiencing and learning about different cultures represented by the men in jail, including a large Indigenous population. In Canada, there is a high proportion of  Indigneous peoples in federal and provincial institutions representing the racial intolerance, inequity and racist beginnings of our county .  We have felt inspired to help create a dialogue about tolerance and inclusivity within the WHoS cohort.
  • Helping to build understanding and tolerance within the institution (staff and security) about the work we do with the men

JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

KG: For almost 40 years, we have produced a large-scale production of with up to 30 incarcerated cast members and roughly 2000 public audience members over 5 weeks  in a converted gymnasium.  This will be the first time in 39 years where we will not present a play in the fall. We spend almost half the year writing, improvising, workshopping, choreographing and supporting the incarcerated men. This year, we will not be allowed into William Head until maybe November (but most likely January) and so we will not be able to develop the  bond that theatre inevitably creates.

BUT…we are working on the logistics of an Audio Project that we can share with a larger network of Prison Artists and Teaching Artists. We are also keeping Inside Artists engaged with the WHoS Great Creative Exchange.

When Covid [COVID-19] hit and theaters closed, SNAFU was offered an opportunity to be part of a socially-distanced live-theatre festival called SKAMpede. With a bit of funding, we were able to pay two returned citizens to perform alongside two teaching artists. It has been part of our mission for a while now to form an outside performance troupe to support Returned Citizens in the community. Now we have concentrated time to envision what an outside performance troupe would look like, and how we can carry out projects that might provide some financial support when jobs are hard to find. Our first performance was a success and we are so excited to see where these small performances in the community will take us.

EZ: Through Covid, we have been working hard to stay connected and offer SOMETHING to residents to help shake the Covid blues.  We have heard from residents that morale is low and tensions are high inside the institution right now.  Residents’ lives are even more restricted than normal with less contact and access to programs.

As artists, we  would normally be at William Head offering weekly creative workshops.  In lieu of this, we  have been developing a Creative Exchange program over the past couple of months,  which  finally launched mid-August!  We are hoping this project will help us stay connected while providing a creative outlet for residents.  Creative prompts (writing and visual art exercises) will be sent to inside and outside artists every two weeks.  We will then swap our artwork with each other and share our thoughts through writing.  We are incredibly lucky to have a program officer and WHoS board members at the institution to help facilitate the process.  We have been able to stay connected through email and phone meetings once or twice a month and collaborate on adapting  our workshops and theatre production this year.

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WHoS 2019 The Emerald City Project – Promo Project – Photo by Sam Redmond

JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, both concerning Covid-19 and anti-racism protests, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

KR:

  • We have not been able to get inside the prison since the beginning of March.
  • We have had very minimal connection with the men we know through some phone calls and no connection to any potential new residents interested in joining WHoS.
  • The institution staff have had hours cut back and the men at William Head Institution are also very limited in having any extracurricular activity.
  • Our production work with the men this year would have had us in the prison once a week through the spring and then starting in mid June, we would normally be going in 2-3 times a week to devise the fall play.  By mid August,  we would be inside 4x a week, have a script drafted, and would be rehearsing and building sets, costumes, lighting,etc. 
  • Not being able to work with the men and develop a team means that we are relying on one WHoS board member and a staff member to convey anything we want to impart about possible creative ventures during Covid. 
  • The chances for exclusion are high because we can’t guarantee that all communities within the institution are being reached and we have no real way of addressing that from the outside.
  • Any networking with colleagues is mainly done by Zoom calls and these can be challenging, especially in large groups, although they at least provide some connection and support

KG: It’s challenging to not have a chance to communicate with our WHoS participants face- to-face. To try to organize and  facilitate drama workshops without direct contact with participants makes you realize how important body language, facial expressions, and inflection are when we are creating theatre. A lot of anxieties come up when we encourage participants to be vulnerable with us and with each other. When we are not present to respond to vulnerable moments and realizations, it can be discouraging. We have an “everyone welcome” policy in our workshop spaces, but it is difficult to ensure that the group is not being divided by race, faith, class or status within the prison when we are not in the space.  It is challenging to not be inside, actively ensuring that everyone is being welcomed to participate in our Creative Exchange Project.  So much of our work is “lead by example.”

