The Becomings of A Master: Abstract

By R. Zumar

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.

The 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.”

View the first four installments in the artist’s blog series here, here, here and here.

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.”

 

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Sarah Dahnke and Sarah Pope of Dances for Solidarity

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.

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Sarah Danke and Sarah Pope with a group of their New York dancers. From L to R: Milton Jones, Sarah Pope, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, Benji Hake, Sarah Dahnke

 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?

SDBecause 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.

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Photo still from performance of Dancing Through Darkness at HERE Arts Center in 2019. Pictured are Benji Hake, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, and Milton Jones. Photo credit: Maria Cobb

 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.

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Photo still from performance of Dancing Through Darkness at HERE Arts Center in 2019. Pictured are Benji Hake, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, and Milton Jones. Photo credit: Maria Cobb

People can learn more about Dances for Solidarity at:
Instagram: @solidaritydance

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.

 

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Lori Pitts

We recently talked with Lori Pitts, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Lori is the Founding Director and a Facilitator at Voices Unbarred, a platform for individuals who are currently or formerly incarcerated to have their voices heard. Voices Unbarred uses the ideology and techniques of Theatre of the Oppressed to guide their participants in identifying needs, discussing issues, exploring solutions, and telling their stories–culminating in creating and performing an original play around relevant issues that is performed for peers, legislators, and the wider community. Through this process, participants learn key reentry skills, feel humanized, and realize they can be change agents in society. Voices Unbarred believes that those most affected by the issues are the best situated to lead the reform process. Lori speaks on the current effects of pandemic on carceral settings, the role of community advocacy during this time period, and the ways in which she believes the criminal justice system might grow from the turmoil of this moment.

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Photo Credit: Kelly Wardle – Lori Pitts

 

 JACAs 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?

LP: The biggest challenge for us is the lack of access to our participants. We were about to start a new session in a prison that is now postponed. It can take a long time to get into a new facility and build trust, so we hope that we are able to start where we left off with the administration there. We were also about to start a new project creating a full script with our returned citizens. Much of our style of work using Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) techniques relies on human interactions and seeing what comes from those, so creating virtually doesn’t feel like an obvious fit. We are excited to explore the possibilities though! The creator of TO, Augusto Boal, thought we should “demechanize” ourselves–get rid of preconceived notions and structures that we follow habitually–so that we can truly examine our society and move beyond habitual thinking
and interacting. We are getting to use these methods we follow on ourselves now! How can we create together virtually? What does a finished product look like? How can we share our work with others in new ways?

Of course, another challenge comes in the form of worrying for our participants in the prisons. I can only imagine how scary it is to be in a prison where you can’t really physically distance from others and you don’t have access to health care or cleaning supplies. On top of that, you are no longer allowed visits from your family or friends and all outside activities are suspended. You are completely isolated and yet not safe from Covid-19. We want to do more to help with their physical and mental health, but aren’t sure what we can do besides advocate to our representatives and raise awareness. It’s a real challenge not to know how to be helpful.

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

LP: We definitely support REFORM Alliance’s SAFER Plan.

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REFORM Alliance’s SAFER Plan

Lowering the number of people in the prison system is vital to stopping the spread. There are so many people we have worked with who are nonviolent offenders and who would be getting out in the next few months anyway. If those people are released early, as well as those who are at high risk for Covid-19, we could significantly decrease the crowding in prisons.

It’s also important to not re-incarcerate people for technical parole violations at this time, such as failure to pay a fine. Let’s look into alternatives to incarceration!

Finally, people who are incarcerated should have free access to health care visits, sanitizing products, and masks. They are under the care of our governments and shouldn’t be denied access to these basic things during this pandemic (or ever).

I’m hoping many of these changes stick around after we’ve gotten to the other side of this, but let’s just start here.

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?

LP: Many people are focused inward right now. Life has been vastly disrupted in some way for most people, and it’s a scary time. Adjusting to a new way of life is a hardship and is completely valid. However, when we’re scared, we don’t want to have to think about others’ horror stories. Things are hard enough. We now also are confined to our own neighborhoods, houses, and virtual contacts, which puts us in a bubble where we don’t have to hear concerns that vary wildly from our own. Both of these factors can make it hard to get people to think about those who are currently incarcerated and connect with them. Prisons and jails have also had to make drastic changes to their operations to try and protect people’s physical safety, so making sure people inside have access to creative arts or outside connections has become a lower priority. Overall, making connections is tough right now. 

