The Slippery Slope of Kindness

by Treacy Ziegler

The following continues the installments on kindness in prison. I asked prisoners participating in the Prisoner Express distant learning project to describe different experience of kindness; 1.kindness that felt sincere;  2. kindness that seemed insincere in that it was a means to getting something else; 3. kindness that started out as kindness but turned violent; and 4. kindness between prisoners and non-prisoners within the prison system. The first two experiences of kindness can be read at above hyperlinks. The following explores the third experience

“The meeting of another,” painting on panel, Nathan Riggs

In a windowless classroom of the super-maximum security prison, I sit alone with Marc waiting for other prisoners to arrive. I’m surprised to see Marc at this super max prison. He was in my prison art class at a medium-secure prison where I also volunteered. I had just seen him the month before and don’t know why he is now at this higher security level prison. I don’t ask.  

The other prisoners never arrive for art class. This is not particularly surprising as guards at this prison often test my reactions to certain situations: I’ve been locked in a room with lifers – those prisoners with life sentences – where I am given no means of getting out of that room. At other times, the guards “forget” I am having a class. They don’t issue call-out passes for the students and I sit there for an hour waiting for no one. I figured this time the guards locked me in the classroom with Marc to see what I would do. (Who knows what they suspected!?) The guards’ ploys against volunteers are numerous. However, I’m not particularly bothered by this incident; happy to conduct a private drawing lesson with Marc. He is a talented artist and works hard in the class. As Marc works on his drawing, he explains why he’s in the super-max. He was involved in a fight with another prisoner at the medium-secured prison. Marc says,“I beat him up pretty bad. I was just trying to be kind to him, but the guy misinterpreted me…and then it went really bad.”

Ronnie tells another story describing kindness-gone-wrong: “I was comfortable working as a janitor because it helped keep my locker full. The new guy was a pretty big youngster from Austin, Texas. He did not have any possessions when he came. Out of kindness of my heart I told him that if he was hungry to just get something out of the locker. Then I went back to work. That act of kindness was soon interpreted as an act of weakness. In the days to come he started to try and assert dominance in the cell. So I pulled him to the side and warned him that he was playing with fire and when you play with fire, then you are bound to get burned. But he brushed my warning to the side and continued to flex his muscles. After three strikes, I sent him to the hospital where he stayed in a coma for nine days.”

There are numerous stories of misguided kindness. Logan writes: “I had a Christian cellmate (known as Jesus) who was ‘generous to a fault’ as they say, especially for the penal environment. One day (after he’d had 3 radios of his stolen because he’d never stand his ground to get one back) he noticed this new African-American prisoner (about 23 years old) didn’t have a radio. So he tells me, ‘The Lord is moving me to give that kid a radio.’ Against my advice, this cellmate went to the kid’s cell, handed him a radio and said, ‘Here, this is for you. Jesus loves you. Remember that!’ Well, the kid was stunned of course so after he thought about it, he (a recruit for the Crips) goes to the Crips and asks, ‘What do I do?’  They tell him to beat the hell out of him. The kid’s first blow was smashing the radio across his face.”

Armando speaks of an incident of kindness interpreted as an insult by the person receiving kindness: “There is one man who’s always in arguments and thinking he’s being picked on. When I share thoughts in a nice way, he interprets it as a sarcastic remark. What was a sincere comment becomes ridicule. If you give him food, it becomes an innuendo of being a bum or poor; soap becomes a subtle sign that he stinks; an offer becomes a trap. Etc.etc. Kindness can become suspect to a paranoid mind. Truth is, often times people give but consciously or unconsciously they expect something in return. You hear it in the remark “After I’ve done for you….”

Simple acts of kindness can be misinterpreted. Scooter writes: “One time I was trying to be kind to someone and it almost cost me my life. It was mail call and the boss we had working the tank doesn’t like inmates. If she called your name for mail and you didn’t hear her you would not get your mail that day. I was standing there waiting on her to call my bin number when she called one of my neighbors. So being a nice guy I got his mail and took it to him. He got all bent out of shape because I handled his mail and he decided to pull out a shank and tried to stab me. Needless to say, I learned my lesson about touching other peoples’ things (hah).”

