The Becomings of a Master, Part 3: Hiatus

by R. Zumar

I’ve been pondering this in my mind over and over and over again. Trying to find a way to be able to keep creating work to send out for you to see without compromising the things I need in here. I find it to be nearly impossible to do from my position and I’ve failed to find that balance, and let things get to out of control.

So! Should this failure stop me from studying and creating artwork. No, I don’t think so. Even though I don’t have the money to continue to send my work out doesn’t mean that I should stop creating. So I’ll keep at my studies and work to be better, my becomings are far from over.

You may not see any work from me for a while cause I need to get my affairs in order in here. But once I do get things back on track you will see my progress, you will see how far I’ve come. You will see how I see beauty in all things though once upon a time all I saw was ugliness.

Like I said before, I’m fairly new to this art world and I’m learning as I go and there needs to be balance in art no matter how chaotic some of us may make a piece of artwork seem. There is still balance in it and we should also find this balance in our lives. We can only be made better for it. Trust, this experience has made me see things more clearly and can only hope it has done the same for you.

This is the becomings of a master! 

Bolgora
Bolgora, R. Zumar

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 artist 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.”

View the first two installments in the artist’s blog series here and here

Teaching artist spotlight: Hakim Bellamy

Hakim Bellamy was the inaugural Poet Laureate of Albuquerque (2012-14) and facilitates youth writing workshops for schools, jails, churches, prisons and community organizations in New Mexico and beyond.

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Photo by Wes Naman

JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art?

HB: Good teachers are comfortable at the front of the room talking. Better teachers are good at listening. Great teachers are good at processing what they’ve heard, pivoting when required and using it to moderate the dosage. Ultimately, I’ve learned to equip my students (both in prison/jail workshops and as a high school creative writing professor) with the tools they need to construct and deconstruct writing even in my absence. And often, I pick up new tools to share from them. As a writer and teacher, I chose to teach from a space of ideation rather than refinement (the traditional editing/drafting process). I leave that for my English teacher counterparts. I firmly believe that the best ideas give way to the best poems. Perspective, a different analysis or way of seeing the world than my own is what my students (especially those in carceral spaces) offer me. Other than irreversibly changing me as a human, they become ideas I can share with writers in future workshops to prime the imagination pump. For instance, the idea of writing a poem from the perspective of what it is like to have a birthday in prison. And them teaching me through their work that birthdays are not something we look forward to in prison. It is a monument to the passing of time, wishes and dreams.

JAC: 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?

HB: In the last workshop that I facilitate about doing work with incarcerated populations, there was a skills share that was part of my work prior to then workshop. I was able to bring/share work (scrubbed for identifiers) and prompts/practices with workshop providers. I think this sort of skills share is useful, not just in e-mail/newsletter format but with conference call/zoom meeting or meet up. I think the sharing of work, something Wendy [Jason] taught me, is as important for our workshop participants as it is for us providers. Sure, our coveted funders may frown upon this sort of hierarchy flattening, but once we stop getting silo’d and competing for resources we will have more impact. None of us are doing any thing that it proprietary…cultivating humanity through writing and performance circles is creative commons. We can have more of a sustainable and measurable impact reaching across instead of up…and maybe, just maybe there is a funder waiting to fund that sort of sector/operational work. Call it sector/professional development.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with system-impacted artists?

HB: The grace by which they welcome me and the light/hope I try to bring into a space that is designed to deprive them of those things. It could be easy for them to go, “so what? This shit has no tangible impact on my lived situation.” But by and large, they don’t. They are open to the possibility of learning something…about themselves. All I provide is the rare person who sees them as what they write/say rather than what they did.

