Kindness, boundaries, and the border patrol

by Treacy Ziegler

(This is the final installment on my discussion of kindness in prison. To read the first three installments, see the first installment, the second installment, and the third installment.)

Untitled
by Nathan Riggs
Untitled
by Raymond Palmore

What happens when volunteers and non-prisoners mingle with prisoners? How does kindness get interpreted between those living exclusively in a closed system with those living in the more open system of society?  

As mentioned earlier, the basic prison rule for volunteers is not to trust prisoners. However, volunteers do not usually come to prison because they hate prisoners; quite the opposite.  More often, individuals volunteer in prison through humanitarian concerns of which trust is a basic element. In fact, mistrust is often counterintuitive to many volunteers and it is easy to see how the volunteers can be a major problem to the prison, needing constant admonishment for their potential trust of prisoners.

While teaching an art prison class in a high security prison, I developed a migraine.  Unable to get medication from the infirmary, I had the dilemma of whether to tell my prisoner students about the headache. Not telling them and pretending I feel ok, makes it more difficult to teach. However, in telling them, I make myself vulnerable; putting myself somewhat at their mercy. I chose to tell them, adding, “Think of me as the queen where you have to bring your drawings immediately in front of my face so I don’t have to turn left or right. It hurts so much to move my head.”  The prisoners think my request is funny, but they comply displaying their drawings immediately in front of my eyes. It is kind of funny, when suddenly I see out of the corner of my eye, two pills set on the table next to me. I can’t see who put them there, but I sense they are ibuprofen or such painkillers, and feel a rush of relief. I almost move my arm towards them but immediately catch myself, thinking, “What is taking medicine from a prisoner – a felony?”  The experience makes me question the strange institutionalized structure of prison where kindness becomes a felony.

What are other forms of kindness crossing the border between volunteers and prisoners that may violate the volunteer handbook?  Is sharing laughter an expression of kindness? It is reported by research for Stanford Business school, humor creates a bridge between individuals because laughter “sparks the release of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates social bonding, increases trust, and quickens self-disclosure.” I remember a prisoner in the super-maximum security prison stating, “If it wasn’t for the volunteer, prison would be totally intolerable.” He made this statement in response to on-going laughter in the class.

Lisa Daigle, a volunteer in a New England prison, spoke of laughter as a constant element in her class. When I recently asked Lisa about this, she wrote; Laughter and humor are a shared language that create a bond between inmate and volunteer. This language creates a space where deep feelings can emerge, as laughter opens up our vulnerable side. Laughter and humor also add brevity when the topics get heavy. Some inmates are distrustful of each other, and laughter helps ease the distrust and elicits common humanity. The anticipation of fun also draws inmates to return to classes as they can count on having fun in an otherwise challenging existence; at times, it seems that they forget where they are. And, when volunteers laugh, it feels like we are more like them, which is simply to say that we are all people, and that we are more alike than we are different. Sometimes, though, when the laughter dies down, the room becomes somber, because the inmates do remember where they are. And, they know that the volunteers are feeling that in the space that emerges after the laughter.  

Prison guards were particularly skeptical of laughter in my classroom, suspecting it would develop the trust prohibited in my volunteer handbook. They were correct; it did allow trust.

Obviously, relationships between guard and prisoner are much more tested through daily living than those between volunteer and prisoner. Even so, I saw some guards acting compassionately with prisoners. I did not see much compassion directed at the guards from the prisoners. A reason for this may be summed by a poem written by Les Ames, serving life. In his poem entitled “The correction officer of light” Les writes:

   You give selflessly of yourself.

       You direct without ordering.

   And if a prisoner gives you lip,

        You sass him right back –

   Neither demeaning him or yourself.

    Les continues describing the guard’s compassion and ends the poem:

   Yet, if I display too much praise

      And affection for you and others,

   I will be locked in the hole

       for singing a blatant love song

   or, for being gay in more than spirit.

Guards do not seem to trust kind actions of prisoners directed towards them.

I did see more compassion of guards for prisoners in one mid-west prison. I don’t know how race influenced this relationship. The warden and the program director were both Black men. When I asked the program director about the prison’s more gentle approach of the guards towards the prisoners; he replied. “It took the warden and me years to train the COs to be more empathetic to the inmates.” And then he added, “It’s a slippery slope to prison that anyone of us could fall into.”

