This is the first in a series of four blog posts for the Justice Arts Coalition, excerpted from the series, “Art Inside,” published by Los Angeles Review of Books. The full series is available here. Stay tuned for the second blog in Buckley’s JAC series, which will be posted on Friday, October 2nd.
For this series of posts, I am focusing on our Arts Facilitator Training (AFT) program with Prison Arts Collective (PAC). This is a program that is close to my heart as I developed it with the goal of empowering and giving agency to the hundreds of men and women that we are privileged to work with in prisons across California to develop and teach their own art classes. Initially, I fused elements of my art education classes at the university with skills to support leadership in cultivating creative communities in prisons. Since then, the AFT has evolved with input from peer facilitators in the prisons, my colleagues in PAC, and faculty and students in the four California State University campuses where we have PAC chapters. I am thrilled that the students in our first AFT program have been teaching weekly classes to their peers for the past four years. In addition, at least three have been released and two of them are working full time as teachers of rehabilitative programs in prisons.
It is 120 degrees out and yet the locals continue to insist that this is a cool July. I stopped noticing the constant sheen of sweat shortly after arriving here with team of student teachers to help lead a new class on the fundamentals of teaching art.
Our participants — and future teachers — are men that are incarcerated in two local prisons. They will eventually develop their own arts courses and teach their peers while cultivating creative community in the prison. On this day, we are midway through the 60-hour training designed to empower them to teach what they have learned, many while locked up, about painting, drawing, music, and poetry.
At this particular prison, our class was placed in an area designed for vocational training. Because of this, and the high security level of the institution, the students were strip searched before each class. They could tell this saddened us and offered the kindness of shrugging off the indignity to save our feelings. Being in that room also meant that they couldn’t bring any of their art or writing. So, until this day, we had nearly completed the 60-hour training without seeing any of their artwork.
On this special day, we were given access to another space where the men were allowed to bring their art: paintings, poems, cardboard sculptures, ink drawings, songs. We oohed and aaahed over detailed pencil drawings, paintings made of coffee, cardboard helicopters to rival model ones, and colorful animated characters. After a moving performance by the band, it was time for readings. We heard the most ingenious rhyming fairy tale, a moving apology letter that left many misty-eyed, poems that our musicians wanted to set to song, stories that opened up a window into someone’s life, and reflections on art and imagination and life.
The last reader was the youngest in our class. He was tall but baby faced. His piece was about expectations and implored listeners to find their voice: “Let it be your answer. Let it be your truth.” When he was done, an older student said with admiration, “You’re a philosopher, man!” Another mentioned that it was really hard to write in the second person and that he had done it so well. “What’s that?” The young philosopher asked with genuine curiosity. Later, I saw them talking. The youngster wanted to know more, saying, “I want to sign up for your class.”
This is what I love about this program. We provide tools but they build the house. In a few months, these men who may not have spoken to one another on the yard before this, begin to see one another as artists and mentors. Over time, this is reflected back at them through their peers, and they begin to see that in themselves.
About the Author:
Annie Buckley is a professor and the director of the School of Art + Design at San Diego State University and the founding director of Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. PAC provides multidisciplinary arts programming and peer facilitator trainings in 12 prisons across California through an innovative partnership between California State Universities and state prisons. Buckley’s writing on contemporary art is published in Artforum, Art in America, The Huffington Post, and she is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, where you can find the full series of “Art Inside.”
Peter Merts has been photographing California’s prison art programs for 15 years; his images have appeared in the New York Times, The Economist, and the Huffington Post. He co-published, with Dr. Larry Brewster, a book on the topic—Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (2nd ed)—and is on the advisory board of the Prison Arts Collective.
Recently we talked withMatt Malyon, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Matt is the Executive Director of Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in northern Washington through literacy and personal transformation. He speaks on embodies presence in creation during COVID-19, the relationships that we can form both within and beyond the carceral system, as well as ways he suggests that we as a community can continue to remain involved in our work, even during isolation.
JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?