In these descriptions, kindness is interpreted as weakness with the opportunity to take advantage of the other person. But that’s the thing; kindness does demand vulnerability. Kindness demands a vulnerability – call it weakness – of both parties; the giver, who is extending him/herself to someone who might reject the offering; and the receiver, who by accepting kindness, admits a need.

One of the difficulties is that there are no rules on how kindness is to be exchanged between two people. This lack of rules for kindness stands in contrast to how respect can be developed in prison. Gaining respect in prison has a specific structure based upon rules dictating the behavior of the individuals. It is a structure upon which – according to the prisoners in my classes – many prisoners grow dependent. But as Fred, a student in my class, suggests;  “When they get out, they try to find this same formula for getting respect, but don’t get it and this becomes hard on many.  They get angry on the street, often act out in response, and then get sent back in here.”

Unlike respect, kindness is a funny thing. It cannot be formulized into the same “if this, then that” equation that is possible in respect development. An element of kindness is the lack of personal gain for the giver; my actions cannot be considered kind if my actions are for my benefit. Nor can kindness be formulized into rules dictating how I should act in a certain situation; I cannot be forced into acting kind. Likewise, rules dictating how the receiving person must react to my kindness also undermine the experience of kindness. Kindness asks to remain uncharted, unexpected, and unpredictable  – a difficult task in a system that imposes rules upon every aspect of a prisoner’s life.

About the guest contributor:

Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 6,500 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.

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

Time Spent – Making Art in Prison

by Rebecca Kelly

People can start with what seems like an ever-renewable supply anger and despair. This emotional energy is sometimes the initial fuel for the creative act. But that energy may also prove kindling for a different kind of renewable energy, a positive drive. Something fresh and wonderful can be created from the dark place of rumination and frustration, giving back release to that individual and sending forward something positive into the world.

  • Art is restorative, an outlet, transformative
  • The act of creativity leads one on an engrossing adventure for the soul, the mind, the body
  • Esteem building – creating something that can be admired by peers and family and the outer world
  • Connections with the outside – valuable in forging a future
  • Validation of self worth, of productivity, of use of time
  • Gives value to time spent, creates a sense of productivity, value to a product, an understanding of sharing, a way of processing and telling oneself one’s story, a way of integrating and transforming  the personal story, a way to give
  • Passes time innocently and that brings a release
  • A new understanding of self emerges as creative output provides inspiration, self worth  even joy
  • Creativity brings to the mind solace, peace, intention, healing, and helps to organize time
  • Art is the re-creation of yesterday, inhabiting today and the making of tomorrows

Families who have a loved one in prison experience a thankfulness and an amazement by the growth of the “artist in prison.”

At first, it may be the pencil sketches on the backs of forms or random pieces of paper that come home. Then, the sheer inventiveness becomes apparent in the ideas, the way the individual creates paint and brushes – from juice, jam, from coffee, using toothbrushes. He creates when he can be in his cell alone – when others are at chow, or at night, or whenever he can find privacy. In the beginning it was intensely private. He only shared his work through the mail in letters home. But it is constant.

At first, the individual doesn’t know where to GO in prison – no place seems safe. Everyone seems to want to know about your business, and to rank you according to your past, where you are from, what you did, who you think you are now.

So there is the chapel, a community room, the sports option. There is administrative segregation (solitary).  But none of these feel safe for different reasons. How do you overcome the constant need for vigilance and the fear of being singled out or physically hurt?

There are long waiting lists for prison jobs. If one is fortunate to get a job, the daily routine keeps one relatively focused and safe for a period of many months. There are scant prison education programs. But with luck and persistence one might enroll in a 10-week group course in business, or cognitive behavior therapy workshop, and actually benefit. To note accomplishments in education or sports, the individual receives an achievement document, a citation. Congratulations, you passed the time and you did this! Families hungrily collect the awards and citations.

