Teaching Artist Spotlight: Peggy Rambach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pastels by Peggy’s students

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

 

Read our last Teaching Artist spotlight, featuring Hakim Bellamy.

 

 

 

Who is Mark Andreason?

by Mark Andreason*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

More about Mark:

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

 

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

 

A guest’s reflections on the Iron Cages exhibition

by Jennifer E. Tinker

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

Photo by Bruce Guthrie

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

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

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

 

About the guest contributor:

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

 

Exhibition tour information here.

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

Remember Me

by Rosie Worster, Director of Programmes at The Fair Justice Initiative

Adwoa, Abena, Agnes, Ama A, Mary, Lamisi, Ama Y, Esther, Akosua, Salamatu, Zelia and Talata
Portraits by Francis Kokoroko for The Fair Justice Initiative’s “Remember Me” project

Nsawam Medium Security Prison is the largest in Ghana, located not far outside the capital of Accra. It is a place associated with utmost shame, particularly for the eighty or so women held in the female section. Crime is thought dirty, ungodly, unfeminine. Many of the detainees hide the fact of their incarceration from their families, deliberately isolating themselves to avoid that rejection. Others maintain a desperate line of contact with relatives who as the years pass change their numbers, visit less frequently, or forget them altogether.

It’s difficult to link this to the series of brightly coloured portraits in ‘Remember Me’, one for each of the 12 women serving death penalty and life sentences at Nsawam Prison. That contrast is deliberate, as part of an attempt to change the conversation around incarceration in Ghana. Rather than seeing these women as irredeemable, lesser and other, the project tells a story of creativity, hope and connection. It seeks to grant these women the validation of being remembered as people with identities more complex than their incarcerated status. 

The portraits are the last stage in a collaborative and participatory art project conceived by photographer Francis Kokoroko and artist and stylist Rania Odaymat, and facilitated and supported by The Fair Justice Initiative, a local NGO. Throughout 2018, Rania and Francis visited the prison to conduct different workshops that would encourage the women to express their own aesthetics, views and aspirations. The first focused on collage making, the results of which were later used to provide direction and inspiration for the final portrait making session. A second image-making workshop using a Fujifilm Instax instant camera explored body language and expression, a way to circumvent the prison restrictions on photographing faces whilst the permit to lift that ban remained pending. Finally, permission for the final portrait session was granted. The portraits were produced within a stipulated two-hour time window with the assistance of a team of volunteers from Dark and Lovely, and from make-up artist Sandra Don-Arthur.

In each photograph, the women swap their blue and white prison garb for traditional dress, elaborate headpieces and carefully coordinated accessories. They are strong, beautiful, and smiling. These are women who want to be remembered not just for their crimes, but for being Adwoa, Abena, Agnes, Ama A, Mary, Lamisi, Ama Y, Esther, Akosua, Salamatu, Zelia and Talata.

After being shown as part of the ‘Make Be’ exhibition at La Maison in October 2018, the advocacy work of the project is expanding to new forms. Rania, Francis and The Fair Justice Initiative are working to develop a coffee table book to present to diplomats and politicians in Ghana with the power to influence policy change. The book contains both the photographs and testimonies from the women themselves on their challenges, hopes and dreams. It is hoped that a second edition and a calendar will also be produced to raise awareness through sale to the general public, and that the exhibition will be able to travel to new audiences.

 

Rania and Francis’ work is available to see on their Instagram pages, @accraphoto and @rania_odaymat. You can follow the development of the ‘Remember Me’ project through The Fair Justice Initiative’s social media (Instagram/Twitter/Facebook) at @fairjusticegh, and on their website www.fairjusticegh.com.

About the guest contributors:

Rania Odaymat is an artist, stylist, creative facilitator and curator. She is one of the founding members of the Beyond Collective, a Ghanaian non-governmental organisation whose aim is to promote creative awareness and education, as well as facilitate artistic exchanges and collaborations. She is also a trustee of the Fair Justice Initiative.

Francis Kokoroko is a creative and photojournalist with a keen interest in documenting the ever-evolving cultures and everyday life on the African continent. He uses his images to communicate a personal message, and believes that emotion is the most important element of any picture.

Rosie Worster is the Director of Programmes at The Fair Justice Initiative (FJI), a Ghanaian non-governmental organisation (NGO) working primarily with detainees at Nsawam Medium Security Prison. Their mission is to combat discrimination and prejudice against current and former inmates, ensure equal access to effective legal representation, and improve the conditions of confinement in Ghanaian prisons.