Voices Unbarred is not currently in a position where we can have contact with our participants in the prison, unfortunately, so we are mainly focusing on keeping connections with our returned citizens. We are pushing content on our social media that aims to raise awareness about people in prison during the Covid-19 pandemic. We, also, have been highlighting other organizations’ efforts to keep people connected, like The JAC and the pARTner project’s initiative to write letters to artists on the inside! We are also so excited to see JAC’s virtual workshop series starting to take place for those in the prison. It is so important to keep these connections in place, and we’re glad the arts world is stepping up to do it.

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Photo Credit: Manaf Azzam – Two returned citizens act out a scene from Dear America: Disconnect Between Perception & Truth

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?

 LPFirst, I have to say that we love the support that the JAC is already giving us! We’ve been so excited to partner with them on past events and appreciate the connections that have been made. Being able to connect with others in the field, prisons, and community members are very important factors of a supportive network, so I hope those aspects continue to strengthen. I also think an outstanding support network should provide places to get feedback or advice on curriculum and best practices for this field of work. Finally, it would be great to have access to funding resources and partnership opportunities. The network could provide these, as well as compile a list of others that offer these resources and opportunities. 

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

LP: “You all were the greatest part of LCP for me. You made me feel human again. Thank you so much for that. … I tell everyone about your group and what you did for me and for those you reach. … I would like to stay in touch. You all are great and truly helped me in many ways. … Thank you soooo much for what you all do.” — M 

When I hear the impact our sessions have had on our participants, like in the comment above, it is incredibly rewarding. Voices Unbarred started as a small idea in my head to use theatre as a tool for those most impacted by incarceration, so to see it working and hear that it’s meaningful is beyond amazing. We are incredibly grateful for the many relationships we’ve formed with our participants. They continue to reach out to us upon release, and even work with us when in the same city! Seeing our talented, brave, and committed participants grow and thrive is what this work is all about.

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Photo Credit: Manaf Azzam – Voices Unbarred returned citizens perform a poetry piece from Dear America, entitled I Am A Repair Man.

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?

LP: There have always been issues with the justice system. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted some of these issues for people who may not have been aware before. I hope this helps people see how inhumane prison can be and how it affects us all. The coverage of the conditions inside some facilities, as well as the changes being made to try and stop a prison pandemic will hopefully bring these issues to the front of peoples’ minds. We keep prison so far on the edge of our society that it’s easy to forget about or be unaware of what’s happening. This global crisis will allow us to examine our systems and the things that don’t work, and give us time to start making changes. I hope that some of the temporary changes made to the system right now show people that it’s possible to approach incarceration in a different way, and maybe some of them will stick around! 

Also, while being at home is not the same as being in prison, it does give you some insight to how isolating prison is and what that can do to your psyche. Many people were complaining about going stir crazy inside their homes after just one week, and that’s with access to streaming TV, freedom to cook what they want, and being able to go outside for a break. Some people are experiencing true depression or financial hardship during this time. No matter your experience, from mildly irritating to truly bad, I hope this period of social isolation and fear helps people empathize with those in prison and see how damaging long-term isolation can be. Maybe this will help people realize that a prison sentence doesn’t have to be so cruel.

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Photo Credit: Manaf Azzam – A Voices Unbarred audience engages in a demechanization activity before the performance begins.
People can learn more about Voices Unbarred at:
Facebook: @VoicesUnbarred
Instagram: @voices_unbarred

 

Lori Pitts is an Applied Theatre practitioner, Joker, teaching artist, performer, and director in the DMV area. She is passionate about creating platforms for voices that often go unheard. In addition to her work with Voices Unbarred, she is a core member of the DC Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice. Pitts teaches and performs regularly with Young Playwrights’ Theater and has recently been seen on stage with Second City at Woolly Mammoth, Rorschach Theatre, Ally Theatre, and The Welders. She is a member of the inaugural cohort of the Culture Caucus with The Kennedy Center, a graduate of the 202Creates Fellowship, and is a two-time recipient of the Arts and Humanities Fellowship Program grant through the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work within the community.