I began to search for a way to share his artwork with others – beyond the family. I looked for online galleries, made inquiries, visited prison art exhibits, in an attempt to make connections, to share his work with directors of these art organizations. I made an online slide show so his works could be seen more readily by friends and family. The effort itself was fascinating, encouraging, supportive. There are wonderful people on the outside engaged in projects – keeping track, looking in, drawing out, understanding…

Maybe he wasn’t ready to define himself as a person interested in art. Maybe he didn’t value or recognize his creative output. But his family DID. His extraordinary art efforts were already playing a healing role in the family, a relief from the despair and shock of what had happened. We were happy to share his work with friends. It is a beautiful, unique way to show his development in a wholly positive light, and to bring pride into our communications.

Only a year ago, he wrote in September, “I do like art, but I don’t really think it defines who I am.  I understand that everyone out there on the street only sees that part of me, but I mainly commit so much to art because that is the only constructive thing to do here that keeps me busy. To tell you the truth, painting, at times, has been pretty painful. I am not comfortable with being known as the inmate artist who suffers from a mental disability. How cliche.

And then, right after that – he discovered the art room. Who goes there?

It was his 5th year in prison, and it had been a particularly rough year of unfortunate events far beyond his control. He marveled that he hadn’t known about the art room earlier. Perhaps he couldn’t imagine in prison – that there would even exist such a “free” place as the art room. Yet, in his prison, there are actually two art rooms.

He has had to learn to respect and accept his own “drive,” and his ability. Many artists in many fields, whether it is theater, dance, music or art, struggle with that. He has always been pragmatic about his creative output. When he speaks of it, he focuses more on the technical explorations and achievements, than on the “meaning” or the effect on the viewer, or even his own creative intention. But outside feedback has played a vital role in validation, and has contributed to his development and persistence.

Now, his work can be seen in wonderful online galleries (Prison Arts Coalition PAC, and The Confined Arts, Isaac’s Quarterly) and in an online slide show of recent works. His watercolors have been used “on the street” by Solitary Watch (national), and as a menu cover design for Edwins Restaurant, (Cincinnati, OH). It continues to be a fascinating journey to observe how he expresses repeating themes in his works over the years (eg. a tree), and how he diligently teaches himself new techniques in watercolor, charcoal, multi-media. His knowledge and tools have come a long way from the lemonade and coffee painted flowers.

Today he is teaching a 12-week course in watercolor technique. He encourages other artists-mates to send works to online galleries. He has found a group of supportive, like-minded creative individuals who encourage and challenge each other to grow as artists. He has found a path he can travel, and he is bringing others with him along the way.

 

Trees in works by Conor

About this guest contributor:

Rebecca Kelly, daughter of a career diplomat, grew up in London, England, Khartoum, Sudan, and Washington, DC.  She trained at the School of Washington Ballet.  She holds a BA in Oriental Religion from Bryn Mawr College.  She is the Artistic Director and Choreographer for Rebecca Kelly Ballet. She lives with her husband in New York City and in the Adirondack Mountains, and is artist Conor Broderick’s aunt.

 

Climbing The Walls: Incarceration and Art

by Todd Hollfelder
About the guest contributor: “Though I don’t like being labeled, or “summed up” by definitions, there are two tags I must live with.  First, I am an artist… I have been my entire life.  I dabble in different mediums and play with many forms of expression.  I call myself an illustrator because the intent of all my work is to share a story.  Places I’ve been.  Things I’ve seen.  Feelings I’ve dealt with.  Second, I am a felon… I will be one for the rest of my life.  I was released from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections custody in April, 2018.  I was allowed to concentrate on my work, watch it mature, and see other’s talents grow.  Through creative competition we became a collective.”   