MM: Embodied presence! The biggest challenge by far is the fact that all our sites have temporarily been placed on hold. We have no in-person creative writing workshops right now. Regarding our sites in jail and juvenile detention, we cannot conduct online workshops because the facilities are being cautious about gathering people together in groups. Our writing workshops—and the person-to-person encounters they facilitate—are at the core of our organization. So the challenge now becomes about how we adapt and re-define ourselves for the time being. How do we continue forward in our mission to amplify student voices? How do we generate and publish student writing? How do we podcast? How do we optimally stay in touch with students who are incarcerated? These are questions that will continue to provide productive tensions as we move
forward during this time.
JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?
MM: There are definitely significant safety concerns right now. How do you conduct social distancing for two or three people in a 6 x 9 cell? What if you have a cell to yourself and a new person is booked and then placed with you—is the person virus-free? How do staff in sites of incarceration care for themselves, and how do they know whether or not they’re bringing in the virus from outside? Strange and anxious times.
Others who have been in similar work for longer than I have might be able to provide a more detailed list of proposals. This said, I too am thinking about these questions. They’re vitally important. One idea: Consider releasing people who are incarcerated and accused of low-level offenses. I think this needs to be very seriously considered. This would help lower the number of people in prisons and jails and juvenile detentions, and thus physical distancing between people could be better facilitated. In the meantime, I believe the precautions that the general public are being asked to do should be something incarcerated people can do as well. Each facility should be as accommodating as possible for the sake of safety, humanity, and health.
Finally, and even though it affects our work, I think it’s wise that most the facilities of
incarceration in America have closed their doors to outside programming. It’s tough. It’s sad. Yet it seems for safety’s sake to be the right thing to do for now.
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?
MM: For the most part—and this is a generalization—I believe most of the relationships being formed with those on the outside via the practice of arts programming in the prison system, these relationships have as their conduits individuals who go into the system to do the programming. This network of programming has, for the most part, been put on hiatus for the time being because of the COVID-19 crisis. Thus, I would say that such relationships have definitely been jeopardized. This says nothing regarding the personal intent of anyone. There still exists a deep care, concern, and an abundant enthusiasm for art and relationships. Yet it’s in jeopardy due to our circumstances in this crisis. How do artists within the prison context get work to the outside? How do facilitators help? It’s still possible, I think, in modified forms, if teaching artists/ programs/facilitators are willing to adapt and be creative. This is something I’m seeing rapidly develop across America. It’s truly encouraging.
Underground Writing has been trying to keep our student/site connections active by adapting to the current moment. We’ve just started offering very simple, e-deliverable “workshops” to all our sites. The format is a simple four-page workshop: One sheet with the workshop on one side and our permission to publish on the other side; the second double-sided sheet contains a poem on each side to be used in the workshop. We plan to continue to send a new workshop out every two or three weeks to our sites. Secondly, we launched a Twitter account three weeks ago to publish more student writing and connect our students and organization to the wider world. Finally, we’ve just started a #WriteHopeNow hashtag/writing prompt for the COVID-19 era. It’s very simple: Write about something giving you hope in your community, and then post it on Twitter / social media with the #WriteHopeNow hashtag.
We’re also currently trying to re-route procedures for our podcast, and are continuing forward with a number of grant-backed projects that are still in-process. And like many other organizations, we’ve been filling out grant applications, doing financial diagnostics, and co-signing petitions for federal and local relief funds for arts organizations.
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?
MM: One of the things that first comes to mind is getting more people involved with this sort of work. I like to think that our entire field (in general: arts in at-risk settings) is now moving beyond the “emerging field” status. There are more programs and people doing this sort of work than we might think—and far more than is perceived by the general public. I think one of JAC’s greatest initial inroad items for those who might be interested in this type of work (in knowing about it, or in doing it) is the geographical listing of programs. It’s been so useful in helping me understand the field and what’s out there. It’s been great for making connections with people, and we’ve had opportunities arrive at our doorstep simply by being included on the JAC list. Thank you for it!
