Announcing the launch of the JAC Community Survey!

The Justice Arts Coalition, with the support of two graduate students from the George Washington University, is conducting a comprehensive evaluation of its programming. As part of this process, we are asking for members of the JAC community to complete a brief survey about their experiences with JAC activities. If you have participated in our programs, made use of the resources on our website, been in contact with our team, or stayed connected via social media, we welcome your participation. Your feedback will be used to help inform and strengthen our programs moving forward.

While we hope many of you will choose to complete the survey, participation is completely optional, and there are no negative consequences for choosing not to participate. Those who do participate can also choose to leave individual questions blank, and any information provided will be completely anonymized, and reported through averages, rather than individually.

If you do choose to participate, we ask that you please complete this online survey by March 21st.

Thank you very much for your feedback and support of the Justice Arts Coalition!

To My Big Sis, Judith Tannenbaum, from Spoon Jackson

by Spoon Jackson

My love for my mentor and big sis, Judith. I know death is rising over the mountains, slowly, and the pain must be enormous. Yet Judith finds and creates beauty and peace even in the midst of a hurricane. She transforms in the middle of death. Judith has been dealing with great physical and mental pain all of her life, and yet she is like a birthing star, always growing and sending out and being love. I don’t know what my world will be without her, hollow and empty. 

But it’s not about me, and I am sure she left some of her heart and spirit inside each of us— a shining light in darkness. Judith’s curiosity and loyalty is unmatched even by goddesses or gods. If she believed in you, she inspired you to be yourself and change the world, if only the small world you knew. She lies there holding hands with death, and yet no bitterness enters her heart, and joy fills her spirit. She has made everyone better by her presence and walk in this life, and Judith’s love and magic live on in all of us who knew her and were and still are blessed by her.

Judith, you left no one behind because we all go with you and you with us! I love you, Big Sis.

Judith and Spoon at the CA Men’s Colony in the 1980s

Today I spoke to Judith for

the last time.

She is the bravest person I know

to keep being Judith

despite the tremendous pain

cutting at her body.

 

She said her time is close 

to gone and reminded me

to write something

knowing already that I would.

 

She is my mentor and big sis,

and one of my best friends ever.

 

She inspired and saw in me things

I would have never seen in myself.

I grew wings because of her.

Our spirits and hearts and our love

were linked from the beginning.

 

Even in our silence—you like

Mr. Samuel Beckett—we treasured

our silence.

 

I missed you long before

you were gone.

We will meet again long

across time and space

beyond dreams and boundaries.

 

December 3 and 4, no word from Judith and I keep trying to call. Anja received an email saying death is very close, so I picked up the frequency of my calls, and we connected briefly and expressed our love. Yesterday, I got a card from Judith, and she said it was a prayer she read or recited each time she went into San Quentin.

I knew she was gone three days before Anja tried to tell me over the phone. I asked her not to say those words, and I had to leave the phone because what I already knew in silence became too strong. I tried to get away and went outside and had nowhere to go—no place to hide my tears—and a stormy dark sky betrayed me and did not rain. It had been raining for two days. Judith Tannenbaum, my mentor and big sister—I did not get to hug and say so long—I’ll see you some other time and space over there where loved ones go. Another dimension beyond dreams, darkness and light. I missed you already even before you were gone. I’ll be free someday too, and we will fly together—someday, Big Sis. We wanted to do poetry on stage together. I love you.

I knew Judith

was physically gone

yet I called her number

and let the phone ring anyways

knowing no one would pick up.

It would take decades of rain

for my tears to be unseen.

 

There is not enough rain

to hold my pain,

not enough rain

to hide the pain

of my not being there.

 

You were always there

like an ancient redwood.

You told me you lay

on the floor

and found solace

from a radio show

in New Orleans,

radio that took you away

from the pain.

I should have been beside you

on the floor listening.

I should have been beside you

on long walks or hikes up Mt. Tam.

 

I should have been beside you

on stage, going back and forth

reading poetry.

 

I should have been beside you

because.

Click here to order a copy of Spoon and Judith’s memoir, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives. 

About the guest contributor:

“I’ve found my niche in life despite being in prison for 42 years. I have found that prisons are created internally and are truly found everywhere. I have also discovered that the secrets to break down prison walls are inside each person and I treasure sharing this realness with people. I keep my light glowing through expressing my inner thoughts, vibes and feelings in my poetry and prose writing. Peace/Spoon”

For more on Spoon and his work, visit the following link.

If you would like to connect with Spoon, send a letter to:

Spoon Jackson B92377, CSP-Solano, C 13-19-1, L., PO Box 4000, Vacaville, CA 95696/4000, USA

Visit Spoon’s website to read more of his poetry. JAC is honored that Spoon has agreed to serve as a member of our Advisory Council.

