Guest Blog: Annie Buckley – Oasis in the Desert

By Annie Buckley

This is the first in a series of four blog posts for the Justice Arts Coalition, excerpted from the series, “Art Inside,” published by Los Angeles Review of Books. The full series is available here. Stay tuned for the second blog in Buckley’s JAC series, which will be posted on Friday, October 2nd.

For this series of posts, I am focusing on our Arts Facilitator Training (AFT) program with Prison Arts Collective (PAC). This is a program that is close to my heart as I developed it with the goal of empowering and giving agency to the hundreds of men and women that we are privileged to work with in prisons across California to develop and teach their own art classes. Initially, I fused elements of my art education classes at the university with skills to support leadership in cultivating creative communities in prisons. Since then, the AFT has evolved with input from peer facilitators in the prisons, my colleagues in PAC, and faculty and students in the four California State University campuses where we have PAC chapters. I am thrilled that the students in our first AFT program have been teaching weekly classes to their peers for the past four years. In addition, at least three have been released and two of them are working full time as teachers of rehabilitative programs in prisons.

photo by Peter Merts

Oasis in the Desert

Excerpted from Art Inside #5: Facilitator Training, 10/16/2017

It is 120 degrees out and yet the locals continue to insist that this is a cool July. I stopped noticing the constant sheen of sweat shortly after arriving here with team of student teachers to help lead a new class on the fundamentals of teaching art.

Our participants — and future teachers — are men that are incarcerated in two local prisons. They will eventually develop their own arts courses and teach their peers while cultivating creative community in the prison. On this day, we are midway through the 60-hour training designed to empower them to teach what they have learned, many while locked up, about painting, drawing, music, and poetry.

photo by Peter Merts

At this particular prison, our class was placed in an area designed for vocational training. Because of this, and the high security level of the institution, the students were strip searched before each class. They could tell this saddened us and offered the kindness of shrugging off the indignity to save our feelings. Being in that room also meant that they couldn’t bring any of their art or writing. So, until this day, we had nearly completed the 60-hour training without seeing any of their artwork.

On this special day, we were given access to another space where the men were allowed to bring their art: paintings, poems, cardboard sculptures, ink drawings, songs. We oohed and aaahed over detailed pencil drawings, paintings made of coffee, cardboard helicopters to rival model ones, and colorful animated characters. After a moving performance by the band, it was time for readings. We heard the most ingenious rhyming fairy tale, a moving apology letter that left many misty-eyed, poems that our musicians wanted to set to song, stories that opened up a window into someone’s life, and reflections on art and imagination and life.

photo by Peter Merts, courtesy of the California Arts Council
photo by Peter Merts

The last reader was the youngest in our class. He was tall but baby faced. His piece was about expectations and implored listeners to find their voice: “Let it be your answer. Let it be your truth.” When he was done, an older student said with admiration, “You’re a philosopher, man!” Another mentioned that it was really hard to write in the second person and that he had done it so well. “What’s that?” The young philosopher asked with genuine curiosity. Later, I saw them talking. The youngster wanted to know more, saying, “I want to sign up for your class.”

photo by Peter Merts

This is what I love about this program. We provide tools but they build the house. In a few months, these men who may not have spoken to one another on the yard before this, begin to see one another as artists and mentors. Over time, this is reflected back at them through their peers, and they begin to see that in themselves.


About the Author:

Annie Buckley is a professor and the director of the School of Art + Design at San Diego State University and the founding director of Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. PAC provides multidisciplinary arts programming and peer facilitator trainings in 12 prisons across California through an innovative partnership between California State Universities and state prisons. Buckley’s writing on contemporary art is published in Artforum, Art in America, The Huffington Post, and she is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, where you can find the full series of “Art Inside.”

See JAC’s recent Teaching Artist Spotlight for more about Annie Buckley and her work with the Prison Arts Collective.

About the Photographer: 

Peter Merts has been photographing California’s prison art programs for 15 years; his images have appeared in the New York Times, The Economist, and the Huffington Post. He co-published, with Dr. Larry Brewster, a book on the topic—Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (2nd ed)—and is on the advisory board of the Prison Arts Collective.

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

_________________________________________________________

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

Creativity

By Christian Trigg

In the early years of the New Millennium, I was watching a series about famous artists on the little black and white TV in my cell in the federal supermax courtesy of PBS. I don’t know if they even made black and white TVs. The ones issued to us were color TVs. They had turned the color all the way down, then removed the menu button so it stayed that way. They wouldn’t want us to have it too good in our tomb, I guess.

The series profiled Caravaggio, David, Rembrant, Van Gogh and Rothko. Caravaggio was an outlaw. He died on the run wanted for killing a man in a sword duel. David sat on the French Revolutionary panel that sent a great number of aristocrats to the guillotine. Rembrant got himself blacklisted insulting the social elites… All the artists featured had controversial histories.

I read up a little on Caravaggio. Turns out artists his age ran around in “gangs” ( for lack of a better term), hung out with hookers and occasionally went at each other with swords. It wasn’t just him!  All those iconic religious paintings they left to prosperity.  I had the impression there was an abundance of devout artist monks 500 years ago… Not so much. It was more a case of the wealthiest commissioners of art where the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Artist made ends meet painting what paid. But the character’s wielding the brushes were rebels at the heart. Not to put myself on their level but I feel a certain affinity for them.