—–

Hakim Bellamy is a national and regional Poetry Slam Champion and holds three consecutive collegiate poetry slam titles at the University of New Mexico. His poetry has been published on the Albuquerque Convention Center, on the outside of a library, in inner-city buses and in numerous anthologies across the globe. Bellamy was recognized as an honorable mention for the University of New Mexico Paul Bartlett Ré Peace Prize for his work as a community organizer and journalist in 2007 and later awarded the Career Achievement Award for the same Prize in 2018. In 2013 he was awarded the Emerging Creative Bravos Award by Creative Albuquerque and was named a W. K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow as well as a Food Justice Resident Artist at Santa Fe Art Institute in 2014. Bellamy was named “Best Poet” in the Weekly Alibi’s annual Best of Burque poll every year between 2010 and 2017. His first book, SWEAR (West End Press/UNM Press) won the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing from the Working Class Studies Association. He is the co-creator of the multimedia Hip Hop theater production Urban Verbs: Hip-Hop Conservatory & Theater that has been staged throughout the country. Bellamy has had his work featured in Rattle, AlterNet, Truthout, CounterPunch and on the nationally syndicated Tavis Smiley Radio Show. In 2017 he was named a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow and he’s served as the on-air television host for New Mexico PBS’s ¡COLORES! Program for three years. The proud father of a 10 year-old miracle, Bellamy was recently appointed Deputy Director for the City of Albuquerque’s Cultural Services Department and is the founding president of Beyond Poetry LLC.

 

 

The Stories We Save May Include Our Own

by Matt Malyon

 

I. Birdwatching

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.  No—it reels, dizzy in the vibration of its unplanned encounter with steel.  It flaps its huge wings and begins to make sounds that might best be described as cries of terror, as it moves in and out of cars unable to stop their hurtling forward for the sudden and surprising descent of the large white bird.

*

I spend most Wednesday afternoons with youth in orange jumpsuits, holding a yellow No. 2 pencil between my fingers, and leaning over a black-marbled cover notebook.  Our county’s incarcerated youth have landed “inside” for various reasons—gang related incidents like drive-by shootings or territorial violence, domestic disputes, harm to animals, or items involving alcohol and drugs.  Unless they write about their past, which they often do, we leave such matters at the door. I shake their hands and welcome them as equals. After introductions we settle into the work at hand—reading literature together and responding to it through discussion and creative writing.

In the early days of facilitating Underground Writing workshops, I began to notice our tendency to bring literature of a darker vein.  These included, among others, Dante’s dark wood, Sherman Alexie’s poetry of lament, the non-fiction-fiction of Tim O’Brien, the wars and adventures in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the migrant experience of Juan Felipe Herrera, environmental issues in Martha Serpas’ poetry, the tragedy and loss in the poems of Langston Hughes, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Osip Mandlestam, Suji Kwock Kim, and Natalie Diaz, and the darker undercurrents hidden within Robert Frost’s well managed forms.  

I caught myself introducing workshops by saying things like, “I know we discuss a lot of darker stuff, but . . .”  In time, I realized our students did not share a similar anxiety. They recognized their own stories in this very type of difficult literature.  

The truth is that our Underground Writing students, in one way or another, are struggling—the youth in the adult crimes they wake to discover they have committed; our adult students in the physical and mental aftershocks of drug addiction and incarceration; our migrant leaders caught in the intricate web of cultural and familial tensions, in a country seemingly half against them.  Such darkness needs to be named, and the dynamic discussions we’ve been having indicate our students intuitively know this.    

*

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.

The story that opened this essay was a story told during a workshop by my friend and colleague in Underground Writing, Chris Hoke.  Chris has a gift for images, and this one stuck with me for some time.  I could see it. I could hear it. I wanted to include it in a piece of my own writing.  But it wasn’t my story.  

In the days that followed, however, something began to evolve.  

I recalled what came to mind immediately in the workshop when I heard the story—my father in an auto parts store in Anaheim, California in January of 2000.   

