What makes a master artist? How does one achieve that title? Become a master in their own right? Is it going to school for decades and being under the tutelage of an artist? Achieving several degrees and certificates that look good on paper like a good resume? What is it?
I remember maybe a year ago I had a piece of artwork on the table. It was a passion flower. Everyone commented on it, even officers asking who did it and how did I get it to look so real. One dude in here asked if someone white or a Spanish guy did it and I thought, how ignorant can you be and told him as much. He apologized and said it was excellent work, he just didn’t think Black people did things like that. Oh, by the way, he was Black. I wasn’t mad at him, but mad at the fact of how deep that statement really went. Then I looked back and realized in my environment we don’t expose our kids to what’s out there in the world. Well me coming up I wasn’t exposed to art and theater, rocket science, clean energy, space travel, etc…. Trust me the list goes on. And the thing is now I have a profound interest in it all.
With all that being said, I have found myself through art. It allows me to express my thoughts visually and create sceneries that I have love for. Like how I feel, nature scenes with animals, and endangered species.
Some ask how long have I been into art and don’t believe when I say I just got into it within the last 5 maybe 6 years and that it was just a way to pass time. I really got serious about it within the last two years and started getting into color. I drew one thing when I was a kid cause I liked the thing, that’s the Rock Man from the Fantastic Four, and never drew anything again after that. There’s a whole story behind that, but we’ll save that for another day.
I’m not schooled in the arts, have no formal training, and don’t really know or understand the jargon dealing with art. All I know is that I have a love for it. Now I’ve started reading up on it and just learned about tint, tone, and shade, scumbling, burnishing, glazing, and things like that. I didn’t know what light fastness was until yesterday, funny isn’t it. It’s also funny that I have an understanding of these things through trial and error. I have no one to guide my hand and tell me what I’m doing wrong. My hand is guided by God, my imagination, and my patience. I wish I had let my life been guided by those principles. Either way, what makes a master artist? Is it the atelier way? I say that cause I just read a book on the subject saying you can’t become a master unless you have proper schooling and the atelier is the best way to go about it. That doesn’t make sense to me. I ask, who taught the first master artist? He learned from doing and figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Truthfully I’m glad that I’ve learned this way. The more I read the more I discover what I’m already applying to my work. Now I’m just learning what it’s called.
I’m not a master as of this date, but I will become one. Not because some books or some people say I can’t, I don’t really care what others think is possible for me. But because my love for art will show through my work and my work will show my understanding and speak for itself. I’m still learning and hope I will always discover more as I go. 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 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.”
Contact Info: You can email me through Jpay.com and typing in 1067546 or reach me through snail mail at Rayfel Zumar Bell #1067546 RNCC 329 Dellbrook Lane Independence, VA. 24348
I find it incredibly difficult to describe what it is like being an artist in prison. There are so many physically and emotionally conflicting paradoxes at play. If I were never imprisoned, I would have, most likely, never taken the time to explore the artist aspect of myself. On the other hand, my environment places many restrictions on my creative process. I can’t just create whatever I want to. I am limited to certain resources that I am allowed to purchase and subjects that I am allowed to draw or paint. These limitations are frustrating at the best of times but do not diminish my gratitude for the joy of creation. The best way to describe all of this is to tell the story of the most meaningful painting I have done in prison.
It all started when there was a change to the monetary system in my prison. Although inmates are not allowed to purchase things from each other, they do. It is hard to stop the entrepreneurial spirit, especially among a group of people known for their hustling. Last year, the value of our main form of currency, postage stamps, was raised and that change left a glut of old stamps that no longer had any value. These stamps were worn, used by hundreds of inmates over the years, and frankly, beautiful. They fascinated me so I decided to “paint” the American flag using these old, worthless stamps as a medium. I wanted to show another side of the American economy, one that most people don’t see, and through that, the nature of prison itself.
I really love this part of creating art. The ideas are starting to form into a tangible, living thing. At this point, I am no longer myself, no longer in prison, but an active participant in a conversation that has been going on for the length of human history. A conversation that can trace its roots back to the first markings on cave walls. I am filled with a desire to express my experience of life in a way that will transcend my own life. This is what art is about for me. And I love it. This love sustains me through all the ups and downs that come with making something that has never been made before.