The only other prison where I saw compassion from guards to prisoners was on a mental health ward of a maximum-security men’s prison. There were full-time social workers, psychologists, and therapists on this particular unit. I wonder if the presence of these professionals trained in empathy offered other ways of treating prisoners. 

The prisoner Merle was locked in solitary on the mental health unit for three months for the offense of urinating in the janitor’s closet. To my observation, it seemed peeing into the janitor’s sink was evident of Merle’s self-restraint compared to previous behavior; Merle had difficulty maintaining boundaries. This difficulty may have been a result of Merle being physically, mentally and sexually abused for years by his grandparents until he killed them when he was 18 years old. Apparently the administration of the prison (not the mental health staff) did not share my assessment of Merle’s behavior. Instead, they saw the need for punishment. However, one day, I smelled a cigarette burning on the ward. Responding to my surprise, the guard said, “I didn’t have the heart to tell Merle to put it out. He’s suffering.” This small act of mercy, seemingly simple, was in fact a major defiance that could have cost the guard his job.

Many of the answers describing examples of kindness across the border were kindness of guards. Tommy writes:  One day I went to the yard. I am a very light skinned white man and on this day I stayed in the sun for almost two hours. I was burned. The next day I returned from lunch and an officer called me to the desk and there was a Sergeant with her. She asked, ‘How did you get red?’, then, ’Does it hurt?’ She admonished, ‘Stay out of the sun.’ It touched my heart, this simple act of kindness. This was a Black female officer inquiring about the welfare of a white inmate with her supervisor standing there.”

In some instances these acts of kindness are experienced with a mixture of appreciation, confusion, and disgust. James writes about a guard being kind to him.  “’Need more time? Asked the sergeant, as I was finishing up my meal. Everyone else in the row I was in, had already left and the chow hall was filling up fast. ‘If you do, you can move over there.’ As I picked up my tray and headed out I had a ridiculous urge to cry. That a guard, and a sergeant at that, treated me as if he thought I was a human being with kindness and consideration.  And respect, even. It’s a sad thing to have to report that simple common decency exhibited by one man to another should evoke such an acute response. For a brief moment, I was allowed the luxury of being, for all intents and purposes, something other than a number. Immediately though, I felt conflicted. That I apparently ached for such an affirmation caused me to feel disgusted with myself for being so weak – so needy, while at the same time, savoring the experience.” 

David writes about a guard being kind to his mother: “My mom was refused to visit (after driving two-hours) simply because she was wearing sandals without socks. On the way back to her car, an officer heard what was going on, went out and found my mom crying. She took her own socks off and gave them to my mom so she could visit me.”

Sometimes the guards initiate an experience of kindness by asking a prisoner to help out another prisoner.  Walter wrote: “I am usually the designated barber in whichever prison I am housed. One day a CO entered into our building with an elderly man. From first glance he appeared to be approximately 60 years old. The man’s face was swollen and he had a black eye. His prison-issued clothing was bloodied and his hair was long and dirty. Then I heard my last name called loudly by the officer. He motioned me over and looked me straight in the eye, ‘This man was jumped in the other building by two young punks who were in disagreement with his grooming standards. He is now a resident of this building and if anything happens to him in my building, there will be hell to pay.’  Walter thought “my building” was arrogant but kept quiet.  I was pissed that they had done that to an old man and I think the anger I had towards them turned into respect and love for this man.” Walter describes taking care of the old man – helping him shower and found some food for him. Walter continues,  “and then a strange thing happened. Dudes, hardened criminals who didn’t have nothing for nobody started casing their cells and came back with things for ‘Pops.” Dudes came over and shook his hand and introduced themselves. Pops ended up being the best chess player on the yard and never lost a tournament, representing our building. A Vietnam vet, very knowledgeable and versed on the law. Helped many dudes file writs appeals, child custodies.

A major question becomes why some guards and staff have the capacity to show kindness to prisoners? When superficially asked, some guards suggest it was their age – they mellowed out. I don’t have much to conclude except that it would be an interesting conversation to have with staff.

Do sexual relationships extended across the border qualify as kindness?  Some of the answers suggest prisoners saw sex as kindness, but that it also posed difficulties. Tony writes, “We used to have ladies and men come to visit us once a week through the Kiros program until the ladies started having relationships with the inmates.  I’m not blaming the ladies. But it sure did hurt the Kiros program.”