Self Portrait 1 Hat
Self Portrait

Hi!  My name is Todd or, for the past 3 years, Wisconsin Department of Corrections #632011.  I will have my numeric “nickname” for the next 6 years in Community Custody.  For those unfamiliar with the term, I will be on “paper” and continuously monitored.  I was incarcerated 2/13/2015 for violating the terms of my bond and in July 2015 was handed a 4-year sentence, mandatory release date of February 10, 2019… my 51st birthday.  Fortunately, I’m a non-violent offender.  I integrated smoothly into the prison lifestyle and routine.  For this I was eligible for an Earned Release Program and cut 10 months off my ‘bid’.  Unfortunately, the time I saved on my time ‘in’ was tacked on to my early release.

Let me tell you a little about where I come from!  I grew up in an upper middle-class suburb of Milwaukee, WI.  My family isn’t what I would call wealthy but we definitely were raised “privileged”.  We were never denied anything and rarely heard the word ‘no’.  I believed I was invincible… my family would get me out of every situation I got into.  If I was broke, they’d give me money.  If my bills were late, they would catch them up.  When I got arrested, they covered my bail and got me the best possible legal representation.  I was a well-adjusted kid who never got into any trouble… well, except getting suspended for smoking on school grounds and skipping gym class.  I have 7 DUIs under my belt now and never was in prison.  This time there was no getting out of it!  The Judge told me clearly, “… you’ve gotten away with this too many times and haven’t received enough punishment…”.  He handed down the sentence of 4 years in, 6 years out for a grand total of 10 years, the maximum punishment he could legally impose.

So, here I am at 47 years old on my way to the prison Intake facility!  I’m in handcuffs and shackles, locked in the back of a bus, with a bunch of ‘real’ criminals.  Most of these guys are murderers, rapists and abusers (they’d done things I couldn’t even fathom).  My offense didn’t hurt anyone… I’d had no accidents or damaged any property.  I’m thinking, “OMG”, what are these people going to do to someone like me?  Am I going to have to live with these men or be housed with ‘lesser’ offenders?  What are the living conditions going to be?  We’ve all seen the movies… is it really like that?

Warut Visitation Rules
Visitation Rules

I wasn’t so much scared of my situation, it was more anxiety that dominated my mind.  The more I was around these soon-to-be “roommates” the more I decided I wasn’t going to be around them.  I withdrew into reading novels.  I found it a way to transport myself to other places, different stories and a better class of people.  In Intake we weren’t allowed to have much.  I read about 5 books a week, all day and night long, to take me away and avoid speaking to the characters I was forced to room with.  I was so thankful when I got moved out of intake into a regular medium-security location where I could finally purchase my own clothes, shoes, TV and hobby supplies!!

I found television to be a very temporary, mindless escape… maybe solely a distraction from the world I was residing in.  Books are great but reading became more of a tedium than a diversion.  I had ordered a sketchpad and some drawing pencils, colored pencils and pastels but I hadn’t actually created anything in a long time.  As we all get older, responsibilities and obligations often force us to put our passions to the side.  While I’d created art on the outside, and I was devoted to it, I didn’t have the time to express myself the way I truly desired to.  Now, on a forced break from reality, I didn’t have to worry about anything.  I had no bills to pay.  I had no commitments to family or work.  Even though it was barely edible, I didn’t have to think about what I was going to eat, go grocery shopping or cook.  I could go to bed and get up whenever I felt like it… except for count times and the occasional fire drill!  It seemed to be the perfect time to return to my first love, drawing.

My first attempts were primitive, at least in my eyes, but they impressed others.  I didn’t care about, or need, the approval of others but it was flattering.  These drawings were/are a part of me!  I could transport myself to new worlds, make them tangible and be however I wanted them to be.  My fellow inmates would sometimes question my images.  They didn’t understand artistic vision doesn’t have to be representational… it doesn’t have to consist of recognizable imagery.  My work wasn’t for them though, it was for me!  I refused to draw portraits for them.  I absolutely wouldn’t make greeting cards!  My work is art… not crafts!  Later on, I did start to do portraits but there were a few conditions.  I didn’t set a “price” for my work but they had no input into the finished project and I would accept tokens of gratitude.  They couldn’t view the piece until it was complete.  And don’t bother me, it’ll be done when it’s done.