 

 

 

 

A Message from Translation is Dialogue

Our JAC community is continually expanding, reaching out to artists, activists, and volunteers from all corners of the globe. In the spirit of creation during this period of isolation, as the entire world reacts to this unprecedented moment in time, we feel lucky to share the following message from our friends, Arlene Tucker and Carole Alden, from Translation is Dialogue.  Translation is Dialogue is an ongoing project started in 2010, which is based on how the translation process is creating communication and dialogue within itself.  This allows transcendence of oneself to another.  Regardless of the situation happening organically or consciously it is bound to the subjective state of the translator, yet it is through such discourse where truth or realization is found.  Momentum is magic!

The original article, originally published in French, can be found at the following links:

A conversation between Carole Alden and Arlene Tucker was published in Le Journal de Culture & Démocratie in April 2020. Hélène Hiessler translated the article into French from English. Read the publication in French here. Below is the English version.

To learn more about Culture & Démocratie, please click here.

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Carole Alden, Triptych 1, 2018
Free Translation is a multi-disciplinary exhibition showcasing international works generated from an open call to incarcerated people, ex-convicts, and anyone affected by imprisonment. Through this platform, artist and Free Translation co-developer Arlene Tucker met artist, Carole Alden. Through art practice, mail exchange and dialogue ideas, preconceptions, expectations, false realities, and forms of expressions are explored. From the exhibition, Free Translation Sessions were born. In these gatherings we make art, interpretations, and view and discuss artworks received. The sharing of personal stories, experimenting with art techniques, and listening to subjective views can help guide one’s artistic process and shed light on different walks of life.

__Arlene Tucker (AT): The work you contributed to the Free Translation exhibition has been an inspiration for more artworks and the dialogue that has been raised through your pieces has been very powerful.  Did you ever think that your work would be a source of translation?

Carole Alden (CA): When you create in isolation, you have no concept of your work impacting others. For me it began as a vehicle to turn overwhelming mental and emotional anguish into something survivable. My hope being an evolution from feeling helpless, to a productive plan for my life.  In or out of prison, I wanted my life experiences to count for something.

I had no idea that a project like Free Translation existed. Where I live, incarcerated persons are essentially shunned. You feel completely disenfranchised from society. There is no real dialogue between incarcerated and free people.

Prior to my involvement with Free Translation, l had never seen any effort from free people to understand the experience of being in prison or what might happen in a person’s life to precipitate time spent in prison. You were ostracized and ignored. Made to feel as though you were bankrupt of all that made you human.

AT: It was through Wendy Jason at Prison Arts Coalition (now The Justice Arts Coalition) that led us to you and your work. In the end, you made the effort to stay in touch, to share with me.  Dialogue is not solitary.

CA: Believe me, I am grateful to be found!

My mother had found The Justice Arts Coalition and urged me to contact them. I was extremely hesitant after being defrauded by multiple entities claiming to assist incarcerated artists. It was a year of corresponding with Wendy before I decided to take the plunge and trust someone with my artwork again. I was thrilled to find an organization that was true to their word and not in the business of exploiting prison artists. Because of the groundwork of trust she laid, I felt very comfortable in sharing my images with Free Translation when she suggested it.

AT: What was this drawing of the Woman Impaled about for you?

CA: The first version I had drawn while still in the original jail, awaiting adjudication of my charges. That was towards the end of 2006.

I had no access to competent legal representation and no one to advocate on my behalf. I literally felt the system was  a continuation of the abuse and death my spouse had planned for me. I felt emotionally and physically stripped of anything that allows a person to feel human. My hopes and dreams were disappearing beyond the horizon. I felt my life draining away and nothing but immobilization and overwhelming anguish and pain. I wanted to die. I felt that if my spirit were no longer tied to a physical body, then it could leave this place to go be with my children.

AT: How long were you incarcerated for?

CA: I did 13 years out of a 1-15 indeterminate sentence.

AT: How did people interact with each other?  Was there anybody that you felt you could confide in?

CA: The women’s prison in Utah had a very different social dynamic than the men’s when it came to certain things. Long term inmates tended to recreate designations that approximated family relationships. Roles were adopted as mothers, fathers, and children. It was not unusual to hear young women speak of having a biological mother, a street mother, and a prison mom. A larger context had to do with commerce, which encompassed drugs, commissary items, and services.

In all the time I was down, I kept myself separate from most of what constituted prison culture. I watched, paid attention, and discerned that being enmeshed in the social standards and practices were the primary source of conflict both with each other and the officers.

I was determined to remain focused on what I could create in order to be better equipped for the future on the outside. There was really only one other inmate I got close enough to share my hopes and dreams with. She is also an artist and still inside. We were only housed in the same general vicinity for a couple years yet we remain close and invested in each other’s success.