Two months before my father’s death—returned home from the hospital after his fifth surgery, and unknowingly a few weeks away from hospice care—he decided to get new seat covers for my mom’s car.  He would have nothing to do with anyone telling him anything different. And so, with a body emaciated from years of radiation, cobalt, and chemotherapy in the 70s, and again during the return of his Hodgkin’s Disease in 1999, my father climbed carefully into his golden yellow Volvo 1800 sports car and drove to the local auto parts store.  He was nearly a ghost by this point. A perfectionist for his entire life, he had only recently given up shaving due to a lack of energy. He weighed less than a hundred pounds.

I was in Iowa at the time, so I wasn’t there to see him walk gingerly down the aisle, past the various car fluids, on his way to where the seat covers were located.  And I didn’t hear the break, as somewhere between the ankle and the knee his tibia simply snapped. My beloved father, a man of dignity and grace unlike I’ve ever known, fell to the floor in agony, surrounded by bottles of motor oil and antifreeze, his brief descent ending as he rolled onto his back, stunned by the white light and the faces above him appearing quickly from all angles of his vision.

*

As Underground Writing has grown, as we’ve journeyed from the adrenaline burst of new beginnings, articles in the press, and T-Shirts into the settled rhythms of a more established program, one of the facets of what we’re doing that has become increasingly important to me is how our stories overlap, how they connect us.

In January 2016, my beloved mom passed away.  It was a grief unlike I had known in years. Part of the intensity was due to the fact that both of my biological parents are now gone.  When I shared this news at various times at each of our sites, invariably the room grew quiet. It was as if I could see in slow-motion-time-release the change in the students’ perception of me—white, middle-class teacher to fellow human in a shared journey.  We were now strugglers together, and with a common language. We sat together in that moment of silence. Mere seconds, usually, but it often felt as if time expanded so as to contain the gravity of death. And I suspect we each sat in that silence with images and stories flickering through our minds.  Stories of blood and lineage and loss and grief, the students unconsciously experiencing a transformation as my narrative merged briefly with theirs then faded into other thoughts based in their lives, their stories.  

*

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole . . .

In the days following my hearing of this tale, I realized that the stories I was hearing in the workshops were no longer easily defined as something other, as “theirs.”  And the stories I was sharing from my life were not exclusively “mine.”  In fact, my friend’s story was becoming mine, or a part of it, as were the stories shared by our students.  In my hearing of them—my taking them in, as it were—they had not been merely received. They had some sort of agency, something that is ongoing.  The stories, I believe, are generating connections with stories from my life. They are intertwined with my own and are changing my perception of my past.  My stories are also becoming part of others’ stories. Located in the Skagit Valley for a little over a year now, I join them. My life now includes these lives.  I am being changed day by day, reeling in the reverberations of such beauty and sorrow.

*

Weeks later, I recalled a photograph famous in our family for its seeming absurdity.  In the foreground my beloved father and his brother are horsing around with their father, my grandfather, on the west-facing, hard brown sands of Manzanita, Oregon, our family’s preferred place of sojourn for four generations.  My cousin is building a sandcastle in the background, and behind the small edifice, the Pacific Ocean in all its glory—deep blue, brightly glistening under the evening sun. The lighting is appropriately the golden hour. My father, who is on the left side of the photo, separated by a human-width gap from his father and brother, has his hand held up and out like one side of a cross.  Far in the background, but clearly visible, and seeming to rest on my father’s fingertips: a gull, its wings expanding, about to take flight.

 

II. Gravedigging

In our line of work, my colleagues and I often talk about bringing life into places of death.  Whatever a literal resurrection might entail, I’m learning most people need first to discover their entrapment.  They also need hope, something that is in scarce supply for many of the students with whom we work. What little remains often needs to be exhumed.

We use creative writing as a shovel.  

It’s hard work, but the willingness to dig is quickly evidenced in the discussions that follow our group reading of a text.  And the soil, prepared by the literature, is pliant. By the time the writing prompts are finished, students—through some grace moving in language itself—have often dug down deep enough into the self to reach a grave.