In my areas of focus—creative writing / literature / voice amplification—I’m interested in
promoting this work we’re doing in such a way that others will join up. We need more people doing such work. This is what I have in mind for an initiative that’s grown out of our experiences in Underground Writing. One Year Writing in the Margins aims to inspire teachers and writers to consider facilitating creative writing workshops in an at-risk community settings for one year. It launched the day of the current president’s inauguration. One angle: It was me pivoting my deep anger in a different direction, transforming it, and then doing something positive with it. The wider angle: I really believe in the power of what we’re doing in Underground Writing, and what many others across the country are doing in beautiful programs similar to ours. I see its impact all the time. The impact that creative writing can have on an individual can be almost instantly transformative. One Year Writing in the Margins is a small initiative right now. It needs a large organization to take it on and develop it. Someday I hope it will become something like a creative writing equivalent to the Peace Corps. Finish your BA, MA, MFA, or PhD, and then—before entering your career—give a year to teaching creative
writing in an at-risk community near you. Or, if you’ve already been in your career awhile, it’s fine—teach once a month for a year, concurrent with your other roles in life. I have little doubt it will change the lives of anyone choosing to be involved—teachers and students alike.
JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?
MM: First, I love the fresh insights from students. I love the academy, but I love teaching and being outside of it. Our students—many of whom never graduated from high school, or are in high school, or younger still—are bright, articulate, and have good ideas. Whether they’ve ever been affirmed for such, we don’t know. We love dialoguing, hearing what they have to say, and reading their writing. I often find myself in a workshop setting saying things like, “I never thought of it that way, but, of course, that makes even more sense than what I said.” Being outside the academy means were almost always outside the theoretical and into the practical stuff of writing. I love theory, too, but being in these contexts grounds me in reality, in our community, and in the daily ritual of sharing words and literature together.
Second, I find the whole experience of what we’re doing to be humbling. It’s a whole new sort of education for me. A way for me to see through others’ eyes in ways I never did before. To educate me on blind spots I’ve had, or ones I need to work out. On the other side, I think the workshops are enlightening for our students—they have great things to say, they can read a poem by Sappho and find commonality, they can write a riff on the Inferno and thus become part of the tradition of writing, they can be funny and smart and intelligent. And, to top it off, they have someone—our teaching writers—notice these things and reflect it back to them.
Third, if I’ve learned one thing over and over it’s that all of us are in the boat together, as it were. We make sure to convey this to our students. We write, and in doing so we join the great river that is literary tradition. We try our very best to avoid damaging pedagogical models. We facilitate workshops from a seated position. We guide the workshop rather than teach from a top-down perspective. We affirm, convey empathy, and we listen. I don’t feel all that different than our students, as far as our shared human condition. I’m no better or worse. Sure, we’re not exactly alike, but we have so much in common. We meet and read and write together in true community.
JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?
MM: I hope more people start thinking about it. I work in these contexts all the time and forget some people just don’t think or know much about such things, such places (and there’s still so much that I need to learn). Our society has more often than not obscured the subject and reality of incarceration from widespread knowledge. I feel like there’s a great deal of momentum right now to change this. It’s very hopeful.
I also hope that as the general knowledge about incarceration increases, a rising pressure to reform can be leveraged enough to cause a real turn to humility within the personal lives and public work of the policymakers and leaders of our American system. We’re not doing things well. It’s not working. So, how about we look to other models that are working far better than our own? Perhaps we should look to other countries, particularly Scandinavian countries like Norway. Why, we might wonder, are they doing so much better, with such lower rates of recidivism?
With all the pandemic coverage that’s happening, with all the calls for adjustments to facilitate what should be simple human rights . . . I hope people will understand just how much reform needs to happen within the justice system, particularly as it pertains to incarceration. And I hope this will have the outcome of actual and real change taking place now and in the near future.
If you are interested in reading or sharing more of Matt’s reading, JAC encourages you to explore his work, The Stories We Save May Include Our Own.
Matt Malyon is the founding Executive Director of Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in northern Washington through literacy and personal transformation. He is the author of the poetry chapbook, During the Flood. His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has been featured in various journals— including the University of Iowa’s 100 Words, Rock & Sling, Measure, and The Stanza Project. He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.
The Justice Arts Coalition, with the support of two graduate students from the George Washington University, is conducting a comprehensive evaluation of its programming. As part of this process, we are asking for members of the JAC community to complete a brief survey about their experiences with JAC activities. If you have participated in our programs, made use of the resources on our website, been in contact with our team, or stayed connected via social media, we welcome your participation. Your feedback will be used to help inform and strengthen our programs moving forward.