WHoS Rehearsal Photo 2 - The Crossroads, 2018 - Photo by Ingrid Hansen
WHoS Rehearsal Photo – The Crossroads, 2018 – Photo by Ingrid Hansen

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

EZ: Luckily, there has not been a Covid outbreak at William Head.  The institution is starting to talk about what opening up to volunteers and teaching artists again might look like.  We don’t anticipate being able to enter the institution until October or November at the earliest.  There will no doubt  be strict institutional procedures in place when this does happen, but I think it is also  important to keep having the conversation as a team and consider what the risks are for residents.  We have also heard from the institution that they are exploring the idea of video conferencing as a teaching platform, which is new (and exciting!) territory.   

KR:

  • Strong checks and balances allowing people into the institution 
  • Temperatures taken
  • Covid testing 
  • Masks worn 
  • Hand washing 
  • 2 metre distancing. *We would normally go into the prison with as many as 12 outside artists at a time when we are working on a production.  Now, we will most likely begin with  2 teaching artists at a time. I say two because I think we still need to support each other in the work as teaching artists, and it is also important that the men have the option to creatively connect with different teaching artists.  The population at William Head is currently divided up into three bubbles.  So one idea would be to work with men that are already in a bubble together, meaning that teaching artists would just need to keep the 2 meter distance and participants can be freed up in their theatre work with each other. 
  • Not work with any immune compromised or extremely vulnerable men * Some kind of screening potentially to make that decision

JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, 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?

KG: I really like the hands-on workshops with smaller groups that connect Teaching Artists in a practical way. I learn so much more from others through working than I do with talking.

KR: It needs to include:

  • Dialogue and exchange amongst people working with incarcerated individuals,  like the Wednesday JAC meetings
  • Linking people to different programs and institutions through the database and JAC email stream 
  • Support with creating and building sustainable funding for the different work we all do
  • Online conferences and hopefully live conferences once there is a vaccine
  • Podcast 
  • Workshops 
  • Linking mentors with emerging teaching artists.

EZ: I really appreciate the opportunity to share curriculum and program ideas and successes with each other!

WHoS 2019 The Emerald City Project - Promo Project 1 - Photo by Sam Redmond birds 0
WHoS 2019 The Emerald City Project – Promo Project – Photo by Sam Redmond

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, as well as this period of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the justice system?

KR: Given a global pause unlike anything before, I hope we can take the time to reevaluate and make the beginning changes necessary to shift how incarcerated people are treated, and in particular to validate the transformative power of the arts to help build esteem, understanding, tolerance and many basic skills sets.

EZ: I am really hoping that the cracks in our systems have been revealed to the point where it will be unacceptable to “return to normal”.   It is hard to ignore racial injustices right now because protests and calls to action are happening on such a large scale.  We are seeing it in the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, in calls to defund the police, in conversations about abolishing prisons.  Structural changes of this amplitude take time.  But I do hope that folks are taking this opportunity to at least imagine what an alternative landscape might look like.

As for our artist team, I hope that we can continue to grapple with the injustices of structural racism and systemic oppression, and critically examine what our roles are in the carceral space.  Art can be an incredibly powerful tool for collectively and critically exploring issues, and for bridging divides between different groups.

KG: I really do believe that WHoS (and the structure of how WHoS operates) will weather this storm and produce a wonderful new project for their 40th Anniversary. I already have members of the public emailing to find out more about what WHoS has planning for this year and the next. It is very difficult, at this time, to see how the recent period of protest has affected the population of William Head, but it has been on my mind in every short phone conversation I have had with our staff liaison and with the leader of the WHoS group. 

Racist behaviours and power imbalances that I have witnessed working inside of William Head have always been subtle. When I have no way to engage with the marginalized groups inside, it becomes very difficult to shed light on microaggressions that are, for sure, happening. When we are finally able to meet again, I would like to start off with creating a contract with the men, identifying some of the micro-aggressions that take place and challenging us all to “be better”, instead of reporting micro-aggressions to the Prison Administration as I think this would just lead to a cycle of policy, punishment and defensive responses from WHoS’ leadership. 