AT: What about solidarity or some sort of togetherness within the prisons? Did you feel like you could come together with others or was it very solitary?  How were people separated?

CA: We saw considerable solidarity on the men’s side. They would organize strikes and protest to get policies changed. This did not happen on the women’s. Too many feared retaliation, or would inadvertently undermine their peers by trying to use relationships with certain guards to change just their own circumstances. Some of it had to do with the feeling that we had more to lose than the men. Tenuous contact with our families was a big deterrent to standing up for yourself.

AT: What do you think about the translations, the artworks responding to your original artwork, Woman Impaled? Can you perceive how your painting was translated or interpreted based on their piece of art?

CA: Honestly, I was shocked at how perceptive the participants were. They expressed a depth of understanding and empathy I was totally unprepared for. It had the effect of removing my sense of isolation. For the first time in 13 years I felt a restored hope that there was still a place in the world for me. Prior to this, my anxiety surrounding the eventuality of release was debilitating.

AT: When you don’t know, you’re in limbo and that can be a hard place to be. Would you like to share on what grounds you were convicted?

CA: That limbo of not knowing for sure is probably the most psychologically damaging part of indeterminate sentencing. It robs a person of the ability to create a realistic plan for their future. Everything feels imaginary and moot until you finally have your release date, no matter how close or far off it might be.

I had an indeterminate sentence of I to 15 years for second degree manslaughter. My matrix was 5 years. In other words, the suggested time to be served in consideration of mitigating circumstances.

I waited 4 years to hear when my date to see the board would be. At a little over 5 years I saw the board. The board chose to ignore the reports of domestic violence and evidence of self defense. I had shot the man as I was cornered in a small laundry room. At that moment. I had no other option that preserved my own life or my children’s.

AT: How did you manage to keep making art while incarcerated?

CA: Deprivation is the mother of creativity.  I continuously scanned my environment for materials to repurpose in order to expand the possibilities of what I could create. Not getting caught was often a large part of the creative equation. Balancing that drive to create with the institutional directive to remain idle was an ongoing conflict. I did my best to fly under the radar and not attract attention. It was an ongoing occurrence for the SWAT team to come through and throw away any artwork, even if you had written permission to construct it.

I began with drawing as it seemed to be tolerated more than other forms of expression.  During the winter I would utilize the snow as a sculpting medium. At my four year mark, the urge to sculpt overwhelmed my aversion to crochet. I taught myself one basic stitch and began to experiment with yarn as a sculpting medium. As I became more proficient, my efforts evolved from largely meditative to a challenge to keep my thought process sharp.

At 8 years down I was transferred to a county facility. With only 70 inmates at a time, the officers took a greater interest in what people did to be productive. They turned out to be far more supportive than any facility I had been in.  The last five years have brought multiple opportunities to communicate and exhibit my work.

At the beginning of my incarceration I was told by the caseworker that I would never be transferred to a county facility due to my charges and my medical condition. When I was transferred, the receiving caseworker remarked that it was strange as I did not fit the criteria to be housed in a county jail. Aside from medical issues, I still had seven years remaining. County jails are not designed to keep someone for more than a year. Beyond a year, a person’s mental and physical health experiences marked decline. Whatever Utah prisons are lacking, their jails have a fraction of that. You have no access to a yard, usually no contact visits, no education beyond high school, no exercise equipment, or much in the way of jobs, religious options or a library. You basically eat and sleep. Not a place for long term inmates.

AT: How was it that you were able to be transferred?  Do you feel that because it was a smaller facility, the environment was less volatile?  Or does it have anything to do with how those officers were being trained and supervised?

CA: Originally I was transferred as a means to disrupt my access to an attorney who had expressed interest in reopening my case. Essentially they moved me in a manner that took away my ability to be in touch with my attorney and separated me from my legal files. Someone did not want my case to be scrutinized and took action to make it impossible for me to continue my appeal at that time. I was separated from all my legal paperwork, contact information, pictures of my children and all my artwork, supplies and personal belongings. Normally they tell you you’re being, “counted out” and you would be permitted time to pack whatever you’re allowed to take, and make arrangements for your family to collect the rest.

They sent me to the opposite end of the state and allowed my things to be pilfered by inmates and officers alike.

I lost a portfolio of work worth about $75,000.00 that I had hoped to start over with upon release. After reiterating my desire to self harm, they transferred me again to the county jail where I remained for the last 5 1/2 years.

