Artist Spotlight: William Brown

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

Art can be a source of joy, an outlet for emotions, and an opportunity for self-expression. For some, creating is all this and more, becoming a means for survival. For William Brown, drawing started as a way to cope with a traumatic childhood filled with mental, physical, and sexual abuse. When he was as young as 7 or 8 years old, William remembers making pen and pencil sketches of the cartoons he saw on TV. From Ninja Turtles to the Simpsons to Disney movies, these drawings became his “portal to the world.” Only allowed to leave his room to go to school, William would draw what he could see outside his second story window: kids playing, people going to and from work, “people just living the life I never got to.” Sitting at his window, drawing people doing “day-to-day” things, William would capture the emotions of the people he saw and “so was born my fascination with human expression.”

William’s happiest memories growing up were the times he spent in his high school art classes. With no real friends, art class became his “home away from home.” He recalls how his art teacher became his only friend, helping him learn to translate his feelings into something visual. “I was able to escape into the created pieces and show the world how I felt and saw the things around me.” As he grew up, William continued to use his portraits and figure drawings to express his emotions and “deal with the life that was thrust upon me.”

As an adult, William discovered photography and instantly felt connected to the media. He was drawn to the idea of documenting “real life” and capturing what people usually “glance over or ignore.” William saw photography as a way to bring to light that the world isn’t always perfect and happy. As a portrait artist, he loved to capture moments where people could be themselves, “when their walls were down and their purest emotions were exposed.” Glimpsing these moments allowed William to feel like a part of the people he photographed, slowly breaking down the feelings of loneliness and disconnect he has felt since childhood.

“Being incarcerated has stripped me of not only my freedoms, but the medium through which I was able to connect to others.” Without access to photography, William lost the invaluable sense of connection he’d found through his work. He recalls waiting for sentencing in county jail with only a pen and paper, “reviving the lost love of drawing that had gotten me through the tough times when I was young.” Since that day, William has continued to refine his graphite drawing skills, going on to work with acrylics, watercolor, and even collage, before finding he feels most expressive with oil paints. “The common thread throughout, from my photography to my oil paintings has been to express raw, unfiltered emotion in my subjects.”

Ever since his first drawings out the window of his childhood bedroom, William has continued to be inspired by people. As a result of his isolated youth, William has always felt disconnected from those around him and struggled with his identity: “Who am I? Who do ‘they’ want me to be? Why do I not feel the way others around me seem to feel? What do I need to feel “normal?” It is these questions that have driven William to express and document human emotion. The desire to connect with others and to “feel accepted and normal” has motivated William to try to understand and explore his own emotions in hopes of someday finding the answers.

For William, creating is an immersive process. When he begins a new piece, William tries to surround himself with the feeling he wants to convey: “Be it happiness, grief, loneliness, pride, whatever, I try to invoke and maintain that same feeling in myself throughout the rendering of the piece.”

“If, for example, I am conveying happiness, I’ll work around others, chatting, laughing, having fun while I create. If I need to cultivate a feeling of solemnity or grief, I’ll isolate myself, reminiscing on troubled times in my life, bringing those often suppressed feelings to the surface, giving me a chance to share them and help heal them.”

William also uses music to help him channel the feelings, memories, and experiences from his life that he tries to bring into each piece. This thorough process allows William to feel more connected to the piece when it is completed. He also thinks others may be able to connect to this sincerity, so long as they “open themselves to more than merely looking at the piece, but seeing it.” For those who really “see” his art, William’s pieces are the most raw expression of who he truly is and how he truly feels. “Having this outlet has given me the opportunity to hold on to my true self and to be honest in a way that the brutality of incarceration aims to beat out of you.”

These days, however, William has been struggling to create, saying “I am truly disappointed in myself. The COVID-19 crisis has all but stopped my work.” William is at a facility that has been designated a “quarantine facility,” which means there are extreme restrictions on their movement and supplies, limiting William to mostly sketching. For the last 7 months, William has been in “quarantine lockdown,” only allowed to leave his cell for 45 minutes, three times a week to contact family and 15 minutes, three times a week to shower. They’ve recently added Rec Yard time, allowing William one hour, three times a week, but the rest of his time is spent in total lockdown in his cell. William is frustrated with himself because “where there is a will, there is a way,” and others have found ways to still create under the stifling circumstances but William feels numb. Every day is exactly the same and he can’t find his “creative force.” The situation has suppressed William’s ability to create and killed his morale: “It’s left me feeling like a failure to adapt to my new normal.”

