Not a Prison Artist

by Danny Ashton

Of my art and illustrations, I appreciate each and all the valued interest, criticism and opinions.

However, I would like to draw attention to (no pun intended) the request that I am not to be known as a “prison artist.”  As decades before my incarceration, I took art courses and completed my requirements for a Bachelor’s degree in art education at Eastern Kentucky University.  At the time, I moved to Arizona, and was working on my Master’s degree in Art History. At the high school level in public school districts, I have many years of experience teaching art courses. Also, in the years prior to my arrest, I had attained tenure.

Many years before my incarceration, I’d also been a freelance illustrator.  I’ve been asked to illustrate newsletters, design screen prints for t-shirts, as well as business signs and logos.  All of this was before computer graphics took over. My interest and activity in art related projects began years prior to my incarceration.

I appreciate the groups who are fighting for rights of prisoners, especially the groups fighting for awareness of the private prison fiasco and hysteria caused to fill those prisons.  However, I would like it to be known that although I’m in the prison system, I’m not of the prison system. I don’t want anything that I do to in any way be related to or depict my prison experience.  Therefore, I will decline requests to draw any moods or inner emotions involving my feelings of being a prisoner. I choose instead to continue my work as an illustrator. My choice is to continue drawing the things interesting me.  By doing so, it gives me a sense of my normal home routine. Again, I’m in the prison. I choose to keep my mind actively pursuing other topics as to not become part of the prison. Upon my release, I have ideas for oil paintings. Until then, my art is sent home to my wife who scans them and keeps the originals in binders protected in plastic sleeves.

I have varied interests including but not limited to anything historical.  I have a creative imagination and tend to become part of the era when my drawing takes place.  Yet, referring to my incarceration and the charge that got me to this point, I will not create any reminders.  Along with any drawings/paintings that I complete while my life is on hold in prison, I’m happy to share any images of oil paintings, sculptures, watercolors or photography that I’ve done pre-incarceration.  My challenge while incarcerated is that I don’t have the proper tools with which to work creating the shades, lighting and textures. I’ve had to in a sense, use what I have. I’ve seen a lot of art depicting life in prison.  I find it all depressing and some of it bordering on sick or psychotic. This is not my style. I refuse to sell out to something of this nature. The only drawing I’ve done depicting any jail situation was done the Christmas before my sentencing.  I called it Inmate at the Manger. It’s a simple pencil drawing of an inmate in cuffs and shackles kneeling at the manger of the Christ child surrounded by members of the Nativity. This was done at the request of another inmate to use as a Christmas Card.

I hope to make it understood that while efforts and passion for bringing awareness to the incarcerated artists and making our present situation more tolerable are greatly appreciated, I choose not to participate by using my time to limit myself to prison art.  I’d like my art to be recognized for the level of talent, practice and passion I’ve put into it rather than the few years, where for a bad choice I once made, I’ve spent paying a debt to society.

Please visit our online galleries to see more of Danny’s work.

From Justice Arts Coalition Managing Director, Wendy Jason:

JAC often receives requests and calls for submissions from other entities seeking artwork for exhibitions, publications, websites, etc. We typically pass these requests on to the artists in our network so that they can determine whether or not they would like to participate. Most of the time, artists are eager to submit their work — they’re excited about opportunities for increased visibility, to connect with and educate people on the outside through their creative endeavors, to support causes they believe in. Sometimes these opportunities offer a way for artists to provide some financial support to their loved ones. Once in a while, though, there are requests that blur the line between opportunity and exploitation. Even after nearly a decade fielding inquiries, I’m still tuning my radar, learning to spot the red flags, and figuring out how to react and respond when something doesn’t feel quite right. Because I want the artists who’ve grown to trust JAC to experience as much of a sense of agency as possible, I find myself torn. Do I stand between them and the risk of further exploitation, choosing not to share requests that seem to lack integrity? Or, do I share even the requests that don’t sit well in my gut, so that artists have the chance to choose for themselves? I tend to lean towards the latter, but not without first expressing my concerns to the individuals making the request, and offering guidance around redesigning their projects if they’re interested in collaborating. Fortunately, most are.

Danny’s post was written after receiving a couple of calls for submissions from well-respected entities that are doing good, important advocacy work. For the most part, they’ve been very open to receiving feedback while shaping their projects, which will ultimately provide the public with unique opportunities to engage with people in prison through visual art and writing. Danny felt very limited by the guidelines in their initial requests, and offered this essay in response.

Just Art Initiative

by Annabel Manning

As part of the Jail Arts Initiative, I give a series of art workshops based on the “Nana” using Nikki de Saint Phalle’s “Nana” figures as a departure point. This way incarcerated adult participants can explore the themes of identity and agency through the female form.  Their “Nana’s” become portraits based on important female figures in their own lives (e.g., mother, grandmother, wife, daughter, sister, partner, lover). They are accompanied by “I am” poems as a way to think about their own identity and situation using text.

The Jail Arts Initiative (JAI) is a partnership I co-initiated in 2011 with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art (Charlotte) and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.

I give art workshops inspired by Joan Miro’s  painting, “Ladder of Escape,” series of artworks. The ladder becomes a metaphor for negotiating two worlds such as terrestrial and celestial, everyday life and imaginary life, or Latinx culture and U.S. culture. See Ladder of Escape folder for artwork examples.

I also teach art workshops inspired by Miro’s painting, Hope of a Condemned Man. During the last years of Franco’s reign in Spain, Miró painted a triptych in support of the young anarchist Salvador Puig Antich, who was executed by Garotte.  We explore how this triptych might relate to participating incarcerated adults and their own situation, by creating artworks re-interpreting Miro.