WHoS, Prison Gym turned Theatre,Time Waits for No One 2014, Photo By Jam Hamidijpg
WHoS, Prison Gym turned Theatre, Time Waits for No One 2014 – Photo by Jam Hamidi

JAC: What led you to JAC, and how has your experience with JAC served your own work?

KR: I had heard of JAC through some colleagues and had seen its acronym through the California Corrections conference, and had been curious about it.  A colleague told me she had just joined the Wednesday group in early April and I joined up given a need for connection to others doing this work.  We are in the midst of planning a second conference symposium and it seemed like a great thing to do at this time of Covid to connect up with others who do similar work. I told other members in the WHoS team and a number have joined up including Kathleen and Emma.

KG: Right before COVID struck in March, I had reached out to a small collective of WHoS facilitators to discuss the idea of organizing a networking event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of WHoS and also host a convergence of Justice Arts practitioners from all over the world to share skills, practices and experiences. Come on, don’t you all want to come visit us in the most beautiful place on earth?

We started weekly meetings to discuss what this event would look like and what networks already existed to help make this event a reality. It still might be a huge risk to plan a large-scale in-person conference for November of 2021 based on what governments are saying about travel restrictions, but maybe in 2022? We are still doing all sorts of fun work archiving 40 years of history, collecting stories of WHoS alumni and past teaching artists.  BUT, one of the most exciting outcomes of our collective meetings has been connecting with the JAC network and learning about all of the work that Teaching Artists are doing to ensure that justice arts folks remain connected

EZ: I was invited to join JAC by other members of WHoS.  It has been exciting and inspiring to tap into such a large network of prison artists. I had no idea this existed!  Since JAC is mostly U.S. based, there are some contextual differences for us as Canadians.  But it has nonetheless been an incredible resource.   I have joined the JAC Podcast team as a core organizer.  Through this, I am learning so much about conceptualizing and planning digital projects, including receiving mentorship from a podcast producer.  These are all skills I plan to take back to William Head this fall/winter as we develop our own digital project with participants.

WHoS, Time Waits for No One, 2014 dance PHOTO by Jam Hamidi
WHoS, Time Waits for No One 2014, Dance – Photo by Jam Hamidi

Kathleen Greenfield (they/them, she/her)

Kathleen  lives and collaborates on the territories of the WSÁNEĆ, Lkwungen & Wyomilth people. As Co-Artistic Director of SNAFU, Kathleen has directed the premiere productions of Little Orange Man, Kitt & Jane and Interstellar Elder. In 2013, Kathleen joined the artistic team of William Head on Stage Prison Theatre as a performer, facilitator and writer. In 2019, Kathleen devised and directed The Emerald City Project, co-produced by SNAFU and WHOS.

Kate Rubin (sher/her)

Kate Rubin is an independent teaching theatre artist in Victoria, British Columbia and has worked over the past 30 years with many theatre companies and organizations as a performer, director, facilitator and coach. She initiated and ran her own theatre studio for 23 years and in the past 15 years has also worked in the capacity as a performer, director and teacher/mentor with William Head on Stage Theatre Company at William Head Federal Institution. 

Emma Zabloski (she/her)

Emma is a theatre creator, arts educator, and youth worker.  With her company Zopyra Theatre, she specializes in playful, site-specific, and interactive performance.  Emma is a facilitator and performer with prison theatre project William Head on Stage, and has delivered workshops with Theatre of the Beat at Grand Valley Institution for Women.  She recently completed her MSW degree from the University of Toronto.  Emma loves sewing clothes, dancing flamenco, and soaking up nature time!


For more information on WHoS and SNAFU, please visit:

William Head on Stage: https://whonstage.weebly.com

SNAFU Society of Unexpected Spectacles: https://www.snafudance.com

 

 

 

Piercing the wall: An invitation through letters on art

by Treacy Ziegler
Henry Haro - Seeing the Sun
Prisoner Henry Haro,  “Seeing the sky” – as part of the Points of a Compass project

 

      unsignificantly      off the coast      there was

     a splash quite unnoticed

     this was

     Icarus drowning

William Carlos Williams’ poem on Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting – Landscape with the fall of Icarus:

Landscape with the fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Belgium, 1525-1569
Landscape with the fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Belgium, 1525-1569

On visiting a particular prison for the first time to conduct an art workshop with the prisoners, I averted the inevitable invitation of seeing the prison’s Bob Ross mural – that mural painted by a prisoner in the style of the famous public television personality who taught the world – and prisons – the joy of painting.

