This is the first piece of abstract art that I’ve ever made. I didn’t know what it would mean to me once it was finished and really didn’t have a plan of what I wanted when I was looking at this blank piece of paper in front of me. Then I started thinking about this pandemic we all are going through, how it spreads to all four corners of the world with no reprieve no matter who you are. It spreads and takes us further from each other cause we are force to isolate to fight it, but in that isolation we are not really alone. While the virus spreads sickness and death we can spread kindness, life, love, help one another when we can and have empathy for our fellow man.
We will make it through this and I believe we will be even closer to each other once we do. I only wish to spread hope for now and eternity. What is it that you wish to spread.
I am the artist R.Zumar and this is The Spread. This is The Becomings of a Master.
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.”
Rayfel asked that we include this note within this post:
“The Justice Arts Coalition!
What can I say about The Justice Arts Coalition?
I could say that they do good work. I could say that they are wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, but those would be understatements.
They don’t only do good work they do great work. They are not only wholeheartedly dedicated in what they do, they believe in what they do. They are not looking to exploit artist they deal with, they are looking to help the artist grow and I greatly respect and appreciate that.
Wendy, the founder of JAC, and those that work with her does a lot. This isn’t their jobs, this is work that they volunteer to do because they believe in the concept that people can grow to be better than they were. That when you give the voiceless a voice and let them speak their truth, you can bring forth the good that’s deep within them.
I trust that JAC will always do the right thing and I don’t have much in the world in way of wealth, but what I can contribute I will. So I ask of you out there in the world to contribute how ever you can. Even $1.00 can help in contributing to the cause.
I am the artist R.Zumar and I thank you all for just being here whoever you are. This is The Becomings of a Master.”
We recently talked with Sarah Dahnke and Sarah Pope, our newest additions to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Sarah Dahnke is the Artist Director and Sarah Pope is the Associate Director of Dances for Solidarity (DFS). Dances for Solidarity is a collaborative dance project where Dahnke and Pope, who both possess a professional and creative background in choreography and dance, co-create dances with people who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. Through the project, the artists at DFS collaborate and correspond through the mail and written word, initiating conversations by sending a 10-step dance sequence to the incarcerated. All recipients receive the same piece of choreography and are encouraged to perform it with the knowledge that at any time, there could be another person held in solitary confinement performing the same set of movements at the same time. Dahnke and Pope speak on the vital nature of connection to those inside during the ongoing pandemic, the necessity of direct release for those most vulnerable in carceral settings, as well as the expanding role that art networks like JAC can play in remaining connected to incarcerated individuals.
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?
SD: Because Dances for Solidarity already has an established practice of creating and collaborating through the mail, we are very equipped to deal with the distance this pandemic has warranted. However, even the mail is much slower, especially when it comes to receiving communication from inside. It took me about a month to hear from our most frequent collaborator, Dushaan, who is incarcerated in Texas. His letters usually only take about a week to arrive. Knowing how dire things are inside, this slow turnaround has me very nervous. If I don’t hear from someone, are they safe? By the time I receive their letter, they could have fallen ill. We also have our network of formerly incarcerated artists, who Sarah and I check in with regularly via text or phone call. We haven’t been able to create together in this time. Currently, DFS is collaborating with Black and Pink‘s New York chapter to connect people in the free world who want to establish new choreography-based collaborations with people who are inside. This is a slow process, but it is one way we are attempting to keep the core of the project going. And Sarah and I have been brainstorming ways we can act as a conduit for choreography already created behind bars pre-COVID19. The workshop we facilitated with JAC is an example of one way we are doing this work. We are also working on a packet of written materials and a series of videos that can be distributed through organizations that have direct relationships with prisons to distribute this type of content. DFS is always thinking about how to form connections with people inside then pull that outside of prison walls to have larger conversations about justice and punishment with public audiences. It will likely be a long time before we can have a live performance since it is more challenging for DFS performers to be a part of a process that requires collaborating via the Internet.
SP: A big challenge is access to the technology to stay connected. Access to the internet, the time, space and privacy to use it as much as you’d like, is not possible for those on the inside, not always possible for those recently released. Thus their voices are diminished even more.
JAC:What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?