 

Beginnings

by Jeremy Sobek

Jeremy Sobek

I remember how I felt the first time I knew I was going to be an artist, I was in fourth grade, my teacher’s name was Mr. D. It was Halloween and the entire class was making paper plate masks as part of a contest. I had no cares for the contest, though. I was too absorbed in what I was creating. 

The night before, I begged my oldest brother to draw something scary on a paper plate. He was a pretty good artist, so my intentions were to present whatever my brother drew. After minutes of pestering he finally drew the face of a werewolf, blood dripping down sharp teeth. I was amazed. I remember going to bed late because I couldn’t stop staring at my werewolf paper plate mask.

The next day in class all the students were pulling out their masks adding last minute decorations of scariness. I grabbed a new paper plate from Mr. D and pulled out the mask my brother made. I started copying the werewolf onto my new paper plate and was extremely happy with the result. So I drew it again and again, probably ten times that morning feeling joy every time I started over.

From then on art became my everyday life. Instead of going to play basketball with my brothers I would be sitting in my room drawing. A few years later, 1997 to be exact, a cousin of mine came over one afternoon to hang out. He had no idea I was into drawing. A few of my scrap papers had on them two tags that I would write over and over, Devs and Vex, and they were high up on a building in my neighborhood. My cousin saw my copies and told me who the guys were and explained this game called graffiti. I was instantly hooked and haven’t stopped writing since. 

I have had some hard times in life and creating art has been the one positive act that has saved me. I was a gang involved youth, shot at, sliced with knives, was part of massive gang fights, racially profiled and harassed. At 13 years old my main focus besides art was to make it to see 18 years of age.

In 2013 I was the cause of a horrific accident involving a firearm that almost took the life of a loved one. I was arrested and spent the next two years in and out of court on bail, finally taking a plea. I served 2 ½  years. The hardest part of that experience was having to leave my son and hurting someone I truly cared about. 

I spent my time at the South Bay Corrections Facility. The first month I was completely depressed. I spoke to no one, barely ate and I slept most of the day. For whatever reason I decided to hang outside the cell one morning for rec. I noticed a couple of guys standing over this man who was drawing, without thought I went and sat down at the table. The man was drawing, in blue pen, a lion with a crown. We spoke briefly and before the rec was over I asked for a few pieces of paper and a pen. From then on I drew. The inmates became my clients and I drew tons of portraits, angels, teddy bears, hearts, skulls and graffiti. I also wrote poetry. I joined an essay writing class and was reintroduced to a lost passion. 

I realized the power of my art when I saw inmates smiling as they explained the images I drew  to their friends. Some would quietly go right to their cell, sit on their bed and stare at my work for minutes at a time. I wondered what memory they thought of as they sat in silence. Even correction officers would comment, “ Pretty good work, [Sobek],” as they raided my cell. 

The inmates encouraged me to do more with my art, for them and for myself. I wanted to create a business. Upon my release I decided to do whatever I must to accomplish my artistic goals. Since my release I have been part of  a documentary called ‘The Free Walls’, working closely with Olivia Huang and the Cambridge Arts Council. I was commissioned by Jamaica Plains Development Neighborhood Corp to create a mural with the residents at 75 Amory St. I’ve been a part of numerous art shows and hosted my own. I have been asked to participate in a street art documentary as one of the main artists with knowledge of Boston graffiti.

Although I believe this to be a significant resume since my release, I have yet to be accepted as a serious artist in the art world. I have been denied by a few of the organizations that sponsor large scale murals in Massachusetts. My determination to create on a larger scale led me to create my ‘Back Against The Wall’ initiative with the goal of bringing legal street art to Dorchester/Mattapan, my birth place. The art scene in Boston is unbalanced with most of the colorful and experimental street art happening in the wealthier parts of the city. I’m the product and proof that something beautiful can flourish in the dirtiest of places. 

“Take the art farther than where you found it,” I heard a man say in a documentary about Black music and arts. I say this phrase every day, for it leaves me with no choice but to see my goals through. I’m obligated to teach my son his family history and the history of all people of color. I’m obligated to speak on social justice, prejudices and inequalities because I’ve been subject to them. My power is my art and I will do what I must to take it farther than where I found it.

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For more about Jeremy and his current projects:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4Df-0CVEgzE&feature=share

https://abovethefreewalls.yolasite.com/

https://vimeo.com/218394030

https://www.cctvcambridge.org/node/682700

Support Jeremy’s City as Canvas: Above the Free Walls project here!

 

 

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Peggy Rambach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pastels by Peggy’s students

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

 

Read our last Teaching Artist spotlight, featuring Hakim Bellamy.