“Before you show me the Bob Ross mural, I got to tell you, I don’t like Bob Ross nor am I a fan of his teaching.”   The prisoners were surprised I knew of the prison’s mural.  More surprising was that I didn’t like Bob Ross’s art, “You mean, you don’t like him?”  Most surprising was being direct in saying so.  But teaching in various prisons in several states and having a through-the-mail art project with 700 prisons throughout the United States, I’ve learned that many prisons have such a mural, that Bob Ross has become the Godfather of art in prison, and that in teaching, it is best to be supportive but direct.

Unfortunately, in prison there is little art experience beyond Bob.  (My complaint about Bob is that he taught art as formulaic and encouraged the world to paint the sky through his eyes and not the individual’s.  This lack of visual autonomy supports the incarceration status.)  So when Wendy Jason, the site manager of Prison Arts Coalition suggested creating a network of artist-to-artist correspondence, developing a dialogue on art between artists on the outside and artists on the inside via a conversation through mail, I was enthusiastic.  I hesitate to speak of it as a pen-pal service.  Pen-pal suggests other things.  Instead, this correspondence has the potential of offering a dialogue focused on art knowledge, experience, discussing mediums and techniques, and art philosophy.  Since by definition a conversation goes both ways, the art experience of both parties can be expanded.

Most artists from the outside will probably not go to prison – there are all sorts of restrictions: time, distance, and so on.   But the United States postal service offers another avenue.  Developing a relationship focused on art eliminates some of the potential problems of pen-pal correspondence; over dependence upon the person outside, unintended romantic and other potential confusion when the correspondence has no specific focus.

Over the past eight years as volunteer art director of Prisoner Express, a distant learning program, I’ve had numerous writing relationships to prisoners. There are 4500 prisoners in the program and because it is a distant learning program, all prisoners are required to write into the program. We offer numerous projects in which the prisoner can participate.  But many prisoners write additional personal letters and inquiries.  Many of these inquiries are about art.

Most prison libraries do not have art books. Apparently, they are the first books to get stolen from the library.  Beyond Bob Ross, few artists are familiar to prisoners; Michelangelo, Picasso, Van Gogh. Frida has her day in prison, as does M.C. Escher. But other artists, even Rembrandt, are often not understood; as one art student in my prison class suggested, “I wouldn’t give 5 cents for a Rembrandt.” While it isn’t important this prisoner agrees Rembrandt is great, this prisoner’s experience of art might be expanded in understanding why some artists come to the front and some don’t; how art functions within a society beyond aesthetics taste; how art speaks for – or against – a particular race, generation, or class; and how art has influenced the beliefs of society.  Art is much more than pretty pictures and self-expression.

I personally receive lots of letters from prisoners and tried through the years to write back to most – a hard task with 4500 prisoners. Sometimes they write after their art was published in the general newsletter,  “I’ve been walking on clouds ever since I saw my drawing in the newsletter.”  Sometimes the prisoner has a question about one of the art curriculums.  Some letters and prisoners stand out.

Raymond first wrote to me six years ago when he was working on a drawing curriculum I sent prisoners who signed up for the course. Raymond seemed excited to work on the different assignments in the curriculum; light and shadow, perspective and other drawing exercises. However, he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to do a successful job because he was currently in solitary confinement and his drawing materials were limited to the single interior cylinder of a pen that is permitted to prisoners in solitary. Pencils are not allowed in the hole.  Regardless, he sent me several drawings. From this work, I thought Raymond might be interested in the work of Piranesi, Georges De La Tour and Courbet; sending him photocopies of these artists’ art in my reply letter.