I do believe the quality of life in that facility was due largely to the staff and how they chose to treat people. They seemed to be allowed more agency in their personal interpretation of their role as guards. Consequently we had individuals who treated us like human beings and encouraged positive endeavors. This is very rare in Utah Corrections.

I am very grateful for the opportunity and encouragement I received in creating my work.

AT: How are you feeling since your release?  What kind of challenges have you been faced with? In the time you have been free, what have you already adjusted to?

CA: Being released, unexpectedly, several years early was a mixed blessing. My over the top elation was tempered by my abject terror over all the things I had no time to prepare for.

Would I flinch if a grandchild rushed in for a hug? Would I freeze and bolt if I felt overwhelmed at a Walmart? How on earth would I support myself at the age of 59 with absolutely nothing?

The thought of trying to understand fractions of words in texting had me in tears. Thankfully, becoming connected with people in this community has gone a long way in helping me forgive myself for the learning curve I’m tackling.

I have had a lot of support in rediscovering that I can still learn whatever I need to and become whoever I choose to be.

AT: We cannot do this alone.  Amazing that you could emotionally prepare yourself for your release and apply all of that insight into your current situation.  When I read your letter about your release that you sent in May, you had talked about this and I was so impressed with your level of emotional awareness.  Who were your go to people, your support system? How can we most efficiently and effectively process our emotions? We all are different, but I think sharing tips is one way to show support.  At least it is for me!

CA: Any release is daunting, but after over a decade, there’s really no way to adequately prepare yourself. Too many intangibles that bombard you at any given time with no warning.
I had a couple close friends who had done time over twenty years ago. They were the ones to peel me off the ceiling and encourage me to believe I could do this.

I think patience and encouragement are the biggest things. People want to help and tend to be quick to offer up solutions. At that fresh out stage, even having a bunch of problem solving solutions dropped in your lap can leave you feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed with indecision.

Be loving and open. Give us the space we need to figure out what we need help with.

AT: Now that you are free, what does confinement or imprisonment mean to you? How does that definition differ from prior to your incarceration?

CA: Honestly, for most of my life prior to incarceration, I gave it absolutely no thought at all. It had not touched my life through family or friends. It was as disconnected to my reality as if someone said there was a planet of unicorns I could visit one day.

About 7 years prior to my incarceration I had a friend go to prison for 11 months on a possession charge. That acquainted me with the gut gnawing fear that family members suffer nonstop during their loved one’s imprisonment. Knowing that they are rarely safe, and without adequate medical care, food or housing. Feeling their spirit and engagement in life wither as days, months, and years pass. In some ways, your family suffers even more. Yet support for your families is scant as well. Social judgment and humiliation is the norm.

Being denied the basic dignity of liberty, even if you happen to be somewhere decent, will never be acceptable in my heart. I will never look at a zoo the same way or keeping pets. It hurts to see any living thing denied the choice to live the way they were meant to.

Carole Alden was born 1960 in Orleans, France to American parents. Grew up primarily in northern ldaho and Colorado. Dad was a forestry professor and mother a librarian.
Nature and self education were the things I was exposed to the most as a child. They continue to guide the majority of my work. I married young and had five children from two marriages that spanned twenty years. I have no formal education nor art training beyond high school. Drawing was something I took up in prison. Prior to that I was a fiber artist with pieces in multiple museum collections. I taught myself to crochet while incarcerated and continue to create a variety of sculptures and wall hangings for venues ranging from political to natural.Arlene Tucker is an artist and educator. Inspired by translation studies, animals and nature, she finds ways to connect and make meaning in our shared environments. Her process-based artistic work creates spaces and situations for exchange, dialogue, and transformations to occur and surprise all players. She is interested in creating projects that open up ideas and that engage the viewer; that invite the viewer to be a part of the narrative or art creation process. In translation, your participation continues to propel the story. Her chapter, Translation is Dialogue: Language in Transit was published in Translating across Sensory and Linguistic Borders: Intersemiotic Journeys between Media (Editors: Campbell, Madeleine, Vidal, Ricarda, 2019). Tucker developed Free Translation with Anastasia Artemeva. Tucker has been collaborating with Prison Outside since 2017 and is author of Translation is Dialogue (2010). www.translationisdialogue.org ​​​

 

 

Paños created in US prisons spark the passion of exhibitor in France

PAC asked Reno Angelo Leplat-Torti, an artist and curator of exhibitions of Chicano prison art in France, to tell us a bit about himself, how his interest in prison art developed, and what kind of impact his exhibitions are having.