*

Spaces like these are shelters for decay, narratives of darkness.  I hear such stories on a weekly basis . . . The young man who confesses to me he’s locked up for killing his grandma’s dog and doesn’t know why he did it, who then proceeds to tell me of his long history of physical abuse at the hands of an angry father; the man in his twenties I’m asked to speak with on the phone in the glass-protected booth, who is missing an arm he himself sawed off, who has swastikas below his eyes and “perdition” written backwards on his forehead so he can read it in the mirror, who tells me he’s from Manson’s farm; the look on the guard’s face the other night when I asked if any pastoral care had been given to the Cascade Mall shooter, who is currently being held in Skagit County Jail; the young man I counsel who tells me he’s having flashbacks of standing over a rival gang member he’s unwittingly stabbed six times in self-defense, listening to him beg for mercy.

*

There are other movements in the darkness, too.

We’re privileged to see some of our students on a regular basis and build long-term rapport.  It’s satisfying to see the maturing work they produce. Many of our students, however, we see only once, maybe twice, for an hour or two at most.  These are the students I wonder about. Will their notebooks ever get used for creative writing again? Will the impact of encountering literature in a given session spark something, anything?  Will they contact us on the “outs”? Will they remember writing is a gift and a tool for life? I continue to hope. I continue to believe that literature read together in a hospitable atmosphere, paired with writing prompts connected to both the readings and the students’ lives, begins something beyond what we can quantify.  Words matter. Literally. They take shape, and form a space in which things can grow.

Leaving the workshop with a notebook full of words and photocopies of good literature is not our only goal, of course.  We’re seeking both inspiration and transformation. This may take the form of a participant’s continuing to pursue the craft of writing and reading in a more purposeful manner.  It may simply mean they read more. Or it may mean they discover writing as a tool to help process a world that usually leaves them confused, angry, and sad. Whatever the case, we endeavor to resuscitate and nurture hope, something tangible that can be built upon, furthered to the point that an imagination of a different future begins to arc toward what they might become.  It is across this bridge of the imagination, as it were, that the participants can begin the long journey towards embodying a different future.  

I’ve seen writing work this way for two of the students who participated in our program’s initial week of workshops.

R. is from another state, but when I met him he was being detained on various charges in our local area.  Although he was noticeably quiet, I often caught him grinning at certain things read aloud or said in our workshops.  There was a light on. I liked him immediately.  

A month or two after Underground Writing’s debut, our workshop group was discussing the letters of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time.  “Letters can be literature,” we told the youth.  “Let’s try it, too.” For our writing prompt, we asked them to write a letter to someone.  When it was open-share time, R. decided to read. “I call this one ‘Dear System’,” he began. 

Dear System,

Ever since I was born you’ve been there.  You were there when my biological mom would relapse and let my sister and I run around free.  You were there again as I began to realize how to work on my own and take care of my mom and little sister.  You were there when my biological dad went into a rage and hit someone. You were there when my mom used up her last chance.  You took me and my little sister from her. You weren’t there when I passed from family member to family member. You were there to give me a new family.  You were the one who put both my parents in jail. You put my biological dad in prison. Now you are here again, but this time just for me. You are here putting me in JRA for the same reason my biological dad’s locked up.  You have brought me nothing but pain in the 14 years I’ve known you. You have torn apart my family time and time again only to put me in a new one where I’ve done nothing but disappoint or make people angry. So, System, before I finish this letter, I just want you to know I will never forgive you.

R.

The room was silent.  Not only because we’d just heard a sort of foundational text that solidified we were on to something important, but also because R.’s writing was inarguably powerful.  In five minutes, his emotions had been honed into something concise that moved beyond mere self-expression. He’d interacted with literature in a dialogic manner, and by the look on his face, something transformative had happened to him during the process.

R.’s out of state now, so we stay in touch these days via letters and the phone.  During the course of our last phone conversation, he told me he’s working on a section of a long autobiography project, as well as completing a set of song lyrics.  His letters, too, bear witness to the continuing impact of writing . . .