While his drawings were compelling, it was his questions that evoked my interest. The questions suggested a person searching for greater understanding of both art and who he was in relationship to art.  There are those letters from prisoners who are not interested in learning.  These letters suggest a need for an affirmation of their existing skills;  “I’m the greatest artist in prison,” writes Donald.  While trying to be as supportive as possible, I am drawn to those artists who are willing to expand and challenge what they are already doing. Of course, the self can be challenged and battered in prison, and re-affirmation is important. But I understand my relationship to the prisoners is not as their counselor.  Instead I am a person to whom they can talk about art.  It just so happens that in pushing the parameters of art, people learn about themselves and gain strength from this knowledge.

Raymond’s questions seemed to reach beneath the surface exploring a deeper meaning in art.  In response to the images of Courbet and De La Tour, Raymond asked, “What is the difference between Courbet and De La Tour?”  On a superficial level, it is easily recognized they are both painters of people with the obvious difference of being from different eras.  But I realized Raymond was picking up something more fundamental.  Assessing their difference, I realized that Raymond was discerning the artists’ use of figures in their painting reflecting the sea change in how art functioned within society.  Courbet developed social commentary through social realism while De La Tour focused on an internal symbolism leaving the immediacy of the world.

Raymond’s thoughtful questions were even more surprising in that he had little formal education outside prison.  Raymond was incarcerated at 17 years of age and has been in prison for 20 years.  He received his high school GED in prison.  With no supportive family, he learned through his own means. Perhaps education has little impact on people’s capacity to understand the depth of art. I’ve heard friends with college education speak in superficial terms about a painting, reminding me of Woody Allen’s joke that after he sped read War and Peace, concluded, ”It was about Russia.”

 I often focus on paintings/sculpture of early Renaissance when I send art to prisoners – perhaps a little archaic for today’s inclusiveness.  But I understand that the prisoners with whom I write and meet in prison are often interested in classical drawing, and although some will argue, no one seems to draw as well – either before or after – as the white boys of the Renaissance.  (When Renaissance women and minorities, overlooked by history, are found, they will greatly contribute to this learning.)  I am particularly drawn to the paintings of the artists who were struggling to understand form.  Raphael gets too perfect for my taste.  My painting instructor called him divine because Raphael could draw a perfect circle.  But as I wrote to Raymond, “Why draw a perfect circle? – I’m more interested in seeing beyond to where that circle collapses under the burden of being perfect.  Hence, I send Raymond, Hans Memling’s diptych of a woman on one panel and a horse with a monkey on the other.  Raymond concludes his assessment, “This strange painting is inspiring,” after discussing its awkward-other-worldliness.

Inga Kimberly Brown, another artist writing to prisoners from the PE membership, takes a different approach and sends the prisoners Michael and Manuel more contemporary art.  When Manuel sent in art in the style of a silhouette – not knowing of Kara Walker’s work – Inga sent him a packet of her work including the legacy of the silhouette in the history of the American Black and slavery.

by Kara Walker

 

by Manuel Gonzalez, III

Some prisoners only send me their art with no added correspondence.  I have enough art from Leroy to have a solo exhibition of his work.  While I don’t have intense verbal correspondence with Leroy – often only receiving multiple drawings without a letter – his words on the drawings are humorous. Leroy reaches for the funny side of incarceration in surviving prison.  His work has an attractive design quality and I recently learned that Leroy spent much of his childhood accompanying his mother to quilt shows.

Coffee stained art
Coffee stained art by Leroy Sodorff

Clarence is another prisoner with whom I correspond – although it is mostly Clarence corresponding with me.  I receive about five letters a week from him.  Clarence is incarcerated in the mental health unit of a maximum-security prison.  There is a frenetic quality to his letters and I have boxes and boxes of his letters. I’m not sure when, but at some point of our correspondence, Clarence made me high priestess of a religion he developed.  I write this not in disrespect of Clarence or of mental illness. I actually am fond of Clarence’s thinking – he understands things other people find a bit obtuse.  Because I can’t always follow his letters, I engage with his letters on a visual plane – finding the marks upon the paper fascinating. Clarence recently sent me a string-bound notebook filled with pages in which every surface is covered with marks on worn paper shredded at the edges – a mysterious artifact. Clarence asks that I keep it safe and so I will.