Clarence describes a man from the outside writing to him to be his sexual pen pal (I’m not sure how a sexual pen pals work, particularly since the letters can be read by the guards and staff). Clarence sent me the letter, suggesting, Give the letter to someone who is free, who may be able to share his life and wealth with them. Hopefully, he finds that someone he wishes to be with.” The man who gave his name and address in the letter was actually a known politician in a mid-west community.  

Sex across the border can be used to redefine a more dangerous situation. Ronnie describes a situation in which kindness across the border is redefined as sex to deflect the primary concern: “A female guard wrote up a ticket for indecent behavior (for a particular prisoner) when a prisoner was taking a leak in his own cell when she walked by. Because of this ticket, the prisoner was denied his upcoming parole. Later when this female guard was closing the cells doors, this prisoner pulled her into his cell and beat the crap out of her. No one responded to her yells until one inmate finally went to the cell and pulled her out. For his act of kindness, this prisoner was given a disciplinary case for improper relationship with a guard.”

Other times, sex is just experienced as kindness and, as David writes, perhaps an example of “tea and sympathy” helping him develop a sense of his sexual self. “Having come to prison at 20 years old and remaining here for so long (I’m now 34) I’ve had numerous relationships with officers. Some were innocent – women looking at me like I was their own child – other, not so innocent – as if we were lovers. Another memorable person was a woman who I had a crush on and asked her to be my first as I was a virgin and didn’t want to die one. She thought I was insane, but eventually she sensed my sincerity and we became a couple. We were together for 3 of the toughest years for me, as I’d lost two relatives within a year of each other and was hurt. Knowing how much she risked to love me makes our relationship way beyond kindness.”

Obviously there is subterfuge in sexual relationships between prisoners and non-prisoners that are in violation of rules. There’s even a sign on the staff lounge wall of a maximum-security men’s prison stating,  Do not have sex with inmates,” should any of us forget. However, I can’t help wonder if sexuality between prisoner and non-prisoner is actually less threatening to the prison system than simple kindness. The system may understand the dynamics of sex better than the inherent ambiguity of kindness. Maybe that is why kindness in prison is constantly misinterpreted as sex – turning kindness into something understandable.   

While I have been focusing upon the phenomenon of kindness, I have been grasping at ambiguity – the incarceration of kindness but the death of ambiguity. However, exploring a phenomenology of kindness with the prisoners seems less obscure and ideological then asking them to describe ambiguity or lack of it in their lives. How does one describe the natural ambiguity of living?  Is this an experience transmittable into words?  

As an artist, I am confronted with ambiguity every time I begin a painting or sculpture. I can only follow rules up to a point: open the studio door, decide to paint a particular subject, determine the size, gesso the canvas, and so on. At some point in the process, I have to leave prescription behind in order to create; thus, bringing something new into existence. If I do not enter this uncharted area of painting, the work becomes as flat as a paint-by-number piece.   

Through teaching art in prison, I observed how ambiguity plays a role in both art and kindness. In art classes, the prisoners seemed challenged when asked to draw from life; asking them to use their own eyes and draw what they see. There is no formula for this approach to drawing and it makes them uncomfortable. Instead, prisoners (and most of the public who are not trained in art) often want how-to books providing step-by-step instructions or they draw from photographs that have already translated the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional one; a translation which demands a leap of faith for the artist.   

Like the creativity in art, kindness has no ultimate how-to instruction. Prescriptive kindness, like formulaic art, is affectively flat. 

But, flatness is demanded by prison. In a maximum-security prison, a yellow line is painted on the corridor floors upon which prisoners are to follow. It leads to closed gates separating corridors. At these points, the prisoners will wait in line until it is ok’d by the guards to move through the gates. Many prisoners have been walking the yellow line and stopping at the gates for years; even though some are now shadows of the person who committed the crime. 

In the super-maximum security men’s prison where every aspect of the prisoner’s day is prescribed, the prisoners are psychologically fragile; so much that when they drop a pencil they yell at me saying,  “you made me do that!” To their understanding, this may be true – everything in prison has a clear cause and effect. I suggest to them that in assigning me as the cause, I get to control not only when they drop the pencil, but also when they get to pick those pencils up. Without personal accountability, freedom is denied. The prisoners stop yelling at me.

Because kindness does not have a cause and effect relationship, it can easily become the enemy in a system that survives on prediction and rules. Kindness may even be seen as an act of freedom. 

Kindness does not effect change. Kindness creates change; non-conforming and non-linear. Potently there and not to be controlled. What happens if kindness as a phenomenon of solidarity were to emerge in prison – could it act as a free-floating medium for social change challenging the status quo?