 

A note from PAC’s Manager: Though PAC typically focuses on programs and artists in and around the US justice system, when we learned about the Remember Me project, we were eager to help expand its reach. We hope you’re as inspired by it as we are.

 

 

Crossing the Border: An artist’s experience of a super-maximum security prison

by Treacy Ziegler

Chris Shira’s interpretation of a horizon in prison

As a landscape painter, I explore the interior and exterior configurations of space. In my own painted landscapes, boundaries between interior and exterior are porous and the line between landscape and dwelling is fluid; the sea does not stop at the door—it comes in.

If prisons are defined by how space is contained, then there are two kinds: interior-oriented prisons and seemingly exterior-oriented prisons. The first type of prison usually has maximum or super-maximum security and the second, referred to as a “campus style” prison, is for minimally secured prisoners.

When I took my son to a “campus style” prison, surprised, he exclaimed, “It’s just like my high school!” Yes, just like a high school wrapped in three rows of barbed wire fences marking the very limits of its exterior presentation.

But on this particular day, I enter an interior-oriented, maximum-security prison and walk through the first gate separating it from the world. Some prisons refer to this initial space as the pedestrian trap. This trap leads further into interior space where corridors link the different facets of the prison. Hallways telescope out and are connected, segment-by-segment, with a series of locked gates, like the locks on a canal. I enter the standing space between the two gates and wait for the first gate to close before the second gate can be opened. I then proceed down the corridor to the next set of gates. In some interior-oriented prisons, these gated sections have no bars. Instead this space is a small room with one door leading in and another leading out. I feel the confinement of not being able to see beyond this room.

Walking down the corridors of this interior-style prison, I am struck by a confusing sense of spatial infinity. There are windows in the hallway and I see the bands of sunlight streaming across the corridor floor. These bands of light recede into the distance becoming less distinct.  

I often tell my prison art students to observe these bands of light to experience one-point perspective as they walk down the hall. This is when all space and everything in that space is visually organized by a distant single mark that can never be seen. One-point perspective assumes that we are all oriented to that same single point. Of course, one-point perspective is not how we see the world unless we happen to be blind in one eye—like my son’s friend who shot out an eye while playing with a potato gun, crushing all the bones, weaving potato with eyeball. I see evidence of many injuries in prison from different sorts of guns, scars from gunshot wounds, stabbing, ripped earring holes. Boys can get rough; some end up in prison and some don’t.

My prison students and I have two eyes and do not usually see the world as one-point perspective. We see with two eyes that are always moving, never fixed on a single spatial point unless we are walking down this prison corridor or looking at a Canaletto painting of Venice.

The corridors of this prison are cinder-blocked. A yellow line is painted on the floor dividing traffic. When movement occurs—the prison term referring to when prisoners travel from one point to another in a controlled fashion—the men walk in single-file. Usually one guard is in the front of the line and another brings up the end. The incarcerated are not to cross the yellow line into the ongoing traffic of the non-incarcerated.

When I am the oncoming traffic, the prisoners on the other side of the yellow line are required to stop and allow me to go through the set of gates first. Sometimes, they do this on their own without being told. I smile as they go by not knowing whether I will get in trouble with the guards for doing this. Sometimes I recognize a student and we say something familiar: How are you? Have you been drawing? Many of the men show curiosity and smile, and most seem friendly.

There are prisoners helping others who cannot walk on their own, men wheeling men in wheelchairs. The prisoners help one another in this way. I have not seen a guard assist a prisoner who has a disability.

Sometimes the prisoners are filing out of chow hall or going to the yard. A few prisoners walk separately from the line. These prisoners have been given specific passes to walk independently. Some are going for their medication, maybe to their job. In this prison, there is a time-block schedule programming the day into five periods—much like the classroom times scheduled in a high school. There are two periods in the morning, two in the afternoon, and one evening block, structuring time as if it is a block of space. Most everyone is scheduled to be in some kind of program. In some states, a prisoner will not be freed until he gets his GED.

While I walk the corridors of this prison, there is little sense of the exterior world except what I see through the small windows. The prisoners have 3-foot by-3-foot recreation pens outside their cells—like those exterior cages connected to a dog kennel allowing the dog to go outside. From these pens, the prisoners have the potential to see the pretty landscape that surrounds the prison. But when I ask my students to draw this landscape, I get in trouble with the prison authorities. The guards consider looking at the landscape as tantamount to developing an escape plan. Drawing that landscape most certainly confirms the plan.

The smells are strong in these interior-oriented prisons; odors of bodies, sour sweat, and soap. These smells are consistent in all the prisons that are oriented to the interior. They are the smells of many people forced to live together with limited movement in small spaces.