In his continued letters, Raymond pondered the photocopies of art I sent him with comments and questions about different artists.  I sent him Caspar David Friedrich and in response to the painting, Monk on the Sea, Raymond writes:

“First off, the ‘The monk by the Sea’ was considered Friedrich’s most radical composition because he didn’t concern himself with creating an illusion of depth….. This lack of depth gives the piece a flat abstract quality.  So my question would be, what separates “abstract” in a painting from just being incomplete.”  A legitimate question for someone who has never encountered abstraction in a painting.

Raymond seemed intrigued with the concept of chiaroscuro – those patterns of light and shadows – and drew light as it changed throughout the day in his cell.  Light, no matter how little or how much, is always present; even in prison.   It becomes an available subject for prisoners to draw.

Exploring light extended to non-artists as when Daniel Perkins became interested in his cellmate’s drawing assignment on light and shadow.  Consequently, Daniel spent a month measuring the changing sunrays coming through the window of his cell as the sun moved across the sky:

Sunrays in cell, recorded by Daniel Perkins
Sunrays in cell, recorded by Daniel Perkins

Later, Raymond asked about that phenomenon artists refer to as lost and found – elements in painting disappearing or becoming more evident; he asked about the difference between an illustration and fine art.  In one letter, Raymond asked if art needs to explain itself and to what extent a painting/artist is accountable for being understandable.  Even if I have no answers for these questions, they offered the opportunity for a thoughtful correspondence.

 Sometimes, I get questionable requests from prisoners.  I had been writing to Jimmy for a year or two when he asked if I send him pictures of children in swimsuits. He also asked for images of Sally Mann’s photographs, the photographer who took images of her children in the nude. I have no idea whether Jimmy is in prison for sexual predatory behaviors, but the request seemed wrong.

Perhaps, it was an innocent request.  In teaching at a men’s maximum-security prison, I brought several books on paintings; including those of Raphael.  In viewing the paintings of Raphael’s baby Jesus, I realized the inappropriateness for prison.  I told my class that while I was not directing my concerns to them, there were, in fact, individuals in prison who were confused about their sexuality in relationship to children.  Therefore, the rule was made that even little baby Jesus had to wear a diaper in prison.

I’m surprised the prison guards allowed the Raphael painting book into prison.  It’s hard to believe that the postal mailrooms in prisons are more diligent than the front gate in the search for contraband.  Regardless, rules are constant.  Some mail rules are obvious with obvious reasons; no nude children, no frontal nudes; no women in chains; no guns.  Then there are some not so obvious rules: no blank writing or drawing paper; no stickers (even stickers on the envelops with the return address); no hardbound books; and so on.

Most prisoners, particularly the above Jimmy who has been in prison for more than 20 years, know what is acceptable and what is not.  When I find a prisoner making such a request, I experience it as disrespectful.  Reiterating my relationship to Jimmy as not his therapist and it wasn’t my desire to point out the inappropriateness of his request, I stopped writing to him.  There are so many other individuals with whom to correspond.

When a recent law was enacted in California stating anyone incarcerated at 17 years of age or younger would automatically be scheduled for the parole board, Raymond asked if I would write a letter of recommendation for his hearing.  In his letter, Raymond told me why he was in prison – a 17 year old involved in a gang activity.  While the other members of the gang were not incarcerated, Raymond was.  He felt it was his lack of legal representation.

The question of a prisoner’s crime is one that people often asked – should the prison volunteer know what the prisoner did?  I know what most the prisoners have done.  As a realist, I’d rather be confronted with the contradiction of my feelings in order to understand them and move on.  What I have discovered is that my feelings towards a prisoner are based upon what the prisoner currently brings to the relationship and not on the crime.

Raymond was denied parole. The board was impressed with him, but thought he was too smart, seeing his intelligence as a threat.  I wondered if my letter had been a hindrance.  For a second hearing, scheduled in the following year, I again wrote a letter of recommendation.  In this letter I describe Raymond’s humility as I saw it through his ability to learn which reflected his ability not to know – that state of being vulnerable in allowing oneself not to know.

Granted parole, Raymond will be released from prison this month.  In his most recent letter, Raymond thanked me for what he feels to be my insight and experience in helping him become not only a better artist but also a better person.  Of course, his praise is more than I deserve.  Raymond success is his own.