 

About the guest contributor:

Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the JAC 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.  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 6,500 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.

“My body may be imprisoned, but nothing can keep my creative vision from reaching out beyond these walls.” – the unbounded heartwork of Carole Alden

Woman Impaled - Part 1 of Bars Triptych
Prison Cell Bars Triptych, part 1: “‘Woman impaled upon bars’: I originally did this concept when I was very first incarcerated and facing a sentence of 20 – life. I had been unexpectedly ripped from my children’s lives. Out of five children I still had two that were young enough to be at home. A 14 year old son and a 9 year old daughter. The positioning of the woman represents the overwhelming pain and mental anguish at seeing my hopes and dreams disappear beyond a horizon. I felt helpless and hopeless for a long time.”  

Woan Crocheting - Part 2 of Bars Triptych
Part 2: “The woman crocheting is an act of defiance. This is a mindset developed after over a decade. My body may be imprisoned, but nothing can keep my creative vision from reaching out beyond these walls. Whether it’s beauty, or a statement…it’s going to places I may never. This piece is about finding your voice in whatever manner available to you.”

Untitled - Part 3 of Bars Triptych
Part 3: “In this cell, the fish represents the protective mental and emotional barriers we construct to keep ourselves safe. The child represents the changes we go through to nurture our new dreams.”

“The pregnant mermaid and the male with his back turned has to do with domestic violence. Being held captive by a spouse who hides their true nature. Feeling trapped, dead inside, and praying for your children.”

Baby Peeling Head Open
“Baby Peeling Head Open – This represents therapy in prison. You’re treated like a child in a steel playpen. Painful but necessary to examine the content of your head in order to grow beyond your circumstances.”

Mermaid and Fish

Mermaids
“There are four drawings that incorporate mermaids with children or fish. These are simply joyful pieces.”

Mermaid and Fish

Mermaid

 

 

Girl with Dragon
“‘Girl with Dragon’ represents the desire I had as a child to feel protected.”

Hippocampus
“The horse sea creature is a hippocampus from mythology. Just for fun.”

 

Cadillac - When I'm Free
“The Cadillac fiber sculpture (crochet) is a piece that is part of a “When I am free” series. It helps me to visualize a day when I am no longer in prison. I feel that it is crucial to develop a freedom within yourself regardless of your surroundings. It gives you that reservoir of spirit that keeps you intact mentally and emotionally no matter what you have to cope with behind bars. If you believe that they can’t take who you are away from you, then they won’t be able to ever silence you completely. Creating works of art and words are the best way to continue your connection with the larger world.”

When I Am Free

When I Am Free

When I Am Free

 

 

 

Meeting the Woman, Not the Crime

by Peggy Lamb
About the guest blogger: Peggy Lamb organizes Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity program. Truth Be Told is an Austin, TX based non-profit organization that provides transformational programs for women who are or have been incarcerated. Exploring Creativity classes use expressive arts to enlarge the women’s sense of themselves, release pain and express despair and without harming oneself or others. Leaders vary from storytellers to singers to visual artists to dancers – to quilters and yoga teachers and writers.

Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body and my heart opens wide.

These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18 month cognitive therapy program. They live together in a special dorm in which community is emphasized. Each of these 28 women has committed a crime which will brand them for life as sex offenders.

Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things, men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.

I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ web site but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong. I, or the artist I bring, share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and re-define oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am Large, I contain Multitudes”. I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than just sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses and visual artists with gifts to share.

When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost four years that I’ve been going up there once a month – it is work that deeply feeds my soul.

Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call “Elements”. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core – pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out. Shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!

My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on “I am Earth” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture – a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, nature, etc. Each woman shares her gesture and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming) and we go around the circle dancing each women’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance! 

We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts: “I am Air”, “I am Fire” and “I am Water”. By the end of the class we’ve created four dances and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of.

The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community. One woman comments “I didn’t know I was creative!” Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.” One that touches my heart so deeply is “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

I am filled with awe at their willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I LOVE this work – my soul is filled with joy and gratitude.

 

 

 

 

Drawing for Life

by Treacy Ziegler

About the guest blogger: 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 voluntary 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.

 

Time for the prisoner is often imagined as an endless dimension of doing nothing. Not surprisingly then on hearing that I provide in-prison art workshops and through-the-mail art projects for prisoners throughout the United States, people sometimes respond, “There is so little to do in prison – they must really welcome the programs you provide,”

But prison time is not always as it seems.