Thinking back to some of his finished pieces, William reflects on his graphite drawing of a “nude woman sitting on the floor drinking from a bottle of Ketel One vodka.” He explains that it’s funny because his mother can’t see past it being “the crying drunk woman” but the piece is probably his most vulnerable. Inspired by a photo he saw, the drawing embodies William’s struggles with identity.

“Feelings of who I am and how to express myself have always conflicted with who others expected me to be and how they felt I was to behave. In this piece, I am showing my internal identity, as I was on the street. Feeling alone, emotional, trying to use my body to gain acceptance and satisfaction from others, drowning the emptiness in alcohol and tears, this was my everyday, my ‘normal.’”

In creating this piece, William realized how far he has come. He describes how he now has more confidence to “let my outside match my inside” and feels he will have the strength to be more himself in spite of people who may be intolerant or unaccepting.

“My incarceration has been a continuous struggle with identity; who I am versus who I need to be in order to be safe and secure in a microcosm of violence and hatred.” Creating allows William, but also others who view his work, to understand his thoughts and feelings at any given moment. “Art, to me, is a way of sorting out what my mind and senses throw at me” — a way of bringing thoughts and emotions into focus. No matter what media he uses or how he’s currently feeling, William expresses how, “I feel comforted knowing I will be able to tell my story to the best of my ability. Art and its expression has helped me through these rough years of being in a strange and uncomfortable world by allowing my voice to be heard.”

You can view more of William’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like William, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Artist Spotlight: O.G. Blue

By Molly Wooliver, JAC Intern

Marlowe Brown was born in Asheville, North Carolina but moved coast to coast and back again before he was old enough to go to school. He describes having had “a typical childhood of a young person of color”: he went to school, joined the track and field team, and participated in other school-related activities. But things changed, and ‘typical became atypical’ when Marlowe’s classmates noticed he had blue eyes. The girls seemed to like it, but the boys didn’t, resulting in a couple of fights a week. Although the fighting came naturally to him, talking to girls did not. Girls liked him but conversing did not come easily: “I would often get tongue-tied.”

Marlowe Brown first became ‘O.G. Blue’ when a particularly pretty girl passed him a note in class. He wrote back and was able to say exactly what he felt on paper. She shared the note with her friends, and after that, every girl in the class wanted a note from him. He wouldn’t label himself as the smartest kid in school, but his favorite class was English, where, he says, “I did learn one thing, which was that pen and paper are a powerful communication tool.”

Blue’s creative process is simple. “I think of exactly what I want to say, sort of like putting a puzzle together in my head, and when it’s done, I lay down the completed puzzle.” These days he finds inspiration in a lot more things than he was able to when he was younger. When he first started writing poetry, it was only about a particular idea or person, but later in life, he discovered he could turn anything into verse. “Real people inspire me, smart people. A happy situation inspires me; a special lady inspires me, one that you think of even when you’re supposed to be concentrating on something else.” 

Writing has helped him throughout his years of incarceration because, through his text, he can paint a picture with words, whether he’s writing to family, friends, or for business purposes. “When I was in high school, I could actually relate to people and situations better through pen and paper rather than in person, but as I grew, attended a few civic organizations, I can speak and express myself in person, even public speaking now.”

Writing has also helped him in processing his experiences and emotions. He says that a lot of his writing is inspired by real-life: “[Everyone knows that] the sun doesn’t shine every day, and I bring that to a point.”

“Poetry and writing awaken my mind to things that I could only dream of and I wanted to hold onto that thought for as long as I possibly could; therefore, I put it to pen and paper for a lasting reminder.”

Although O.G. Blue’s primary focus is poetry, he is currently expanding his portfolio and writing three thriller novels: High Anxiety, Why Are We Here?, and Never Die Alone. Writing comes to him more naturally now, whether in verse, letters, or novels. The real challenge he faces with writing is when it comes to legal matters, and he says his difficulties in that area exist for a reason. “Most people of color are laymen with the judicial system. After all, it was meant to be that way”. The COVID-19 crisis has made Marlowe feel more aware of life because, for now, the world is in a vulnerable position like never before. He reflects on his personal losses and shares: “An old associate of mine just recently passed due to the COVID virus, everyone that knew him would acknowledge him as Old Joe, he will be remembered”. Things have never been this different. He misses the idea of the ‘old world’ — a world older than COVID, a time with fewer technologies. A simpler time, “when you could tell the make of a car just from its sight, a handshake was prevalent, and when you were invited into your neighbor’s house, you could take your shoes off and sit a spell.”