 

 

 

Artist Spotlight: Cedar Mortenson

This month, we’ll be putting our Artist Spotlight on Cedar Mortenson. JAC asked Cedar some questions, and below you’ll find Cedar’s response. But first, an introduction in Cedar’s own words:

 CM: Thank you for contacting me, for your correspondence and notifications. I hope this letter finds you well, in good spirits and warm. There is quite a lot of snow outside here, from what I can see on the weather channel anyhow. I haven’t been outside for over 6 months. I dream about the sun on my face, rain, wind, snow, dirt under my feet. I usually chef at one of the local ski resorts in Northern New Mexico near where I live at so I can get my free lift pass that goes along with the job, then all my extra time is spent upon the mountain with my snowboard or playing with the dogs and the horses in the snow. Sometimes I get snowed in where I live way up in the mountains so it’s just us til the snow melts enough to get out or my SUV can get through the snow pack. I miss home a lot. It’s hard to be incarcerated so far away from home.

untitled
Untitled, Cedar Mortenson

 JAC: What inspires your artwork?

 CM: Life in general, mostly the impact that life occurrences have on my heart as the pencil and paper is a channel to that. It’s a form of therapy in here. I exercise, I shower, I sleep, read, write, draw. I miss the people I love so much that it’s hard to write them or call, plus phone calls are expensive and I don’t want them to have to come out of their pockets for my bad choices, so I write but it hurts a lot; drawing is a better way to convey my love and thoughts. I draw them portraits and dreams. My dogs and horses inspire my artwork. I am a naturalist, activist, chef, poet, freestyle cage fighter, and outdoorsperson among being an armed robber apparently. I go to sleep every night looking at photos of my dogs. We have a pack. I’m the leader. We need to be together. My brother is looking out for them but he doesn’t love them like I do. He doesn’t embrace them and squeeze their fuzzy faces against his own and kiss the top of their heads, and sing them their songs. They each have their own song, and they get so happy when you sing to them. “There was a sailor dog named Blue… She sailed across the whole Atlantic Ocean…” So begins Blue’s song. Blue and Pepper are sisters. Rocco, Doodle, Midnight and Amos are Pepper’s sons. Midnight has gone missing since I’ve been incarcerated,

 I also have horses. This is my family. I am responsible for taking care of them. I enter art competitions with hopes of placing to win cash awards to send to my mom to buy dog food and hay for them, and my motives are accelerated now with winter here.

The Eye of the Joshua Tree
The Eye of the Joshua Tree, Cedar Mortenson

 This is my main challenge as an incarcerated artist, is trying to find ways to support my furry family and my family too. When I’m free I’ll always help my mom with wood for the winter and hay and bring her groceries. She lives on a rural reservation with her husband and is elderly. Giving time to the elderly is really important. 

It’s a challenge finding a continuum to remain proactive about environmental issues. The jail gives us our food in styrofoam containers. I retail biodegradable compostable products and packaging for 5 FDA approved U.S. companies and can offer them a more cost efficient and completely biodegradable alternative but of course as an inmate they won’t use the resources I offer. 

 Persistence can crack an egg though it’s a challenge to find the most direct outlets for writing and drawing proactive issue work materials that I feel may have the most influential impact. How do I reach people with my art and writing from here? I’m grateful to JAC for the opportunities they provide to do so, and I believe this coalition will grow and prosper in its ability to reach more and more people over the course of time. It’s a challenge as an artist/muralist to be limited to 8” by 12” paper with colored pencils, pen, ink that are 3 inches long and grow shorter with use because apparently they can be used as weapons if they are longer than 3 inches. I’ve recently discovered the white paper lunch sacks. When carefully deconstructed from about an 18 by 24 inch platform to create on and can easily fold back up to fit in a regular business size envelope. This discovery came after continuous write ups from ripping up the facility’s linen sheets to use as canvasses to draw on. So far they haven’t confiscated any of my paper sack artwork yet.

 I could go on to list more challenges but in all honesty the blessings are as great, thank God I have an imagination, a sense of humor, the ability to create and the tools that are accessible and approved to create what I can. God is good to me. I am humble and grateful. Where I’m at is no one’s fault but my own.

Genjis Horse Murasaki
Genji’s Horse, Cedar Mortenson

It is enough that our time with loved ones is taken from us in penalty. Our voices and hearts. Expression should have a continuum always, this is the essence of life and no one should be allowed to take that from any individual under any circumstances. So thank you so much for providing an outlet for this; it’s rewarding to me to have this form of expression, correspondence, communication. I sincerely hope this is reciprocated to you and the members of the Coalition committee who work to make this possible that they can continually feel their efforts are making a difference and receive a beneficial impact in their own lives as well. And of course I hope that people will buy my artwork through this experience as I constantly stress about my animals everyday.

 

 

Please consider joining our pARTner Project to connect directly with an artist in prison. Find more information and sign up by clicking here.