As part of my Lewis Hine Fellowship with Duke University, I have been working with the Men’s Empowerment Program (MEP) at Harlem Community Justice Center. MEP creates opportunities for young men of color in Harlem to heal, build self-identity, pursue individual goals, and work with peers to strengthen their communities. My role is to teach these young men artistic tools (printmaking, photography, the written word, photography, audio, and other mediums) as a way to approach these goals . MEP participants have all been impacted by the justice system in some way.

MEP interns are constructing collages based on Romare Bearden’s “Block” painting series. Bearden was a Harlem-based artist and activist who created artwork that visualized and commented upon black life in Harlem. Likewise, in the spirit of Bearden, MEP participants are creating collages based on their own neighborhoods. They take their photos, photos from Harlem based magazines and newspapers, paint, patterned paper, and text.  Then they interview each other about their blocks and this audio becomes an important component to the visual pieces.

The “Block” pieces were exhibited at the Harlem Community Action Center in East Harlem.

About the guest contributor:

Born in Mexico and raised there and in South America, Annabel Manning’s role as a social- practice artist is shaped by the needs of the communities with whom she collaborates to find ways for individuals to represent themselves, whether in jails, restorative justice centers, pre- schools, schools, hospitals, or art centers. In 2011, she helped to create a Spanish-language “Jail Arts Initiative” at two Charlotte-Mecklenburg County (NC) Jails in collaboration with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. For the past four years, she organized, with ArtsPlus in Charlotte (NC), a bilingual art and literacy program for Latinx families and their preschooler children.

Annabel uses photography, printmaking, painting, poetry, audio, and other tools in collaboration with individuals to express their experiences with economic and physical hardships as they struggle for recognition, respect, and rights in society.

Currently, she is a Duke University Lewis Hine Fellow working at the Harlem Community Justice Center. As part of this fellowship, Annabel is developing art projects with the Justice Center’s Men’s Empowerment Program (MEP), which works with young men of color between the ages of 18-24. In addition to creating self-portrait monoprints, they are creating audio collages based on photography, videography, and audio, around Romare Bearden’s concept of “The Block.” Ultimately, MEP hopes to digitize the blocks and install them on fencing surrounding an area of the Wagner public housing development where the Justice Center’s Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety is planning to create a community hub.

Annabel Manning
Duke University, Lewis Hine Fellow
Harlem Communiy Justice Center
annabelmanning.com
https://www.instagram.com/annabelfmanning/
https://www.instagram.com/mep_nyc/


Celebrating a successful opening night…and a video launch!

by Wendy Jason, Managing Director of the Justice Arts Coalition

On Saturday, May 25th, at Rhizome DC, the Justice Arts Coalition celebrated the opening of Becoming Free, our first exhibition of works by incarcerated artists. We were joined by nearly 125 community members, each one helping to fill the space with warmth, care, and a genuine appreciation for the six artists, their stories, and their work. Quite a few guests took the time to write notes to the artists, which I will be mailing off this week. The sense of validation and connection that comes from receiving this feedback means the world to them.

Members of the Tributary Project set the tone for the night with their infectious rhythms and gorgeous melodies, and friends from local partner organizations Free Minds Bookclub and Voices Unbarred read poetry — both their own, and pieces written by men in a writing class at a nearby prison. We screened two short films by Logan Crannell, and showed our own film, Making our Meaning — which was beautifully edited by Logan — for the first time. Much of the artwork was for sale, and each of the artists has generously offered to donate a portion of the proceeds to the JAC. Local businesses 3 Stars Brewing Co., Green Plate Catering, Mark’s Kitchen and Olive Lounge contributed everything we needed to stay well fed and hydrated, and Ecoprint donated graphic design and printing services resulting in vibrant flyers for the event and new informational brochures to have on hand. If you’re in the DC area and would like to visit the exhibit, which will be up until June 22, please contact me at wendy@thejusticeartscoalition.org.

Check out more photos from the opening here, and please watch (and share!) the video below!

If you joined us for the opening, and have photos or videos you’re willing to share with us, we’d love to see them! Please email me at wendy@thejusticeartscoalition.org. Thank you!

Please join us in DC to celebrate the opening of our first exhibition!

Art Exhibit: “Becoming Free”
Saturday, May 25, Opening Reception from 7pm-10pm
Suggested donation $10-20 at the door
Art for sale!

Presented by the Justice Arts Coalition

The opening reception kicks off a month-long exhibit of works by incarcerated artists, running May 25-June 22, 2019. The event will include works by artwork by Conor Broderick, Tomás, Will Livingston, Carole Alden, D. Ashton, and Gary Harrell. Live music by the Tributary Project. Screening of select shorts by Logan Crannell. And a reading of works by poets in a local prison. Food, drinks, community. Proceeds directly benefit the artists and the launch of the Justice Arts Coalition as a 501c3 nonprofit. Please join us!

The Justice Arts Coalition unites people at the intersection of the arts and justice, cultivating community among system-involved artists, their loved ones, educators, scholars, activists, and advocates. Established in 2008 as the grassroots, volunteer-led online resource the Prison Arts Coalition, this event marks the launch of our efforts to develop JAC into 501c3 nonprofit. The JAC provides an invaluable resource, an advisory body and coalition of people who work to bring art into and out from the prison system.

For more information: Wendy Jason, wendy@thejusticeartscoalition.org

Becoming Whole: the Joy of Creation

by Tomás

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.