Paños Exhibit in France, curated by Reno Leplat-Torti
Paños Exhibit in France, curated by Reno Leplat-Torti

My name is Reno Angelo Leplat-Torti. I was born in France, but my family emigrated from Italy in the 40’s. I studied art, and then I became an assistant in two different art schools’ silkscreen workshops. I created my own publishing house 10 years ago, and I’m also organizing a big alternative comic festival in France. I’m trying to keep my own “artistic practice” in the midst of all that.

I’ve been interested in “folk art” and in what French speakers call Art Brut (“outsider art”) since my early artistic beginning. As a teenager I was a bookshop rat, and I started to read underground comics like Le Dernier Cri publications. There, I discovered the raw drawings of Stu Mead, Mattt Konture, Moolinex, GaryPanter, Henry Darger and Raymond Reynaud…I began to draw my own comics, found my passion, and began to pursue my own path as an artist by entering art school.

I have always been interested in autodidact art, and discovered prison art while I was looking for prison-made objects like tattoo machines, knives, etc. My first find was a Mickey Mouse hankie, or paño, which I framed. Over time my collection of paños began to grow, and one day a friend with an art space asked if I’d like to exhibit them.

When I’m setting up my exhibition, I really see the wall as an expression of emotions. I feel paños art is something more intimate than a classic prison drawing, more personal. They are windows into a pinto’s heart, and viewing them can feel intimate, almost indecent, like reading a letter belonging to someone else, but the letter is so well written you can’t stop until the end – like the shame you can feel in reading the correspondence between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren.

Artist: Joe Calderon

Paños art is so interesting to me because of the different dimensions it represents. First, this form has connections to Chicano art, tattoo art, and religious art. But also this art form is a prime example of  “making the most of what you have” – the artists are cutting up their pillows and bedsheets, and drawing with whatever they can find inside. It’s not always a technical challenge – the pintos (Chicano slang for “convict”) are not always excellent drawers – but they have time and they put their heart, their soul and their guts in it. And finally the content, the prison hankies are often the only way pintos have to make a gift and express their feelings.

To develop contact with the artists whose work I collect and exhibit takes a very long time, because we need to trust each other, and this is certainly more complicated for them than for me. Because I’m living in Europe it sometimes takes three weeks to receive a letter, so to exchange is not easy. Most of the time I’m in contact with family who send my mail. One guy sold me his hankies during his first week of freedom, first to ward off bad luck, but also because he was needing the money. Now he’s able to follow his own exhibition on Facebook, and he’s helping me a lot. With the families and the inmates I’m now developing very specials links. I’m trying to help them as much as I can, and I think creating these exhibitions is like helping them to travel – they’re locked up, but a piece of their hearts takes a plane and visits Europe. I try to send them photos as often as I can.

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Artist unknown

People who visit the exhibitions react very strongly, and most of the time in a positive way. When people in Europe discover my collection they usually haven’t seen paños before, but they have a lot of references. The American prison system is maybe better known here than the French one, especially through the cinema. We don’t have gangs but people are really curious about them. I have found that when people see the paños, they recognize some of the codes and symbols they see in American movies, hip hop music, and tattoo art.

It’s great to be able to share these life testimonies with the public. I once did a workshop in a jail in France. I brought a few paños to the prisoners. My idea was to expose them to that practice and then have them draw their own handkerchiefs using their own codes. I didn’t want them to use the Chicano aesthetic. That was my first time in jail, and at the beginning I really didn’t know if they would like my ideas. But when I showed them the hankies they were totally amazed by them, and by the thought that Latino gang members, who they perceived as “tough guys,” can take a pen and draw to express their feelings.

They identified strongly with the American prisoners. They started to draw for the first time and were really proud of what they created. The French hankies are exhibited with my collection until the 7th of May in the MRAC, a museum in southern France.

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I’m currently making plans for a documentary about pinto art. My experience in a French jail totally change the preconceptions I had about the inmates, the guards and the “inside life,” so I’m hoping the film will help people to meditate on the prison system. I don’t know what the outcomes will be, but if a viewer is seduced by something produced by a prisoner serving a life sentence it is a positive step, right?

For more information, please visit http://www.nationculblanc.com.

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Artist: David Campos