I started off by letting everyone know that I was interested in doing an art piece and was looking for as many old stamps as I could get my hands on. Most know me as a nice, but eccentric artist, and several people were willing to help me by giving what they had. Still not having enough, I was forced to trade items from commissary to people who needed motivation to donate to my artistic endeavor. This quickly became an expensive project. I then researched the official dimensions of the American flag in the U.S. code found in the law library. It turns out that there are very strict rules and I was glad to learn them. Armed with this information, I cut a piece of canvas that I had purchased ahead of time. I am the only artist here who stretches his own canvas as most can only afford the student grade canvas panels since all art supplies have a thirty percent markup added by the prison. After measuring out my lines on the unprimed canvas, I decided to paint the white strips of the flag and leave the rest of the space as unfinished canvas. The emptiness will be filled in with stamps or left as negative space.
Once the canvas was prepped, I needed to find a place to work. I am very fortunate to have an easel to paint on in the recreational building, but for this project I needed a flat surface. There is only one table available in the art room, and it is in too high of demand for me to monopolize for several hours. So, I folded up the canvas and snuck it back into my living space on a different floor. We are only allowed to paint in the art room and what I did was very much against the rules. One of the first lessons I learned in prison was rules are flexible and that most guards don’t care what you do… until they do. Finally in my room, while using my bed as a work desk, I lost myself to the wonders of art making. Every now and then I would hear the jingle of keys and try to hide what I was doing from the patrolling guard. Most likely, he knew that I was not doing anything really bad and left me alone. Finally the piece starts to fit all together. The stamps were purposefully falling out of place, emphasizing the crumbling nature that is so prevalent in the prison system. Still, I felt that the overall message wasn’t showing through. At this point, inexplicably, an inmate whom I had never talked to before stopped by my room and asked me what I was doing. I explained the piece and the problem I was having. He quickly pointed out the I could move one stamp down and it would solve my problem. He was right! And then he was gone. I never did talk to that man again, but that is a common prison experience, randomness. Finally finished, I spent several hours gluing the stamps down, then rolled it up and snuck it back into the art room.
I was so happy with the finished product. It really had the feel of the prison economy and was visually striking. I felt as if I added something substantial to this world and transcended being in prison. We can’t just mail out art projects but have to wait till special days when the recreation officer in charge of the art program can inspect and sign off on them. So I waited, and then mailed out as I have done many times over these years. But my parents never got the package. Weeks went by, and nothing! Finally, I found out that the officer who approved the project didn’t appreciate my use of stamps in an art piece, and without telling me, confiscated my painting. I sought out a higher level prison official to find out what I rule I broke. They then accused me of trying to export currency from the institution and said that my work was to be destroyed. Oh the irony! It would have been funny if it wasn’t so frustrating and painful. I pled my case several times but was told that the painting was a threat to the security of the institution. When that phrase is used, that is the end of the line and the decision is permanent. My favorite painting, one created to comment on the unseen nature of prison, will never itself be seen by the outside world.
And that, essentially, is what it is like being an artist in prison. I still grieve the loss of my painting. At the same time, I feel more whole having made it. When I paint something, I never know if any one will ever see it, but the act itself is incredibly satisfying and fulfilling. Before coming to prison I was a mess. I was so busy trying to destroy my life while at the same time trying to maintain it. There was no time for self-introspection or doing something self-affirming. Now incarcerated, I have the time, and art is the vehicle that provides for both. With this powerful tool, I finally feel like a productive member of society, even if I have been removed from it.
Click each image to read a statement from the artist.
People can start with what seems like an ever-renewable supply anger and despair. This emotional energy is sometimes the initial fuel for the creative act. But that energy may also prove kindling for a different kind of renewable energy, a positive drive. Something fresh and wonderful can be created from the dark place of rumination and frustration, giving back release to that individual and sending forward something positive into the world.
Art is restorative, an outlet, transformative
The act of creativity leads one on an engrossing adventure for the soul, the mind, the body
Esteem building – creating something that can be admired by peers and family and the outer world
Connections with the outside – valuable in forging a future
Validation of self worth, of productivity, of use of time
Gives value to time spent, creates a sense of productivity, value to a product, an understanding of sharing, a way of processing and telling oneself one’s story, a way of integrating and transforming the personal story, a way to give
Passes time innocently and that brings a release
A new understanding of self emerges as creative output provides inspiration, self worth even joy
Creativity brings to the mind solace, peace, intention, healing, and helps to organize time
Art is the re-creation of yesterday, inhabiting today and the making of tomorrows
Families who have a loved one in prison experience a thankfulness and an amazement by the growth of the “artist in prison.”