“The mental picture on the poem, ‘Old Friends’, was how life was in what I consider now, ‘the old world’, when you could leave your windows up on a hot summer’s nite, a handshake between men sealed a deal. When a man’s word represented him even bad things had a reason, not accepted but they were less complicated and demented. When our kids went to school and returned safe and sound.”

“The poem ‘Between Us’ was based on the fact of something all humans long for. In other human-beings which is trust, compassion, understanding and respect. Once these emotions are acquired and acknowledged; it’s like magic. Then you have a relationship as strong as King Kong.”

You can view more of O.G. Blue’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like O.G. Blue, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Artist Spotlight: David Green

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

“I want to show the world that in imperfection there is beauty.”

For David Green, every day is a struggle to express his creativity. Hindered by his institution, it would be easy for David to give up and stop making art. Still, he is determined to keep creating, saying, “I will continue to try and reach and hopefully help others in the world know that no matter what we go through in life, be it poverty, death, or losing someone or something, something beautiful is there in the end and we can overcome.”

Though David never received a formal education in art or poetry, he has always been able to discover new ways to improve his drawing and writing. Every time he closes his eyes — since the day he started creating at a very young age — he is flooded with ideas: poems to write or ways to better his art. He laughs, saying, “I have suffered from a long life of insomnia since I was six.” 

It’s not always simple or possible for David to create. He describes how the people he is incarcerated with, the staff, and the lack of funds for art supplies all pose challenges. He adds with a laugh that the lack of tables and chairs also hinder his art making. But David views these difficulties as minor problems. The greater obstacle is that “there is a time when people’s ungratefulness makes one discouraged from wanting to draw.” Yet, despite these challenges, David finds ways to continue making art and writing poems. 

With limited access to art supplies, David has found he can use any media he lays his hands on. When he begins a piece, David simply envisions the art or what is in his mind on the paper and draws it into existence: “I pick up, I look at my paper and just do.” 

People often ask David what inspires him, but the question is harder to answer than it may seem. “I’ve lost so much inspiration in my life that I honestly do not know what inspires me.” Still, David is confident that this will not always be the case, saying, “I do know that one day inspiration will enter my life and when that happens, I will know.”  

As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, David reflects that though at first he felt unaffected, he has grown increasingly concerned for his loved ones. “I do have many people out there in the world that I love no matter if they love me back or even remember me.” Feeling disconnected, David explains how, “It scares me not knowing if they are okay or not, I just hope they are okay.” 

David is grateful that he can share his art with the world and hopes he can inspire others. He wants to share the following words: 

“I love and count you all as equals in my life. Just pass what I give you to the next you see. Because we need that more than anything in this world.”

You can view more of David’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like David, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Artist Spotlight: Chad Merrill

By Joslyn Lapinski, JAC intern

Chad Merrill’s story truly embodies the transformative power of the arts. When he was first incarcerated, Chad was on a path towards self-destruction. He barely cared about what happened to him or anyone else. He says, “I was so full of hate that I couldn’t see past my nose.”

This is a difficult mindset to escape from once in the system. There is a vicious cycle of hate and destruction that does not let people out easily. Luckily for Chad, though, he had someone pushing him off of his toxic path. A teacher named Casey constantly encouraged him to do better, asking Chad, “What do you want to do with your life?” and not letting up until he gave an answer. 

He introduced Chad to art history and they would analyze and discuss it together. Even when Chad was struggling, Casey never made him feel “anything other than his equal.” This encouragement and care is exactly what Chad needed to get on his new path: the path of an artist. He had finally discovered what he wanted to do with his life.

“My life is pretty much centered on art and around getting better at it. I had no idea that through art I could make a positive impact and seeing that in real life has lit a fire in me and after years of being a selfish asshole I can give back some and maybe even things out a bit.”

Although his art career started by analyzing historical pieces, his style is anything but traditional. At his facility, Chad does not have access to many typical art supplies. He is only allowed to work with pen and paper, but he still manages to create incredible paintings.

“I make homemade paint brushes using toothbrushes and I use a toothpaste cap to blow the pen ink into and I paint.”