On another day, in another interior-oriented prison, I follow the director of treatment down a series of corridors to what is called the “school.” I don’t know if this is a super-maximum or maximum security prison. It has been referred to as both by different people. It houses prisoners designated as most violent.

In this prison, the corridor walls are painted with horizontal pink lines on the cinderblock as if urging the walker to go further inside. I have heard of the supposed effect of this color, referred to as Baker-Miller pink, on prisoners. Some research concludes that pink has a calming effect while other research shows that after 15 minutes, prisoners scratch the paint from the walls with their fingernails.

The pink in this corridor makes me think of a birth canal. I am reminded of my son’s birth by cesarean section, when nothing worked except a scalpel. This memory stands in contrast to other women screaming through labor and delivery and gives me the feeling that sometimes the knife is kinder, more direct, and less painful.

Here in prison, I cannot speak of birth canals or of knives as both would be totally taboo. All prisons are vulnerable to the effects of knives, but particularly so in this prison where the superintendent has recently been stabbed in the face. That another guard has also been stabbed makes for a constant reminder of the prison’s violence.

In this prison there are two sets of prisoners, some dressed in grey uniforms and others dressed in green uniforms. When I ask why the prisoners are dressed in different colors, I am told that they live in different parts of the prison. The division has nothing to do with security rank. It is merely based upon geography.

This division results in fights between the two sets of prisoners. If wearing different colors provokes such violence, then I wonder why officials do not just give everyone the same color uniform. It seems to be such an obvious solution to the fighting. I cannot help thinking that it might serve the prison in some way to maintain violence between prisoners.

I am finally led to a classroom on the second floor. I arrive by elevator. I do not know how the prisoners get from one floor to the other. I assume they do not have the luxury of riding the elevator. One luxury of this prison is its air-conditioning. No other prison I have been inside has air conditioning. During some summers in other prisons, the heat gets so bad that the men become sick from it.  

The classroom I am in is small with little desks like ones in a high school class. There is a teacher’s desk and a whiteboard. When I come into this prison, I am required to eliminate many art materials that I usually bring into other prisons. Chalk is forbidden, as it is feared that it will be jammed into the locks to make them fail.

I sit waiting for the prisoners. Sometimes, the guards fail to tell the prisoners that I am here and do not issue the call pass. One time I sat for an hour without students.

In the first class that I teach at this prison I have about 10 students. After they arrive, the guard comes into the room and announces that he is going to lock the door. This surprises me. Although, I never have a guard with me when I teach and I am never issued a panic button, this is the first time I am locked in the room. It is a locked room at the end of a locked corridor. The guard station is located on the other side of these two locked doors. There is no window in the classroom.

I ask the guard what I should do when, as is always the case, a prisoner needs to use the bathroom. The guard answers my question by giving me a telephone number I can call.

After an hour of class, Anthony needs to use the bathroom and I call the number given to me by the guard. Instead of the guard’s voice, I get a pleasant but recorded voice of a female saying that she is very sorry but I got the wrong number.  

It is the first time I feel uncomfortable in prison. I do not know if my rising sense of panic is the result of being locked in the room with the prisoners or merely the claustrophobia of being in a locked room and totally unable to get out.

I look at Anthony who, at almost 300 pounds, is much too large to fit into the diminutive chairs we are given. I am about to tell him that we cannot get out of this room until I realize that Anthony and the rest of the men already know this. They knew from the beginning of class that there was no way to get out of this room until someone decided it was time for us to get out.

I think about a warning I read on page after page in my volunteer handbook. It is a warning advising me never to trust a prisoner. I look at Steve with whom I was just having a heated discussion on the merits—or lack thereof—of Bob Ross, the formulaic public television artist. Dismayed with me, Steve asked, “You mean, you don’t like Bob Ross?”

Looking into Steve’s face, I realize that by being locked in this room with these men who have been designated as violent, the prison is demanding quite the opposite from the warning in the handbook. In this locked room with these men, the prison is instructing me that not only do I need to trust these prisoners, I need to trust them with my life. And so I do.

The next time I return to this prison, another guard comes to the room. When I ask this guard if he is going to lock the door, he looks at me incredulously, “You mean you want me to lock you in this room alone?!” I realize that the first guard played a joke on me; the guards often challenge volunteers.

But the joke is not on me. Because unlike the guard who cannot cross over into this room alone without being hurt, I can sit with these men. And together in this room, we can create a fluid place where the sea comes in.

About the guest contributor: 

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