At first, it may be the pencil sketches on the backs of forms or random pieces of paper that come home. Then, the sheer inventiveness becomes apparent in the ideas, the way the individual creates paint and brushes – from juice, jam, from coffee, using toothbrushes. He creates when he can be in his cell alone – when others are at chow, or at night, or whenever he can find privacy. In the beginning it was intensely private. He only shared his work through the mail in letters home. But it is constant.
At first, the individual doesn’t know where to GO in prison – no place seems safe. Everyone seems to want to know about your business, and to rank you according to your past, where you are from, what you did, who you think you are now.
So there is the chapel, a community room, the sports option. There is administrative segregation (solitary). But none of these feel safe for different reasons. How do you overcome the constant need for vigilance and the fear of being singled out or physically hurt?
There are long waiting lists for prison jobs. If one is fortunate to get a job, the daily routine keeps one relatively focused and safe for a period of many months. There are scant prison education programs. But with luck and persistence one might enroll in a 10-week group course in business, or cognitive behavior therapy workshop, and actually benefit. To note accomplishments in education or sports, the individual receives an achievement document, a citation. Congratulations, you passed the time and you did this! Families hungrily collect the awards and citations.
I began to search for a way to share his artwork with others – beyond the family. I looked for online galleries, made inquiries, visited prison art exhibits, in an attempt to make connections, to share his work with directors of these art organizations. I made an online slide show so his works could be seen more readily by friends and family. The effort itself was fascinating, encouraging, supportive. There are wonderful people on the outside engaged in projects – keeping track, looking in, drawing out, understanding…
Maybe he wasn’t ready to define himself as a person interested in art. Maybe he didn’t value or recognize his creative output. But his family DID. His extraordinary art efforts were already playing a healing role in the family, a relief from the despair and shock of what had happened. We were happy to share his work with friends. It is a beautiful, unique way to show his development in a wholly positive light, and to bring pride into our communications.
Only a year ago, he wrote in September, “I do like art, but I don’t really think it defines who I am. I understand that everyone out there on the street only sees that part of me, but I mainly commit so much to art because that is the only constructive thing to do here that keeps me busy. To tell you the truth, painting, at times, has been pretty painful. I am not comfortable with being known as the inmate artist who suffers from a mental disability. How cliche.
And then, right after that – he discovered the art room. Who goes there?
It was his 5th year in prison, and it had been a particularly rough year of unfortunate events far beyond his control. He marveled that he hadn’t known about the art room earlier. Perhaps he couldn’t imagine in prison – that there would even exist such a “free” place as the art room. Yet, in his prison, there are actually two art rooms.
He has had to learn to respect and accept his own “drive,” and his ability. Many artists in many fields, whether it is theater, dance, music or art, struggle with that. He has always been pragmatic about his creative output. When he speaks of it, he focuses more on the technical explorations and achievements, than on the “meaning” or the effect on the viewer, or even his own creative intention. But outside feedback has played a vital role in validation, and has contributed to his development and persistence.
Now, his work can be seen in wonderful online galleries (Prison Arts Coalition PAC, and The Confined Arts, Isaac’s Quarterly) and in an online slide show of recent works. His watercolors have been used “on the street” by Solitary Watch (national), and as a menu cover design for Edwins Restaurant, (Cincinnati, OH). It continues to be a fascinating journey to observe how he expresses repeating themes in his works over the years (eg. a tree), and how he diligently teaches himself new techniques in watercolor, charcoal, multi-media. His knowledge and tools have come a long way from the lemonade and coffee painted flowers.
Today he is teaching a 12-week course in watercolor technique. He encourages other artists-mates to send works to online galleries. He has found a group of supportive, like-minded creative individuals who encourage and challenge each other to grow as artists. He has found a path he can travel, and he is bringing others with him along the way.
About this guest contributor:
Rebecca Kelly, daughter of a career diplomat, grew up in London, England, Khartoum, Sudan, and Washington, DC. She trained at the School of Washington Ballet. She holds a BA in Oriental Religion from Bryn Mawr College. She is the Artistic Director and Choreographer for Rebecca Kelly Ballet. She lives with her husband in New York City and in the Adirondack Mountains, and is artist Conor Broderick’s aunt.
About the guest contributor: “Though I don’t like being labeled, or “summed up” by definitions, there are two tags I must live with. First, I am an artist… I have been my entire life. I dabble in different mediums and play with many forms of expression. I call myself an illustrator because the intent of all my work is to share a story. Places I’ve been. Things I’ve seen. Feelings I’ve dealt with. Second, I am a felon… I will be one for the rest of my life. I was released from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections custody in April, 2018. I was allowed to concentrate on my work, watch it mature, and see other’s talents grow. Through creative competition we became a collective.”