I must explain that I’m not an anti-social kind of guy!  I’d made a conscious decision to separate myself from the environment to which I was subjected.  I didn’t want to get to know anybody.  I knew I’d do my time for me, get it over with, and never have to see any of these people ever again.  The chances of myself, and most of the others, being in the same social circles and spaces on the outside was slim.  In this context, my art became my downfall.  The more I created the more others wanted to talk to me.  They wanted to see my work.  They wanted to talk about my projects.  They wanted to show me their talents… with words, visual images, crochet, needlepoint, leathercraft, beading, some dance and the list goes on within the perimeters of the prison’s restrictions.   For many this was their first exposure to expressing themselves in ways that weren’t destructive to themselves or others.  And they were proud of their work.  They valued my opinions and asked for my suggestions as to how to improve their visions.  Even though I was keeping my distance and not letting down my “walls” (I thought), I developed superficial (again, I thought) relationships… more than acquaintances but not quite friends.

Fantasy Family Portrait
Fantasy Family Portrait

To elaborate on the ‘I thought’ statements.  I believed I was hiding behind “walls” to protect myself from getting to know the other convicts in my personal space 24/7/365.  What I failed to recognize was that my work, and my input into theirs’, slowly exposed pieces of myself.  I gained insight into their lives because, when asked to view or make suggestions on their works, I could see into their minds.  I could read their emotions about where they’ve been, are currently and where they want to be in the future.  We developed an unspoken form of communication.  A way to maintain our masculinity while “discussing” our feelings of fear, on relationships, about caring for one another.  All the things men don’t usually talk about with each other.

One of my favorite statements, I heard it all the time, was “I can’t draw.” Or “I can’t do that”.  There is no right or wrong in art.  There is no good or bad in creation.  I’d tell people, “Yes, you can!”.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a stick figure or a colorful “scribble” with colored pencils.  “I’ll help inspire you!”.  “Are you having fun?”, “Relaxing?”, “Releasing the frustration of another taxing day?”.  The point being, are you feeling anything?!!  Art is about reaction.  If you have an opinion or elicit a reaction you’re alive.  You’re expressing a view, a viewpoint and that’s creation.  I was able to introduce technique but had to remind guys not to try to do what I do… one of me is enough.  Be your own person!  See through your own eyes!  Interpret according to your own beliefs and values!  Of course, one of the toughest principles is always OBSERVE, OBSERVE, OBSERVE!  Shut your mouth and listen… don’t just hear, LISTEN.  Open your eyes but don’t just look, SEE!  Absorb the good and the bad around you.  Visualize what makes you happy.  Express the things that piss you off.  Whatever it is, get it out!!

The arts are one of the few positive things about prison.  For me, it allowed the opportunity to see my craft mature.  Looking at my early works with only #2 pencil on typing paper to what I’m accomplishing, and still growing, now is amazing.  I saw others experiment successfully in a variety of mediums.  One of my co-artist inmates, who claimed he’d never been creative, composed a spectacular “collage” (all hand drawn and cut out) representing his favorite football team, the San Francisco 49ers.  Others did brilliant portraits from photographs of their loved ones using a grid technique.  Patterns were available for purchase to those who preferred to work in brightly colored yarns.  Some got their friends and family to send them adult coloring book pages to enjoy and release tension.  It wasn’t unusual to see groups of guys sitting around the same table conversing and immersed in their activities of choice!

Sometimes, however, our efforts were stifled by the subjective rules of the DOC.  For example; I drew a New Orleans Mardi Gras scene in which there was a woman flashing her breasts to get beads that were thrown from the balconies.  Another inmate drew a very artistic topless woman with large boobs.  He got cited for “inappropriate material” where, when the correctional officers were questioned about it, my drawing was considered acceptable because of the context.  We had to be very careful about anything depicting violence but not all was seen as unacceptable.  Subjects construed as racist could land one in the “hole” but, again, it depended on context.  I illustrated my frustrations about the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri (I forget what year that was) depicting a racially diverse group defending themselves against the police while stores were being looted and cars were on fire.  It wasn’t considered unacceptable since the violence was implied more than vivid.  It was tricky to sometimes push the line as serious disciplinary action could be imposed upon you.  But really, who wants to concentrate on drawing bunnies and pretty flowers in a place where it is difficult to wake up in the morning and smile at your cellie!