SD: This current moment has definitely highlighted the human rights crisis happening behind bars. When there is a pandemic that requires distance between humans and access to proper medical care, it becomes very obvious who has access to this and who doesn’t. The reports I’m hearing from inside are horrific. One DFS collaborator said the prison he is in is short staffed with no medical supplies. Infected people are sent to a quarantine room and left to recover or die. But I want to be clear: the situation in prisons across the United States has always been a crisis. In this current moment, I support efforts behind releasing a large number of folks who are serving longer sentences than their convictions warrant, juveniles and the aging. But I also don’t want this conversation to end once this pandemic is over. We need to take bold steps to completely re-writing what the criminal punishment system looks like in the United States, and right now is a great time to begin those steps.
SP: Releasing people, particularly the aged, from jails has been one step; prisons could do better. Fewer admissions to jails and prisons. Increased access to medical care, reduced copays, increased access to phone and video calls. As per [Prison Policy Initiative’s recommendations]: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/virus/virusresponse.html
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?
SD: Center those who have been affected. Ask them what they need. Even though we are all currently isolated, we should never be having conversations in isolation.
SP: A supportive network is a diverse network, that is continually asking, who needs to be involved? Who do we need to hear from who we are not hearing from? Who is not being represented, that could be? And then the question of resources. Who is getting resources, and who is not. A supportive network would center the voices of those who need, and seek to supply, not just resources, but also power.
JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?
SD: The ability to affect audiences and potentially affect change. DFS is a project, not an education effort, meaning we don’t go into prisons and teach art. We instead form one-on-one collaborations with incarcerated people. The work from these collaborations goes into a process with formerly incarcerated performers. And then this work is performed for public audiences. The real education happening here is with audiences. Each time we have a performance, I will have a conversation with an audience member, and often one who works in close enough proximity to the system that you would assume they understand the conditions of prison. And each time, their minds are blown. They are blown away to see the artistry behind bars. They are blown away to see the honest and authentic performance before them. Knowing that we are helping the public be more empathetic and see each individual as a human is incredibly valuable.
SP: Seeing the public encountering art whose origin lies with incarcerated artists, and witnessing a shift in perception of, and thus a change in language used around, people who are incarcerated. A shift to understanding a person who may be incarcerated as a person, an artist with a unique voice, instead of a nameless, faceless “other” who is only defined by what got them into prison. Change like this is slow, small, and incremental, being person-to-person, but it builds awareness by allowing members of the public to feel personally connected and involved, and may lead to bigger changes in community engagement, activism, philanthropy, and voting practices, which is bigger!
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?
SD: I hope it has made a lot of people wake up. Again, this pandemic has only highlighted dangerous and inhumane conditions that have always existed because prisons are inhumane by design. When this pandemic is over, prisons will still be inhumane. People will still be over-sentenced and tortured and silenced. What I hope is that the public will keep paying attention to what is going on behind bars in the future.
SP:I’m trusting that individuals who are currently isolated in their homes, will look twice, think twice about individuals who are a part of the carceral system. I’m hoping that a systemic shift will come in the future of health care, and workers’ rights, in the United States, that will also touch the rights of incarcerated individuals, and that the systemic shift will include valuation of life and not just of money, that will build more equitable systems for health care especially for those who have the least access to it.
People can learn more about Dances for Solidarity at:
Sarah Dahnke is the director and founder of Dances for Solidarity. She is a Brooklyn-based choreographer, multimedia artist, and arts educator. She creates performance experiences that often feature non-performers, highlighting and celebrating the nuances of natural, untrained human movement. She works with public school students to facilitate the creation of their own choreography and video projects, makes giant group dances to teach to the general public, and films instructional videos to disseminate dance sequences widely.
Through Dances for Solidarity, Dahnke has been a guest lecturer/teacher at Tulane University, Princeton University, UCLA and New York University, a presenter at conferences such as Create Justice, Prison Outside, and NCA – Policing, Prisons & New Public Voices. She was an awardee of a residency/commission from A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans and is working to maintain an ongoing presence of DFS in the New Orleans area.
Sarah Pope is a Brooklyn-based dance artist, dance & fitness educator, and clown. She has worked with many dance companies in New York, most recently Mark Lamb Dance and Renee Gerardo Dances. Her clown character, SarahBesque, debuted new work at the NY Clown Theatre Festival at The Brick Theater, September 2016. As an educator she has taught in many NYC public schools with Together in Dance, as well as at Spoke the Hub Dancing and the Prospect Park YMCA.
I remember how I felt the first time I knew I was going to be an artist, I was in fourth grade, my teacher’s name was Mr. D. It was Halloween and the entire class was making paper plate masks as part of a contest. I had no cares for the contest, though. I was too absorbed in what I was creating.