Hi! My name is Todd or, for the past 3 years, Wisconsin Department of Corrections #632011. I will have my numeric “nickname” for the next 6 years in Community Custody. For those unfamiliar with the term, I will be on “paper” and continuously monitored. I was incarcerated 2/13/2015 for violating the terms of my bond and in July 2015 was handed a 4-year sentence, mandatory release date of February 10, 2019… my 51st birthday. Fortunately, I’m a non-violent offender. I integrated smoothly into the prison lifestyle and routine. For this I was eligible for an Earned Release Program and cut 10 months off my ‘bid’. Unfortunately, the time I saved on my time ‘in’ was tacked on to my early release.
Let me tell you a little about where I come from! I grew up in an upper middle-class suburb of Milwaukee, WI. My family isn’t what I would call wealthy but we definitely were raised “privileged”. We were never denied anything and rarely heard the word ‘no’. I believed I was invincible… my family would get me out of every situation I got into. If I was broke, they’d give me money. If my bills were late, they would catch them up. When I got arrested, they covered my bail and got me the best possible legal representation. I was a well-adjusted kid who never got into any trouble… well, except getting suspended for smoking on school grounds and skipping gym class. I have 7 DUIs under my belt now and never was in prison. This time there was no getting out of it! The Judge told me clearly, “… you’ve gotten away with this too many times and haven’t received enough punishment…”. He handed down the sentence of 4 years in, 6 years out for a grand total of 10 years, the maximum punishment he could legally impose.
So, here I am at 47 years old on my way to the prison Intake facility! I’m in handcuffs and shackles, locked in the back of a bus, with a bunch of ‘real’ criminals. Most of these guys are murderers, rapists and abusers (they’d done things I couldn’t even fathom). My offense didn’t hurt anyone… I’d had no accidents or damaged any property. I’m thinking, “OMG”, what are these people going to do to someone like me? Am I going to have to live with these men or be housed with ‘lesser’ offenders? What are the living conditions going to be? We’ve all seen the movies… is it really like that?
I wasn’t so much scared of my situation, it was more anxiety that dominated my mind. The more I was around these soon-to-be “roommates” the more I decided I wasn’t going to be around them. I withdrew into reading novels. I found it a way to transport myself to other places, different stories and a better class of people. In Intake we weren’t allowed to have much. I read about 5 books a week, all day and night long, to take me away and avoid speaking to the characters I was forced to room with. I was so thankful when I got moved out of intake into a regular medium-security location where I could finally purchase my own clothes, shoes, TV and hobby supplies!!
I found television to be a very temporary, mindless escape… maybe solely a distraction from the world I was residing in. Books are great but reading became more of a tedium than a diversion. I had ordered a sketchpad and some drawing pencils, colored pencils and pastels but I hadn’t actually created anything in a long time. As we all get older, responsibilities and obligations often force us to put our passions to the side. While I’d created art on the outside, and I was devoted to it, I didn’t have the time to express myself the way I truly desired to. Now, on a forced break from reality, I didn’t have to worry about anything. I had no bills to pay. I had no commitments to family or work. Even though it was barely edible, I didn’t have to think about what I was going to eat, go grocery shopping or cook. I could go to bed and get up whenever I felt like it… except for count times and the occasional fire drill! It seemed to be the perfect time to return to my first love, drawing.
My first attempts were primitive, at least in my eyes, but they impressed others. I didn’t care about, or need, the approval of others but it was flattering. These drawings were/are a part of me! I could transport myself to new worlds, make them tangible and be however I wanted them to be. My fellow inmates would sometimes question my images. They didn’t understand artistic vision doesn’t have to be representational… it doesn’t have to consist of recognizable imagery. My work wasn’t for them though, it was for me! I refused to draw portraits for them. I absolutely wouldn’t make greeting cards! My work is art… not crafts! Later on, I did start to do portraits but there were a few conditions. I didn’t set a “price” for my work but they had no input into the finished project and I would accept tokens of gratitude. They couldn’t view the piece until it was complete. And don’t bother me, it’ll be done when it’s done.