A psychologist in a program I participated in told me  I had creative personality type. Mind you they tell everyone in maximum-security prisons that we are all sociopaths. It makes them feel better. America, in case you thought manufacturing here was dead, let me tell you you are leading the world in the production of psychos. But creative personality?

I got a little buck and that myself reading about myself. Seems my brain is wired a little differently. I traded all your practicality for my creativity and I’ve been paying for it for as long as I can remember. If you are reading this and saying that too. We are 2 out of 100 I read. It isn’t easy to be a dreamer in a practical world. My mom sent me my fourth grade report card when I tried to explain this to her. One Ms. Speak wrote, “Chris is very bright but he refuses to concentrate on the lessons.”  no doubt I was gazing out the window, doodling and daydreaming. Misunderstood I picked up the fundamentals  out of the corner of my ear.

I started to get the feeling I was a problem very young. I didn’t act out until I began to believe it in my early team. I became creative at finding trouble.

There are a lot of creative people in prison. They channel their creativity in different ways. I’ve seen feats of technical engineering that would awe MacGyver. In prison, making something out of nothing is how one lives. It manifests itself in food, creature comforts, crafts, art, and myriad other ways.  Creativity abounds. Crafty people tend to thrive. If creativity is the expression of the Soul then prisons have souls.

They say there’s a shortage of creativity in America these days. I wonder why. I bet Caravaggio, Rembrandt and all the crazy artists could relate to that.

____________________________________________________

About The Contributor

I am an artist incarcerated in a maximum federal prison.  My sentence does not end until the next decade.

My wildlife art is my story of redemption.  My desire is to demonstrate respect, compassion and love can thrive in the darkest of places.

Each painting captures the animal in its authentic habitat.

I am self-taught.  I have never taken a lesson.  I use wildlife photography from magazines and books for my source.  

I do my paintings on the floor of my cell.  I am not allowed an easel, high quality paper or any medium but chalk pastels.

I use my thumb to blend and soften the background.  Each painting takes many hours of layering colors to highlight depth and light.

– Christian Trigg

The Other America

by Christian Trigg

I rarely miss a dawn. I missed 20 years worth at the federal supermax so I have an outsized appreciation for all sorts of things many others take for granted. My cell window at the federal penitentiary in Beaumont, TX faces east. I watch the summer sun touch fire to the horizon behind distant oil refineries beyond the sand colored walls and gun towers. It is still beautiful to me.

This hive of unfortunates doesn’t bustle with activity. There is little buzz in the year of covid. They bring breakfasts on styrofoam tray’s called clamshells, a train of carts crossing the compound to bring cold congealed oatmeal and tasteless little donuts that inexplicably someone in America is being paid to make. They put 2 pints of cold milk in plastic bags and a banana or unsweetened applesauce in the tray. It jostles around so everything is coated with slimy oatmeal or applesauce. 130 something prisons generate an inconceivable amount of plastic trash. The machine of those incarceration is not operated by people concerned with the environment. These carts of tray’s make their run to cell blocks 3 times a day so we get all our meals delivered to our cells, a cold, soupy mixed up mess. The quantity of food is minimal! Grown men existing on, for example, 1 cold hamburger, a 130 calorie bag of potato chips plain, all with a light coating of applesauce of course. The trash piles up somewhere I imagine. The bureau of prisons doing the best they can.

At 6:30 am they may begin letting us get out of cells. 5 cells at a time. We get one hour to make one 10 minute call, use 15 minutes to email, and shower. Of course if you are housed in the east but are from the west coast and you come out at 6:30 am, the time difference can leave you at a loss for using the phone. The irony in this is that because of the pandemic the B.O.P cancelled all visiting and put us on “modified” lockdown. We are all worried about loved ones in this time of crisis. Being fathers, brothers and sons made powerless to help them by out incineration only adds to our plight. Because of this the prison system afforded us 500 minutes of no cost phone time per month during the crisis. The irony is that if we all only get one ten minute call per day, we can’t even use the 500 minutes. It looks good on paper. Just like the stipulation in the first step act signed into law in 2018 that mandates we be housed within 500 miles of our families. It’s just paper.

They have the technology to implement video visiting. It already exists in some federal prisons. There are countries issuing prisoners cell phones. I often ask myself why is America like this. Why are there so many people, millions of people in prisons that are fixated on implementing the harshest regime possible upon them. This should be said is you system. It operates in your name carrying your will with your dollars.

We’ve been locked in our small cell for 23 hours a day for 3 months now. We have limited access to the commissary. We cannot purchase art supplies. We have no programming activities really. Some cells have a view of the T.V. that hang on posts outside the cells unlike those state prisons where prisoners can purchase T.V.s and tablets for their cells.

Thus we endure as best we can each in his own way. Stagnating or stewing as we go from sunrise to sunrise in the other america.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

About the guest contributor:

“My wildlife art is my story of redemption. My desire is to demonstrate respect, compassion and love can thrive in the darkest of places…Each painting captures the animal in its authentic habitat.

I am self-taught. I have never taken a lesson. I use wildlife photography from magazines and books for my source.

I do my paintings on the floor of my cell. I am not allowed an easel, high quality paper or any medium but chalk pastels. I use my thumb to blend and soften the background. Each painting takes many hours of layering colors to highlight depth and light.”

-Christian Trigg