NOLA 1949 Mardi Gras Gay Krewe
Mardi Gras 1949 – Krewe of Yuga

It’s really fascinating to look back on the whole experience now… even though it hasn’t been that long.  To think about the conversations that started over a drawing, a poem, or a song.  The feelings that were communicated without speaking.  The bonds created by my knowing, somewhere, someone may be thinking about the positive aspects of being incarcerated because my work is hanging on their wall or framed on their desk.  Even if it’s just held by a magnet on a refrigerator, I’ve impacted somebody else’s life in any number of ways.  A reminder of where we’ve been, where we’re going and to be thankful in the moment that we’ve survived (hopefully overcome) our shortcomings.  I like to believe some of the men I inspired, and who inspired me, have continued to pursue their newly found freedom of expression.  A constructive outlet for their emotions.  A diversion from returning to where they’ve been.  A way to create a future they can visualize.  In some way everyone is in a prison of their own creation….

Joan Rivers Cadillac Alone
Joan Rivers Alone in a Cadillac

 

Memory of Space

by Treacy Ziegler

About the guest blogger: Treacy Ziegler has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this voluntary project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 2,300 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.

While working in my studio, I wrote on the reverse side of my drawing a question I was pondering. I wrote, “How does one participate in a world from solitary confinement?”   Later, I sent this drawing to Charles forgetting about the question on its back. Charles has been living for years in solitary confinement.

I send art to individuals in solitary confinement as part of my project, An Open Window, whose mission is in creating a dialogue of art with prisoners. In this way, my project is not just for “artists,” but also for anyone interested in learning and talking about art.

Naturally, Charles thought I was directing the question to him and answers, “I think about the world in my mind. I make my mind go out to the world and then, whatever is possible, is possible in my mind.” Reading Charles’ statement, I think of idealism; hopeful idealism from a solitary cell.

However, there is a problem with Charles’ answer.   During one of my first visits to several prisons throughout the east and mid-United States, a warden took me on a tour of the prison. Seeing the cramped small cells in which the men live, I asked the warden, “Is memory of space the prisoner’s largest dimension of space?”

The warden’s answer surprised me.   He said, “No. Memory is the first dimension of space that the inmate loses.”

I wasn’t clear as to what the warden was referring.  Was the warden referring to a psychological loss; forgetting the visual memory of one’s bedroom, the smells of one’s kitchen, the sounds of one’s neighborhood? Or was the warden referring to something much more fundamental; what is a bedroom, what is a kitchen, what is a neighborhood? These latter questions suggest not a psychological loss, but an entire ontological spatial sea change of how one experiences the world.

Since that visit I have spent significant time conducting art workshops in various prisons in various states. Whether he knew it or not, it appears that the warden was referring to something more fundamental than psychology – he was referring to the second – an ontological breakdown in one’s spatial knowledge. Of course, this ontological breakdown may also be accompanied by psychological manifestations.

Charles’ mind can only “go out to the world” if he has memory of that world.   Memory depends upon active involvement of an undifferentiated mind and body within an undifferentiated world.

When a student in another prison came to class without a pencil, I said to him, “Oh, go search through my bags and find a pencil.”   Joe, the prisoner, is stunned and replies, “I don’t know how to do that.”   Not sure sure if he is suggesting that his searching through the bags will break a rule, I look at him in puzzlement. Joe answers my confusion with, “If I ever get out of here, I won’t know how to open the refrigerator to look for a bottle of ketchup.”