The night before, I begged my oldest brother to draw something scary on a paper plate. He was a pretty good artist, so my intentions were to present whatever my brother drew. After minutes of pestering he finally drew the face of a werewolf, blood dripping down sharp teeth. I was amazed. I remember going to bed late because I couldn’t stop staring at my werewolf paper plate mask.
The next day in class all the students were pulling out their masks adding last minute decorations of scariness. I grabbed a new paper plate from Mr. D and pulled out the mask my brother made. I started copying the werewolf onto my new paper plate and was extremely happy with the result. So I drew it again and again, probably ten times that morning feeling joy every time I started over.
From then on art became my everyday life. Instead of going to play basketball with my brothers I would be sitting in my room drawing. A few years later, 1997 to be exact, a cousin of mine came over one afternoon to hang out. He had no idea I was into drawing. A few of my scrap papers had on them two tags that I would write over and over, Devs and Vex, and they were high up on a building in my neighborhood. My cousin saw my copies and told me who the guys were and explained this game called graffiti. I was instantly hooked and haven’t stopped writing since.
I have had some hard times in life and creating art has been the one positive act that has saved me. I was a gang involved youth, shot at, sliced with knives, was part of massive gang fights, racially profiled and harassed. At 13 years old my main focus besides art was to make it to see 18 years of age.
In 2013 I was the cause of a horrific accident involving a firearm that almost took the life of a loved one. I was arrested and spent the next two years in and out of court on bail, finally taking a plea. I served 2 ½ years. The hardest part of that experience was having to leave my son and hurting someone I truly cared about.
I spent my time at the South Bay Corrections Facility. The first month I was completely depressed. I spoke to no one, barely ate and I slept most of the day. For whatever reason I decided to hang outside the cell one morning for rec. I noticed a couple of guys standing over this man who was drawing, without thought I went and sat down at the table. The man was drawing, in blue pen, a lion with a crown. We spoke briefly and before the rec was over I asked for a few pieces of paper and a pen. From then on I drew. The inmates became my clients and I drew tons of portraits, angels, teddy bears, hearts, skulls and graffiti. I also wrote poetry. I joined an essay writing class and was reintroduced to a lost passion.
I realized the power of my art when I saw inmates smiling as they explained the images I drew to their friends. Some would quietly go right to their cell, sit on their bed and stare at my work for minutes at a time. I wondered what memory they thought of as they sat in silence. Even correction officers would comment, “ Pretty good work, [Sobek],” as they raided my cell.
The inmates encouraged me to do more with my art, for them and for myself. I wanted to create a business. Upon my release I decided to do whatever I must to accomplish my artistic goals. Since my release I have been part of a documentary called ‘The Free Walls’, working closely with Olivia Huang and the Cambridge Arts Council. I was commissioned by Jamaica Plains Development Neighborhood Corp to create a mural with the residents at 75 Amory St. I’ve been a part of numerous art shows and hosted my own. I have been asked to participate in a street art documentary as one of the main artists with knowledge of Boston graffiti.
Although I believe this to be a significant resume since my release, I have yet to be accepted as a serious artist in the art world. I have been denied by a few of the organizations that sponsor large scale murals in Massachusetts. My determination to create on a larger scale led me to create my ‘Back Against The Wall’ initiative with the goal of bringing legal street art to Dorchester/Mattapan, my birth place. The art scene in Boston is unbalanced with most of the colorful and experimental street art happening in the wealthier parts of the city. I’m the product and proof that something beautiful can flourish in the dirtiest of places.
“Take the art farther than where you found it,” I heard a man say in a documentary about Black music and arts. I say this phrase every day, for it leaves me with no choice but to see my goals through. I’m obligated to teach my son his family history and the history of all people of color. I’m obligated to speak on social justice, prejudices and inequalities because I’ve been subject to them. My power is my art and I will do what I must to take it farther than where I found it.
(Knoxville, TN, July 23, 2019) In her unforgettable memoir, HUMMINGBIRD IN UNDERWORLD, released this week by She Writes Press, Deborah Tobola intertwines the story of her rowdy family and occasionally tumultuous childhood with the story of her nine-year stint as a teacher of arts and creative writing at the California Men’s Colony, a prison in San Luis Obispo, California.