For some prisoners (those with shorter sentences, or those about to get out – and for a maximum-security prison, “about to get out” may mean “in a year”) the experience of time is the contrary. They experience a lack of it. These prisoners spend their days completing the required laundry list of things needed for parole; a list including such things as anger management classes, drug rehabilitation, counseling and in some states, the required GED a prisoner must obtain before paroled.

Art is not on that laundry list and I can only assume that the prison system shares the same values on art as the public school system. Art is superfluous; perhaps what some guards refer to as “finger painting.”

Because of the required tasks for parole, many of the prisoners who participate in my prison workshops and through-the-mail projects are those prisoners known as “lifers;” folks who are going nowhere and can treat the laundry list with a certain amount of disregard.

And yet, even the in-prison art classes for which only lifers may have time, there is a selection process. It is not surprising that a person in SHU cannot attend. However, I am surprised to find that many of my classes are often primarily white, particularly when one considers that the majority of the prisoners are black and Latino. When I ask, “Why?” I have been told on one occasion, “Blacks get more tickets.”

We do not live in a post-racial society and anyone thinking otherwise might want to spend an afternoon in prison – focused not upon the racism between prisoners but the racism of the entire structure that supports a prisoner’s racist inclinations. Prison survives by a racist structure of divide-and-conquer.

It is in response to this power structure of discrimination within the prison, that I develop through-the-mail art curriculums offered to anyone who wants to join. Death row? Solitary confinement? Tickets?  No problem. Anyone in the 2500 member prisoner network of Prisoner Express through the United States who wants to participate in the curriculum can participate.

The basic curriculum is on drawing referred to as Drawing From Life. While it is not necessary to complete this drawing curriculum, it gives the prisoner a basic understanding of my philosophy on art and seeing.

My experience, and therefore my curriculum, often goes against what prisoner artists have been taught or what they experience as art.

My primary experience is that art is a conversation existing of more than a single entity participating in the experience; hence making art a conversation rather than a monologue. In this way, the creative process emerges more as a dynamic “listening” than as an individual expression.

This “conversation” develops on three levels. The first level of conversation involves the uniquely personal exploration between the artist and the world. For the visual artist, this exploration often takes the form of drawing.

The second conversation takes place between the artist and the medium (paint, clay, ink, pencil) transforming that initial exploration into metaphor. Here the creative process is dependent upon a call-and-response conversation between the materials and the artist; the marks on the paper or the rakes on the clay revealing itself to the artist like a Ouija board forceful in where it wants to go. Like the Ouija board, the paint, the clay or the ink has a life of its own.

The third level of conversation is between the art and the viewer. On this third level of conversation, the artist retreats allowing the art to speak directly with the viewer.

These levels of conversation do not exist in prison art: one assumes there is nothing to visually explore in prison; the artist’s materials are often reduced to just computer paper and an interior of a pen (particularly if the prisoner is in solitary confinement); material with too little authority to speak on its own; and the main focus of prison art is the prisoner, the art never speaks for itself. In fact, without the “prisoner” label, much of the work would be ignored. Interest in the art tends to be based upon the fact that the artist is a prisoner not because of the work itself.

Evidence that the first level of conversation does not exist in prison is the numerous drawings I receive from the 2500 prisoners.

Most of the work is tightly rendered drawings that I can classify into five main stereotypical sources for inspiration: photos of loved ones or famous people, tattoos, copying Playboy-like magazines, cartoons, and Bob Ross, or sometimes Thomas Kincaid. I know that the drawings are not an intimate exploration of the world because I see the same images over and over again from many different prisoners across the United States. The drawings suggest the craft of copying – very good copying, but copying.

When I mention in the Drawing From Life curriculum the five sources of drawings that I see in their art, several prisoners, such as Vonderic, write to me in agreement:

“It is true what you write about the five sources of art in prison – that is what most art is about here.”

Some of the prison work is very strong; what I would expect of a high school student who was destined for art school.

Herein lies the first problem. The prisoner, much like the high school student, is not working from his or her intimate visual relationship to the world because like the high school student, the prisoner is the ward of a higher authority forced to see the world through the eyes of another. That is why is it so common for both high school students and prisoners to use the photograph as the primary source for art – not trusting what it is they see themselves. Perhaps it is too late. By the time we are teenagers, the visual world is forgotten in favor of a conceptual world where it is enough to understand that the sky is blue and grass is green. Forgetting that in the direct experience, the sky is not simply blue and grass is not merely green.