Later I tell this story to another prison class in another prison.    They laugh saying, “What?! He couldn’t open a refrigerator to look for a bottle of ketchup? What was he? An idiot?”  But when I rephrased the idea saying that sometimes when I was with them, I felt as if they moved like they had a neurological problem disrupting their relationship to space, this same critical group of prisoners reacted without mediation, “Yes! That’s how I feel!”

A person learns to navigate personal space that is both transparent and opaque with an element of ease – what Merleau-Ponty calls the map of “I can.” The doors of their personal space do not beckon my students in prison; the doors are barriers. Thus my students live in what could be called the map of “I cannot.” I wonder, “Can creativity emerge within such a landscape?”

As a landscape painter, I know the ability to visually move through space is important. It was the exploration of space that compelled me to go to prison and although I had not thought so much about the prisoners themselves, I was interested in how space identifies a person and how identify changes as one moves through space: I am defined as a customer in a store and as a mother at my son’s school. It seems a prisoner is defined a prisoner 24/7.

My interest in space also includes the space in which I exhibit my work and how that venue influences both the viewer and the work. After 22 years of exhibiting my work in galleries of Canada and throughout the Untied States, I became interested in finding an audience who did not have the money and power that characterize the gallery audience; This is an audience who is defined by the space of the gallery as “my potential collector.”

I wrote random letters to wardens and supervisors throughout the United States asking if I could exhibit my artwork in their prisons.

I explained in my letter that I was not interested in art as therapy or as rehabilitation. I wanted to present my work with the same attitude as I present my work in gallery – I do not expect to be “doing therapy” with the gallery audience. I do not think art makes people into good people or bad people – art is moral neutral.

Of course, the idea that art is experienced in prison as a tool for therapy or rehabilitation speaks to the ontological perspective of space.   Art is asked to function differently in prison than it does in the gallery world. I resisted the notion to make it such in my random letter because I do not believe that art ultimately functions as a tool. I believe art exists without why and just because

The first response I received to my random letters was from a warden of a super-maximum security prison.

It was a chilling letter. The warden wrote that the “heinous inmates” in his prison would not only not see my art; they did not see the light of day. He didn’t actually explicitly state, “Not see the light of day,” and I figured it was my artist’s imagination that added these words to his implicit suggestion of the prisoners’ lack of sunlight.

Since that letter of five years ago, I learned my artist’s imagination was not running wild.   I have an art project available to a network of 2300 prisoners throughout the United States. Many of the participants live in solitary confinement – many prisoners from Pelican Bay State Prison. In Leon’s recent letter, writing from Pelican, he doesn’t know what to do for my assignment asking him to observe the sky and then draw it. He writes,

“There is no window in my cell and I only see a small window at the top of the rec yard where I am permitted to go out one hour a day by myself.”

And Robert, who in his letter adds a postscript,

“Treacy, when you go out today, look at the sky for me, I haven’t seen it for years.”

After the initial chilling letter from that warden, I did receive positive responses from prisons that were intrigued with my offer to exhibit my artwork in their prison. In one New England prison, I donated 50 paintings now hanging throughout the prison; in the halls, in the blocks, in the mess halls. In another mid-state high security prison, I have a permanent exhibition of paintings in the gym.

The initial response of the prison communities to my art in their prison is often confusion and anger; anger on the part of the corrections officers and confusion on the part of the prisoners. The correction officers are often angry because of the obvious reason; prisoners don’t deserve art. The prisoners are confused because my artwork does not look like prison art. In my art, I am not concerned about details and I suspect my work may seem too “simplistic” to some prisoners.

At the prison where I have 50 paintings, the prisoners often tell me, “Every time I turn around I see one of your paintings.” I am not always sure if this is a good thing or not. One prisoner told me he didn’t really want to wake up everyday looking at my paintings, but then went on to describe how every time he looked at my paintings he saw something different. Again, I don’t know if this is a good thing or bad thing for this prisoner.

Eventually, I was asked to conduct workshops in the prisons where my paintings hang.   This made sense to me since I was primarily interested in having a conversation of art. Asking prisoners about art through a survey or questionnaire seemed too mechanical, and as is often the case in prison, questions beg the answer.