By deconstructing the three pens he is allowed to purchase each week, Chad gets ink to paint with. As you might guess, he goes through pens like crazy and is always “on the grind” to find more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He is not allowed to purchase art paper so he needs to have it sent in to him. There are many restrictions on this and even when all rules are followed, getting supplies in is “hit or miss”. When Chad runs out of paper he uses snack boxes, styrofoam trays, and anything else he can get his hands on. His creativity is endless and his ability to work within his means is truly amazing. Looking at his work, you would never guess he was creating with such limited supplies.

Chad is inspired by the unique expressions of the human face and he strives to capture this in his artwork. Since every face and every expression is so different, Chad says that he never knows how his portraits will end up, but that he is always excited to see where they go.

Whenever I sit down to paint with my junky paintbrush and pen ink I’m transported out of this cell and am totally consumed with filling that piece of paper full of my emotions, my stress, anxiety, fear, love, etc. I’m able to let it all out with each little stroke and it never fails to surprise me when I’m finished at how cool it comes out. I’m completely in love with painting. Thank you for allowing me to “set free” each portrait I do. It’s stupid but I like to think that just because I’m in here it doesn’t mean they have to be as well.

So with just a few pens, a toothbrush, and some paper (if that), Chad sets out to convey the complexity of human emotion in the form of beautifully painted portraits. With each piece, he embarks on a transformative, all-consuming, and freeing journey.

“No matter what they take from me they can never take my creativity and truth is, that has forced me to become a better artist, and for that I’m thankful.”

 

You can view more of Chad’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like Chad, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

The Boy Who Only Wanted to be Loved

By John Zenc 

“The drawing of the boy who only wanted to be loved is in memory of Timy, my best friend. Timy was born with no hands, and oversized eyes. Hazel in color. Looking in Timy’s eyes, you could see his soul, see the pain, the fear, the love.

Timy would come to school, black and blue marks all over his body. I knew these marks, because I had them too. My father would beat me. Timy and I became best friends. Timy’s father would take his hate and anger out on Timy, beating him, calling him dirty names. Even though Timy’s father would beat and abuse Timy – Timy would still love and forgive his father, but no love in return from his father. I also loved and forgave my father.

The kids at school would tease little Timy and bully him relentlessly, but still Timy would smile, and be polite.

Timy and I were the outcasts in school, so we would eat lunch together, okay together, we were together all the time. I did everything for Timy, he was such a gentle soul. We even drew together. I would help him pick colors. Because of Timy I became an artist. One day Timy did not show up for school. The next day Timy’s lifeless broken body was found in the lake. His father beat and murdered Timy. Dumped his little body in the lake, his father was arrested. Timy is the boy who only wanted to be loved. This drawing is dedicated to all the bullied and abused children. Timy died at age seven.”

“This is dedicated to all the bullied and abused children.” – John Zenc

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John Zenc, an amazing artist in our network, has shared with us the incredibly vulnerable, tragic, and important story of his best friend, Timy. It explains not only Timy’s life, but also John’s beginnings in art.

Timy was a victim of bullying and abuse, to the point of his death. He had one friend, and that was John. His story is one that is difficult but necessary to discuss. Everyone knows that bullying and abuse lead to negative outcomes. This is no breaking news. However, the full extent of the long term effects are seldom discussed. Bullying and abuse during childhood are correlated with mental illnesses, conduct disorders, and more problems later in life – even incarceration. The bullying to prison pipeline is a very real problem, and one that must be addressed. The only way to do this is to address the root problem: the relentless bullying and abuse of children in our society. This is obviously no simple task, but sharing the stories of bullied and abused children is a good start to this mission.

With tears in his eyes, John wrote to me “Please spread the word. Don’t let Timy be forgotten.” So please read Timy’s story, view his beautiful portrait, and reflect on the toll bullying and abuse has taken on our society. We must fight for these children – through words, through actions, through art. 

John is doing everything he can to spread this story, even from behind bars. He asks, “How many other Timy’s are out there, being beaten, abused, teased, mistreated?” and insists that “all this abuse and bullying must come to a stop.” Stopping these hateful acts is John’s number one goal in life. So please share this story, and always remember Timy. 

 

About The Contributor:

A little history of myself. Born Feb. 3, 1957 — Honolulu, Hawaii. Been married two times. No kids, now divorced. I enlisted in the United States Army at age 15. I made a birth certificate, later my age was discovered. But when I turned 17, I re-enlisted. Both honorable discharges. I know and secretly went out with Natalie Wood, the famous actress.

Several [of my] pieces were sold to John Lennon and Johnny Carson, T.V. Personality.

My art work is now all around the world. Many people have my kids. My art is my kids. I gave life to each piece.

John Zenc