Tobola’s teaching changed lives, allowing prisoners to see that they were also poets, dramatists, and artists. The creative writing and performances her students pursued were a respite from the drudgery and violence of prison life, but even more, they brought hope. Over the years, Tobola battled officers who thought prisoners didn’t deserve programs; bureaucrats who wanted to cut arts funding; and inmates who stole, or worse. Yet Tobola loved engaging prisoners in the arts, helping them discover their voices: men like Opie, the gentleman robber; Razor, the roughneck who subscribed to the New Yorker; and Do Wop, a singer known for the desserts he created from prison fare.
Tobola enjoyed wonderful success as a teacher: her students in prison won writing awards, published their work locally and appeared on local and national radio. Each year, Arts in Corrections students produced original plays with music, under her direction. But in the end, her programs were eliminated in budget cuts.
HUMMINGBIRD IN UNDERWORLD is fascinating, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and memorable, and it powerfully depicts both the endurance of the human spirit as well as the importance of the arts in all of our lives.
DEBORAH TOBOLA is a poet, playwright and co-author of a children’s book. Her work has earned four Pushcart Prize nominations, three Academy of American Poets awards and a Children’s Choice Book Award. Tobola graduated with high honors from the University of Montana in 1988 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona in 1990. She has worked as a journalist, legislative aide and adjunct English faculty member in Alaska and California.
Tobola began teaching creative writing in California prisons in 1992, taking the job of Institution Artist Facilitator at the California Men’s Colony in 2000. Tobola retired from the Department of Corrections at the end of 2008 to begin Poetic Justice Project, the country’s first theatre company created for formerly incarcerated actors, where she serves as artistic director. Tobola returned to prison work five years ago and currently teaches creative writing and theatre at the California Men’s Colony. She lives in Santa Maria, California.
For more information, or to check out Deborah’s events, please visit her online at www.deborahtobola.com.
“With Hummingbird in Underworld, Deborah Tobola has found what Rumi calls, “the infinite moment when everything happens.” It is luminous and tender. The reader is given passage to poetry and humanity; to compassion and even to a bright proposal to change our prison system. Remarkable.”—Gregory Boyle, Founder, Homeboy Industries
“Tobola came to the California Men’s Colony with a dream to make the arts program a lighthouse in the dreary sameness of prison life. With open-mindedness and empathy, Tobola explores how systemic issues play out in individuals’ lives as they grasp for light in the darkness.”—Booklist
This national conference will provide professional development opportunities for artists who work in correctional institutions at all levels and best practices for arts administrators who would like to learn how to implement and manage these programs.
Participants in this conference will have opportunities to
Share best practices in program development and curriculum design
Learn about current research models, including evaluation and documentation
Develop opportunities to collaborate with justice reform advocates in different states and nationally
Participate in workshops showcasing exemplary programs for juveniles and adults, as well as restorative justice and re-entry models
Learn how to build public awareness and enhance programmatic sustainability
Continue to build the Justice Arts Coalition as a national support organization for artists who teach in correctional institutions and artists coming home
Participate in art classes in various disciplines taught by master artists
* Monday, June 24th is reserved as a pre-conference training day for arts providers and contractors teaching in the CA State Prison System
* Friday’s schedule features Future IDs Workshops at Alcatraz
Confirmed speakers include:
Jimmy Santiago Baca, Conference Artist-in-Residence, as well as Beth Bienvenu, National Endowment for the Arts; Anne Bown-Crawford, California Arts Council; Larry Brewster, University of San Francisco; Dameion Brown and Lesley Currier, Marin Shakespeare Company; Annie Buckley, California State University – San Bernardino; Laura Caulfield, University of Wolverhampton, UK; Mary Cohen, University of Iowa; Mandy Gardner, Southwest Correctional Arts Network (SCAN); Allia Griffin, Santa Clara University; Jane Golden, Philadelphia Mural Arts; Beverly Iseghohi, Urban League of Greater Atlanta; Ashley Lucas, University of Michigan; Dorsey Nunn, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children / All of Us or None; Meade Palidofsky, Story Catchers Theatre; Gregory Sale, Arizona State University; Kyes Stevens, Auburn University; Curt L. Tofteland, Shakespeare Behind Bars; Ella Turenne, Occidental College / Inside Out Prison Exchange Program
Contractors in the California Arts Council state prison arts program should contact their providers to register.
Artists and staff affiliated with local and state arts agencies throughout the United States should contact CLA conference staff for special discounts available through NEA funding.