While we hope many of you will choose to complete the survey, participation is completely optional, and there are no negative consequences for choosing not to participate. Those who do participate can also choose to leave individual questions blank, and any information provided will be completely anonymized, and reported through averages, rather than individually.
If you do choose to participate, we ask that you please complete this online survey by March 21st.
Thank you very much for your feedback and support of the Justice Arts Coalition!
My love for my mentor and big sis, Judith. I know death is rising over the mountains, slowly, and the pain must be enormous. Yet Judith finds and creates beauty and peace even in the midst of a hurricane. She transforms in the middle of death. Judith has been dealing with great physical and mental pain all of her life, and yet she is like a birthing star, always growing and sending out and being love. I don’t know what my world will be without her, hollow and empty.
But it’s not about me, and I am sure she left some of her heart and spirit inside each of us— a shining light in darkness. Judith’s curiosity and loyalty is unmatched even by goddesses or gods. If she believed in you, she inspired you to be yourself and change the world, if only the small world you knew. She lies there holding hands with death, and yet no bitterness enters her heart, and joy fills her spirit. She has made everyone better by her presence and walk in this life, and Judith’s love and magic live on in all of us who knew her and were and still are blessed by her.
Judith, you left no one behind because we all go with you and you with us! I love you, Big Sis.
Today I spoke to Judith for
the last time.
She is the bravest person I know
to keep being Judith
despite the tremendous pain
cutting at her body.
She said her time is close
to gone and reminded me
to write something
knowing already that I would.
She is my mentor and big sis,
and one of my best friends ever.
She inspired and saw in me things
I would have never seen in myself.
I grew wings because of her.
Our spirits and hearts and our love
were linked from the beginning.
Even in our silence—you like
Mr. Samuel Beckett—we treasured
I missed you long before
you were gone.
We will meet again long
across time and space
beyond dreams and boundaries.
December 3 and 4, no word from Judith and I keep trying to call. Anja received an email saying death is very close, so I picked up the frequency of my calls, and we connected briefly and expressed our love. Yesterday, I got a card from Judith, and she said it was a prayer she read or recited each time she went into San Quentin.
I knew she was gone three days before Anja tried to tell me over the phone. I asked her not to say those words, and I had to leave the phone because what I already knew in silence became too strong. I tried to get away and went outside and had nowhere to go—no place to hide my tears—and a stormy dark sky betrayed me and did not rain. It had been raining for two days. Judith Tannenbaum, my mentor and big sister—I did not get to hug and say so long—I’ll see you some other time and space over there where loved ones go. Another dimension beyond dreams, darkness and light. I missed you already even before you were gone. I’ll be free someday too, and we will fly together—someday, Big Sis. We wanted to do poetry on stage together. I love you.
I knew Judith
was physically gone
yet I called her number
and let the phone ring anyways
knowing no one would pick up.
It would take decades of rain
for my tears to be unseen.
There is not enough rain
to hold my pain,
not enough rain
to hide the pain
of my not being there.
You were always there
like an ancient redwood.
You told me you lay
on the floor
and found solace
from a radio show
in New Orleans,
radio that took you away
from the pain.
I should have been beside you
on the floor listening.
I should have been beside you
on long walks or hikes up Mt. Tam.
I should have been beside you
on stage, going back and forth
I should have been beside you
Click here to order a copy of Spoon and Judith’s memoir, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives.
About the guest contributor:
“I’ve found my niche in life despite being in prison for 42 years. I have found that prisons are created internally and are truly found everywhere. I have also discovered that the secrets to break down prison walls are inside each person and I treasure sharing this realness with people. I keep my light glowing through expressing my inner thoughts, vibes and feelings in my poetry and prose writing. Peace/Spoon”
For more on Spoon and his work, visit the following link.
If you would like to connect with Spoon, send a letter to:
Spoon Jackson B92377, CSP-Solano, C 13-19-1, L., PO Box 4000, Vacaville, CA 95696/4000, USA
Visit Spoon’s website to read more of his poetry. JAC is honored that Spoon has agreed to serve as a member of our Advisory Council.
Recently we talked withPeggy 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.
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 viewhere!)