I’m happy that “Dear System” is helping people.  That’s a side of my writing that I never considered.  I am still writing. So far I have gone through three notebooks . . . I miss going to Underground Writing sessions.  I liked it there, I always felt welcomed.

I’ve also seen it in J.—a native to our county, held inside for a record number of months, due to the serious nature of the charges against him.  J.’s interest in writing has had extremely tangible benefits. In our workshops he was always eager to share his work.

Thinking

So I’m in deep depression now

There’s nothing I can do about it

I’ve been sleeping all day

I get real tired when I’m this way.

I start thinking and thinking

And my mind goes crazy.

I get the same thought

Over and over—

What would things be like if

I ended my life today?

I stare, and I stare

I think everyone

Who loves me hates me,

Who wouldn’t care

If I just disappeared one day

I think and I think—

Wouldn’t it be better if it all

Just went away.

J. is determined to survive.  Likeable from the start, he’s a person I’ve come to appreciate for his strong desire for change and restoration.  In the fifteen months I’ve known him, he’s taken to writing as if it were an iron lung. His first letter to me implied it might, in fact, be something of the sort.

As you know, I missed creative writing.  I was really bummed out because that’s my favorite programming that I look forward to all week.  I’m a ‘security risk’. I’m really stressed out and just going crazy.  I’ve never had such severe, strong, and sudden emotions.

Near the end of his stay, we began meeting once a week.  I met with him as a teacher or a chaplain, determined by his need on any given day.  By the time he was finally sentenced and sent to a juvenile prison, we’d also written seven letters back and forth.  

So I made it to [prison]!  I was in Shelton for about 3 hours then they took me.  I’ve been here almost 24 hours. I’m not sure what to say about this place other than it’s definitely a prison…I found a small section for poetry in the library, but they have like 80% Shakespeare and really old stuff . . . I’ve been writing a ton but most of it is private stuff or my new book, ‘To My Love’.  I’m really excited to hear what you think about my prologue. My mom is sending all of my writing from the outs and Juvie. It is so much that she had to put it in a package in the post office.

When I look back over the past fourteen months, writing is the thread that is so apparently woven through J.’s future progress and restoration.  More so, what I believe propels J. is what to one degree or another propels all writers and poets—he has encountered the self through writing, and, in that process, imagination, mystery, and hope.

Our correspondence has notably increased in the six months since his transfer, most of it being driven by J.’s own desire to continue learning the craft of writing.  He is an exemplar of our program’s hoped-for impact. In 41 letters and counting, we’ve edited and re-edited draft after draft of various poems and short stories. We’ve shared a bit of our own stories.  And we’ve also been working on a co-submission to a literary journal, an item that has facilitated further momentum toward change for J. 

I’ve been inspired once again to be a part of Underground Writing or a similar group/organization when I get out.  This program changes lives. I am a prime example. I now have something to work towards, to strive for. I have something I want on the outs.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, I was able to visit J. in another part of our state.  Amidst a room full of families and loved ones visiting their sons, their boyfriends, their dads, I sat with J. for one and a half hours.  We talked about life in his new surroundings, as well as his hopes for the future. He’s feeling settled in his living unit, and his medications have finally stabilized.  There have been challenging and good reconnections with his family. He’s just turned eighteen and is registering to vote. He’s applying to take classes through a local community college, and is determined to use what little money he has left to help his mom in paying for his tuition.  In my estimation, the hope for change has transformed into actual and definable progress.  

“You’re doing great,” I say to J. as we shake hands.  “Really great. So glad to see it.” I tell him I’ll return in a month or two.

He smiles.  “You’re going to send out our submission next week—right?”

*

Reading Flannery O’Connor recently, I was reminded of a story received from the ancient tradition of the desert fathers and mothers.  There was a hermit living in the region of Scetis who had become seriously ill.  His fellow monks, upon visiting him one day, discovered that he had died, and began to prepare his body for burial.  All of sudden, he awoke, opened his eyes, and began laughing. After recovering from their surprise, the brothers asked him what he was laughing about.  He told them he was laughing because they feared death, because they were not ready for it, and, finally, because he was passing from labor into his rest.  With this he rolled over and died.