I must explain that I’m not an anti-social kind of guy! I’d made a conscious decision to separate myself from the environment to which I was subjected. I didn’t want to get to know anybody. I knew I’d do my time for me, get it over with, and never have to see any of these people ever again. The chances of myself, and most of the others, being in the same social circles and spaces on the outside was slim. In this context, my art became my downfall. The more I created the more others wanted to talk to me. They wanted to see my work. They wanted to talk about my projects. They wanted to show me their talents… with words, visual images, crochet, needlepoint, leathercraft, beading, some dance and the list goes on within the perimeters of the prison’s restrictions. For many this was their first exposure to expressing themselves in ways that weren’t destructive to themselves or others. And they were proud of their work. They valued my opinions and asked for my suggestions as to how to improve their visions. Even though I was keeping my distance and not letting down my “walls” (I thought), I developed superficial (again, I thought) relationships… more than acquaintances but not quite friends.
To elaborate on the ‘I thought’ statements. I believed I was hiding behind “walls” to protect myself from getting to know the other convicts in my personal space 24/7/365. What I failed to recognize was that my work, and my input into theirs’, slowly exposed pieces of myself. I gained insight into their lives because, when asked to view or make suggestions on their works, I could see into their minds. I could read their emotions about where they’ve been, are currently and where they want to be in the future. We developed an unspoken form of communication. A way to maintain our masculinity while “discussing” our feelings of fear, on relationships, about caring for one another. All the things men don’t usually talk about with each other.
One of my favorite statements, I heard it all the time, was “I can’t draw.” Or “I can’t do that”. There is no right or wrong in art. There is no good or bad in creation. I’d tell people, “Yes, you can!”. It doesn’t matter if it’s a stick figure or a colorful “scribble” with colored pencils. “I’ll help inspire you!”. “Are you having fun?”, “Relaxing?”, “Releasing the frustration of another taxing day?”. The point being, are you feeling anything?!! Art is about reaction. If you have an opinion or elicit a reaction you’re alive. You’re expressing a view, a viewpoint and that’s creation. I was able to introduce technique but had to remind guys not to try to do what I do… one of me is enough. Be your own person! See through your own eyes! Interpret according to your own beliefs and values! Of course, one of the toughest principles is always OBSERVE, OBSERVE, OBSERVE! Shut your mouth and listen… don’t just hear, LISTEN. Open your eyes but don’t just look, SEE! Absorb the good and the bad around you. Visualize what makes you happy. Express the things that piss you off. Whatever it is, get it out!!
The arts are one of the few positive things about prison. For me, it allowed the opportunity to see my craft mature. Looking at my early works with only #2 pencil on typing paper to what I’m accomplishing, and still growing, now is amazing. I saw others experiment successfully in a variety of mediums. One of my co-artist inmates, who claimed he’d never been creative, composed a spectacular “collage” (all hand drawn and cut out) representing his favorite football team, the San Francisco 49ers. Others did brilliant portraits from photographs of their loved ones using a grid technique. Patterns were available for purchase to those who preferred to work in brightly colored yarns. Some got their friends and family to send them adult coloring book pages to enjoy and release tension. It wasn’t unusual to see groups of guys sitting around the same table conversing and immersed in their activities of choice!
Sometimes, however, our efforts were stifled by the subjective rules of the DOC. For example; I drew a New Orleans Mardi Gras scene in which there was a woman flashing her breasts to get beads that were thrown from the balconies. Another inmate drew a very artistic topless woman with large boobs. He got cited for “inappropriate material” where, when the correctional officers were questioned about it, my drawing was considered acceptable because of the context. We had to be very careful about anything depicting violence but not all was seen as unacceptable. Subjects construed as racist could land one in the “hole” but, again, it depended on context. I illustrated my frustrations about the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri (I forget what year that was) depicting a racially diverse group defending themselves against the police while stores were being looted and cars were on fire. It wasn’t considered unacceptable since the violence was implied more than vivid. It was tricky to sometimes push the line as serious disciplinary action could be imposed upon you. But really, who wants to concentrate on drawing bunnies and pretty flowers in a place where it is difficult to wake up in the morning and smile at your cellie!
It’s really fascinating to look back on the whole experience now… even though it hasn’t been that long. To think about the conversations that started over a drawing, a poem, or a song. The feelings that were communicated without speaking. The bonds created by my knowing, somewhere, someone may be thinking about the positive aspects of being incarcerated because my work is hanging on their wall or framed on their desk. Even if it’s just held by a magnet on a refrigerator, I’ve impacted somebody else’s life in any number of ways. A reminder of where we’ve been, where we’re going and to be thankful in the moment that we’ve survived (hopefully overcome) our shortcomings. I like to believe some of the men I inspired, and who inspired me, have continued to pursue their newly found freedom of expression. A constructive outlet for their emotions. A diversion from returning to where they’ve been. A way to create a future they can visualize. In some way everyone is in a prison of their own creation….