Like the spatial limitations of prison, art in prison is limiting and because of this, art has the potential to be oppressive in prison. (This is not totally different than the gallery world where art too is used as a tool of oppression – it works on elitism and eliminates most artists). In prison, art can be undermined when it does not fit into the accepted categories. William writes to me,

“I have to do my art in the middle of the night when no one sees me – or else I would get a lot of criticism.”

The primary sources of art in prison tend to be Bob Ross, cartoons, photos of loved ones, tattoos and Playboy-like magazines.

When first given tours of prison, I was shown a Bob Ross mural after Bob Ross mural painted on the prison walls by various prisoners. Bob Ross is the former host of the public television program, “Joy Of Painting” where he taught millions of people and prisoners to draw happy trees for little animals.   Finally, I was compelled to say that I didn’t want to see anymore Bob Ross’ formulaic approach to creativity.

The prisoners were shocked, “You don’t like Bob Ross?”

Bob Ross art is consistent to the prison structure in offering a formula; offering the same false clarity that prison offers. Bob teaches a how-to-paint-the-sky formula without having to experience the actual sky; eliminating the need for an aesthetic experience. Bob Ross is an excellent aesthetic stop-gap where looking at the sky can be tantamount to an escape plan.

Drawing from photographs is equally oppressive.   In drawing from a photograph, a person does not experience form, light and shadow, movement, texture, etc. In drawing the actual moving world, a multiplicity of perceptions is demanded of the artist that is not demanded when drawing from a photograph. I never just “see” this living world with my eyes, I experience it through all my senses.   As I often say to people, “Don’t talk to me when I don’t have my glasses on – I can’t hear you.”

Drawing from how-to books and from photographs is not about creativity; it is about making a product.

I have developed workshops in which the students are asked to draw from life allowing everyone’s drawing to develop differently and uniquely. As I tell the students, Van Gogh’s style would never have been developed had he rendered his drawings from photographs. All drawings rendered from a photograph look the same and no personal mark making is developed.

The students learn that drawing from life is possible even in a solitary cell.

When I asked Manuel in his solitary cell to observe light and then draw that light, he writes:

“Inside the cell, I could see that the light and dark tones are not flat. I’ve noticed the light and dark patterns near the windows. The areas around the windows are extremely dark, but the area where the light comes from the window is bright…….The window light reflecting on the concrete bed has a very bright light tone and there is no light in the darkness surrounding this light.”

Manuel continues to describe the different light and shadow patterns for the next five paragraphs of his letter. He then develops a drawing from this exploration of what to the typical eye is just an empty room.

The assignment of drawing light and shadow patterns in the cell asks that the artist draws the cell through exploring the phenomenon of light and shadow instead of through a conceptual orientation to objects. This difference is understood in a prisoner’s joke during class: “Tonight when I fall asleep, my mantra will be – ‘It is not an apple; it is light and shadow.’”

It is a simple drawing experience demanding the artist to feel what it is that he/she is drawing – The artist feels light and shadow, feels direction, feels dimension, and feels light on that concrete bed.   The drawing activity demands reciprocal involvement between what is drawn and the artist.   With practice, the artist experiences lack of differentiation between eye, pen, paper, and hand. Ultimately, the division between artist and what is being drawn disappears.

Drawing from life brings the artist to the world. Not to a mental world like Charles’ mind, but to a tangible world demanding an active involvement in the world – demanding an active involvement even if that world consists of nothing more than light and shadow patterns in a solitary cell.

And yet, art cannot be made into a tool for therapy. It is without why and just because.

Drawings from the curriculum Drawing From Life – assignment to explore light and shadow in the cell:

Raymond Palmore, Corcoran State Prison
Raymond Palmore, Corcoran State Prison

Manuel Gonzalez, Tehachapi State Prison
Manuel Gonzalez, Tehachapi State Prison

Billy Sell, solitary confinement,  Corcoran State Prison, (deceased)
Billy Sell, solitary confinement, Corcoran State Prison, (deceased)