Death for such monastics was a way of life.  A way to life.  And reportedly, some monks in ages past did indeed sleep in their coffins.  When presented with this bit of history, my son tells me the monks were probably hiding from something.  I asked some of the youth in Underground Writing what they thought.

A: “To get away from everything for a while.”

O: “Maybe it was part of their praying.”

L: “Because they’re getting ready to die.”

In some sense, all of these answers are correct.  Monks have always been consciously mindful of death.  Sleeping in coffins was simply a more obvious way of facilitating this.  It was likely their way of hiding from the very act of hiding—a way to actively seek an encounter with reality.  Whatever the people in surrounding communities may have thought of the practice, to say nothing of the explanation, it was not a sorrowful thing.  Nor did it lead to depression. In fact, a monk’s literal descent into his future place of death allowed him to more fully engage life. It became a conduit for joy, allowing a monk to wake to the freeing realization of his mortality.  

In the literature we discuss with youth and adults, in the writing we do as a generative response, we more often than not enter into the darkness of our lives.  These unlit places may be as simple as a general lack of clarity or as complex as navigating the extrication of oneself from the clutches of drug addiction, gang involvement, or repeating cycles of shame and perceived failure.  Whatever a student’s degree of darkness, by directly descending into it—through the profound mystery of reading/writing—something begins to happen. They begin to voice the ineffable. Words become sentences become beauty. In less than an hour, it’s surprising to witness the claustrophobic encasement of each student’s life opening up a bit.  So begins a fissure. And through such gaps daylight begins to filter in. 

About the guest contributor:

Matt Malyon is the Executive Director of Underground Writing, as well as a jail and juvenile detention chaplain.  He is the author of the poetry chapbook, During the Flood.  His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has been featured in various journals— including the University of Iowa’s 100 Words, Rock & Sling, Measure, and The Stanza Project.  He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.

The essay above was first published in Iron City Magazine.

You can read Matt’s previous article on the JAC blog here.

 

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.

As the End Comes (a tribute to Alice Walker)

by Mardie Swartz

Mardie Swartz has spent 29 years behind bars in Texas. This poem is about the time approaching when she will finally be beyond bars.

I remember beginnings –

The first time I was molested

Sold, abandoned, raped

The first drink, snort, shot of

Whatever would numb some

of the pain. The first time I

ran, and the first time I

just stayed and closed my eyes.

The first time I tried to hang.

 

I recall pissing on myself

In fear when I entered jail

at sixteen. The smell of

vomit, stale bodies, and

broken lives seeping into my

skin and hair as

I huddled in a corner

trying to be invisible again.

 

I can still feel the smooth

slice and burn of steel parting

flesh. The pulse of my lifeblood

racing forth when I tried to

Give the state back my seventy-five years –

The easy way…….

A cascading red necklace

made of anguish and despair.

 

As days became months,

became years

then decades which melded into

monotonous monologues with different

faces but familiar themes,

hope became dust motes in a sunbeam –

briefly glimpsed, but intangible,

Weightless

Subjective

Meaningless

 

And yet.

With the changing of the

calendars, the changes in

the mirror, came the

changes in my soul –

Emerging from the shattered

mess of degradation and shame

arose a survivor, a warrior

an unconquerable heart

who dared to look up,

lift my head,

and piece together a life amid the dross and dregs

of the irredeemable.

 

As the end comes,

I realize

everything I’ve heard

about it

is false.

 

Betrayal no longer matters

Hatreds are forgotten,

forgiven. Abrupt

Partings for weird reasons

are resolved, and love

comes crashing against

my heart’s door.

 

There is no longer fear

of the unknown

but a gripping, relentless

excitement

as months become days,

become hours,

minutes,

seconds –

 

And I walk out the gates

to a new beginning

toward my own

until now unimaginable

destiny

without fences and bars