Herein lies the second problem for personal visual exploration to occur in prison: It is better for overall prison maintenance if the prisoner keeps to the formulaic sky of how-to art books assuring that the prisoners’ eyes are kept inward or looking at the false clarity of a contrived world. No landscape drawing classes on the lawns of prison yards exploring the palette complexities of the sky.

Some prisoners write to say they prefer working from their imagination. Not knowing that an imagination without exploration develops into redundancy, makes the imagination just another prison.

Prison art is often associated with outsider art. But the outsider artist’s imagination is fueled by a keen sensitivity to the world – operating not without the world, but in the world where the rubber hits the road. James is a prisoner who does work intensely from an acutely wired imagination. This is from a series of drawings James did of toy zoo animals I brought to class. His art is not as interesting when working solely upon his imagination without the external excursion.

 James

In the Drawing From Life curriculum my primary concern addresses the first level of conversation – developing a personal exploration of the world.

Prison is a bleak world and a common complaint I receive from prisoners writing to me is, “There’s nothing here interesting to draw!”

But the sum of an artist’s world is not the sum of objects found in that world. Instead, the artist’s world is sets of relationships that are always changing: light and shadow, form and flatness, tonal variations, near and far. It is a world that is not concerned with conceptualized value-based “things.”

The curriculum invites the prisoner to explore this ever-changing world of relationships in a series of exercises. The first exercise is simple:

Sit in your cell – or any room wherever you are – and explore the pattern of light and shadow.   A light colored room works well. Start at any corner of the room and see how bands of light and shadow emerge; most often the corner has a light band.   Moving your eye out of the room’s corner, you will find a dark band, moving your eyes from that dark band you will discover another light band, – this continues forever. Dark, light, dark, light, dark, light, infinitum. Light and shadow make up our universe.

Chiaroscuro is an alluring phenomenon that is not lost on prisoners and Dan writes:

Now that I see chiaroscuro, I see it everywhere! The patterns of light through the window, the floor, the light bands cast across the corridor. The light that comes through the cell window!’

Another exercise asks the student to draw light and shadow bands by drawing a sphere. Leon, a prisoner who has never drawn before and lives in solitary confinement from Pelican Bay State Prison sends in his assignment of the sphere with notes:

Leon Martinez Sphere

The toilet paper roll or the coffee cup comes in handy when trying to understand light and shadow and the chiaroscuro of the world. Leon’s sends his drawings of both the toilet paper roll and his sneaker:

Martinez Toilet Paper

When Leon draws his cell, he makes a discovery.

Leon Small Cell

Leon Martinez Writing About Cell

Leon discovers that although it had always been hard to describe living in his cell to his family in words, he can describe it through drawings.

However, chiaroscuro is a phenomenon that challenges the basic structure of most prison art and for that matter, most high school art.  The majority of drawings I receive are based upon the “line”: and although the use of line seems “developmental”, it is not basic and stands contrary to the visual experience of the world.

A line drawing of an apple has the caption asking: “What is this?”   Obviously it is an apple and the only way the prisoner knows that it is an apple, is the line defining it. However, when I ask, “ Where is this line on the apple?” it cannot be found.  Lines do not exist in the visual world. A line perceived in space is really a shadow – a thin shadow that is created by two forms coming together. Lines are symbols and serve as the basis for language. Using line in drawing bypasses the perceptual experience and goes directly to language. I suggest that if the student is going to draw this:

line drawing # 1

then the student might as well draw this:

2 face line drawing jpg

Obviously, many great artists include line, but at this stage of exploration, line is kept at a distance because I want the prisoners to experience the world before the assertion of the line and its demand for conceptualization. How do you draw without a line?

Raymond sends me a drawing where he literally tries to make the drawing without lines – so soft there is no drawing. This is a literal interpretation of the assignment. But Raymond is not ignorant, perseveres and eventually gets it. This is Raymond’s interpretation of a drawing by Rembrandt – full of shadows and light.

raymond and rembdrandt

Drawings of toilet paper rolls do not qualify as art any more than the countless drawings of big bosom women smiling at the viewer that I receive from prisoners. The drawings of toilet paper are not art. The drawings are a way of developing another access to experiencing the world. My friend Esther, a retired psychologist described how she saw the world differently when she was taught to draw light and shadow, and Joe, a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts student, explains, “I move differently through the world since I learned to draw…I sense things in a different way,” – noting that drawing is not just an “eye thing” but a total body thing.