Raymond now faces the challenges of entering a world he has very little experience of – he grew up in prison.  He writes how exciting but also how frightening this all seems to him. Perhaps through social media, email or even writing, we will continue to discuss the issues of art – that elusive subject giving rise to hope and a structure for understanding.

It is Wendy’s invitation to both artists and individuals with a working interest in the arts to develop friendships with artists who are incarcerated through letter correspondence and the exchange of creative works.  In the next couple of weeks, there will be a new page on the Prison Arts Coalition website inviting participation in this art correspondence, which we are calling the pARTner project.  You can email Wendy at pacoalitionadmin@gmail.com if you would like more information prior to the launch of the project. We imagine that we will very quickly have a long list of artists in prison who are eager to connect with, inspire, and learn from you.

Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 2,300 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.

Sketches from Inside

insideoutINSIDE | OUT

Sketches from Inside

In January of this year, we started a Prison Arts Pilot Program here at Avery Mitchell Correctional Institution (AMCI) in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. We set out to do a series of 9 drawing classes with 15 incarcerated men each of whom are serving sentences from a few years to life. Our original intention was to solely focus on drawing exercises as many of the men were most interested in learning skills and art terms that others are able to learn in school. Over the weeks though, our drawing exercises turned into communal teaching opportunities in which all participants taught each other and we all learned to grow together as artists.

Our classes are now comprised of technique sharing, looking at work of artists both inside and outside the prison walls, and talking about the purpose and benefit of making art. We meet weekly to laugh, talk, and draw together and our sessions last just an hour and a half. In May, we will begin round two of our program and we are excited to bring in guest artists, look at more artwork, and to keep sharing the talents of these men.

More than anything, the men at AMCI would like you to know that they have talent, heart, and soul and do not want to be forgotten.

This program is generously funded and supported by the Penland School of Crafts Community Collaboration Program. Special thanks to Stacey Lane for her tireless work.

Thank you to Angela Lamm, Dawn McMahan, and Jason Penland at the Avery Mitchell Correctional Institution, and Aaron Buchanan at Fox & the Fig.

With sincere thanks to the 12 artists in this show, we are so happy to be working with you.

Daniel T Beck, Sarah Rose Lejeune, and Rachel Meginnes

About AMCI:

The Avery Mitchell Correctional Institution currently has 846 occupied beds, and has a capacity for 856. They have 95 men incarcerated there with life sentences, and 53 that have been “promoted” to minimum custody, who will soon be sent to a lower security facility that has more opportunity for work release and transitional programming. The men incarcerated at AMCI are between the ages of 22 and 73. This facility is classified as medium custody, although many of the men would describe it as run closer to that of a maximum unit, with rules enforced tightly across the board. The men currently participating in this prison arts program are predominantly active artists, most of whom hold long sentences. Very few of these men were practicing artists on the outside, their interest in making predominantly began as therapy and hobby once incarcerated. They take their craft very seriously, although only two of the program participants have had minimal formal training. These men teach and share knowledge and skills with great compassion, their artwork a common thread that builds community and commonality.

reception (11 of 20)

Angela Lamm is a Correctional Case Manager and Volunteer Coordinator at the Avery Mitchell Correctional Institution. She has worked tirelessly with us to make this program a reality.

Inside Out opening reception

The Inside Out exhibition included written statements by many of the artists, and a notebook for viewers to record their thoughts and feelings about the work. We were able to share these responses with the artists, opening up dialogue between those inside and outside the prison walls.

The artists:

Ted Brason

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Nick Tucci-Caselli

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Robert Reid

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Bobby Autry

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David Jones

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Antonio Trejo

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David Bauguess

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Eric Hughes

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Juan Santiago

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Michael Lewis

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Michael Sheets

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Tyvon Gabriel

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As instructors we continue to grow alongside the students, always challenged by and learning from class conversations. This initial pilot program is continuing. Moving into summer we are expanding the structure of the course to include a mixture of slide lectures, open studio time, prompts and exercises, and a series of guest instructors. The Inside Out exhibition currently on display at Fox and Fig in Spruce Pine, NC has plans to travel to Boone, NC, and potentially additional venues, with additional exhibitions slated to culminate future course segments.