Billy, a prisoner, writes,

“My mantra for falling asleep is, “It is not an apple. It is light and shadow.”

Lester in solitary confinement, writes to me,

“I want to draw what I see reflected in a drop of water on my desk,”

This sets off a series of letters between us about the Japanese wabi sabi – the Japanese aesthetic centered on change, decay, and imperfection.

In a later art curriculum, Points Of A Compass, I ask, “Where is the horizon in prison?” and Lester writes,

“I was copying horizons out of a magazine for the assignment, then all of a sudden I realize, these are not my horizons! I am a man without a personal horizon!”

My next question to Lester is, “What does it mean to be a man without a personal horizon?” Will Lester become an explorer, not to seize and colonize, but to find a self in relationship to place with the recognition that place is always shared, thus undermining the forced solitariness he is forced to exist?

The fatal flaw

But of course, art has a fatal flaw – one that exists both in and out of prison.

When Vonderic writes agreeing about the five sources in prison that get repeated, he also mentions that this is because

“… art in prison is about money.”

Art’s fatal flaw is that it can be so readily – and willingly – made into a product; turning conversation into profit. Art has always been associated with money – even when describing the negative as in the phrase ”the starving artist.”    We associate art to success, and then narrowly define “success.”

So while art can be transformative at times, most often it is not.   The difference became very distinct to me this fall when I attended Rutgers University’s art in prison conference, Marking Time.

At the conference I saw Bruce Levitt’s theatre group at Auburn prison where the prisoners-actors perform improvisational plays reenacting their own crimes – revealing both to themselves and to the audience, the prisoners’ profound sense of grief, remorse and pain.  This filmed performance left me haunted for days.  I listened to the biographical poem/prose recited by an incarcerated woman made so intense by her lack of affectation; the recitation guided only by her pain and the pain she caused.

During the conference, I took one night off and attended a cocktail party at a Sotheby’s fundraising for an NYC art school.  In contrast to the art of the prisoners, art here was not directed at transformation of the spirit.  Instead art became the reflection of glamor and money with the emphasis upon the celebrity of the artist and the dollar amount of their work.

On the train back to the conference feeling the superficiality of this art world that demands so much attention, I cried.

I cannot be surprised then when James writes to me saying that he asked a number of prisoners on his block to join a particular art project,

“But they said, ‘nah, they only do art for money’.”  

Art is constantly made to justify its existence. It is demanded to fit into an economy; even when the economy is not money. The unassuming idea that art is “therapy” maintains an equation that reduces art to a tool utilizing the formula of “if this; then that”.

Art can only be transformative when existing outside all economic structures, be it money; corrections or therapy; and the strength of art is that it has the right to exist without justification – like a person.

Treacy Ziegler,

An Open Window Project/Prisoner Express

Center For Transformative Action

Affiliated with Cornell University

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Wanted To Remind Us We Were People

by Elana Pritchard

About the guest blogger: Elana Pritchard is a cartoonist in Los Angeles.  Before she landed in jail she worked as an animator on Ralph Bakshi’s film, Last Days of Coney Island.  She is currently doing a Kickstarter to finish her animated cartoon, The Circus: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/341471863/the-circus

It’s been about a week since the comics I did inside the LA County jail system were first published in the LA Weekly, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the response.  People from all over the world have written to me expressing their support for what I have done and their contempt for inhumane practices for incarcerated peoples everywhere.  I have been in communication with the LA County Sheriff’s department and they have told me that due to these comics they have issued a new policy that all inmates must be given showers within 24 hours of entering the jail.  We are scheduled to meet next week to discuss further improvements.  And throughout all of this it seems the original, humble message of these comics is sticking: that we were people.  Even though we had a barcode on our wrist with a number and were called “bodies” by the staff, we were still people.

Many people in jail are still on trial and haven’t even been found guilty or innocent yet.  Many people made mistakes that you or I have made before in private, only they got caught.  There were mothers in there that missed their children.  There were kind people in there that cared about the arts and cared about each other.  I drew these comics to make us all laugh and remind us that even though there was a whole group of of people with badges and better clothes than we had telling us we didn’t matter… we DID matter and we WERE PEOPLE.

In that the comics were successful, and for that I am proud.

Elana Pritchard

All images were first published in the LA Weekly, 2015

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