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.

REDEMPTION SONGS: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A COMMUNITY PRISON CHOIR – Book Release

Innerworld Publications

San German, Puerto Rico

Iowa City-based writer Andy Douglas’s new book, “Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir”, was released on April 1, 2019. For six years, the author volunteered with the Oakdale Community Choir, a performing chorale composed of both volunteers and inmates and directed by University of Iowa associate professor of music education Dr. Mary Cohen, based in a correctional facility in Coralville, Iowa. Taking the reader inside the walls of this medium-security prison, the book offers a glimpse at how music and the arts are offering second chances to the incarcerated.

The United States incarcerates more prisoners per capita than any other country, with more than two million people in U.S. jails and prisons. In addition to exploring the role of singing as a rehabilitative tool, the book examines some of the pressing issues facing the criminal justice system.

In doing so, it reflects on several questions – how can music and the arts inspire prisoners to change? Should the underlying philosophy of our penal system be one of retribution or restoration? What can restorative justice offer to all those touched by crime and the criminal justice system?

Dr André de Quadros, Professor of Music and Chair, Department of Music Education, Boston University, notes, “More than an account of the choir’s work, the book is a deep insight into musical humanity under dehumanizing conditions. Douglas’s work is evocative and thoughtful, deeply compassionate and humble, and brings the reader close to the troubled lives, wounds and hopes of the incarcerated men.”

Andy Douglas received an MFA in Creative Writing from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where he was the recipient of the Marcus Bach Fellowship for Writing about Religion and Culture. His first book, The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga, was published in 2013 by Bottom Dog Press. He is available for readings, and review copies available upon request.

      

TO ORDER: The book is available from Amazon.com (including ebook), in selected bookstores, and directly from the author. To support the author, order directly from him! Pre-order by sending your mailing address, $16, plus $2.75 for shipping and handling, to Andy Douglas, 2721-D Muscatine Ave, Iowa City, IA 52240. Or send your info to andy.c.douglas@gmail.com and pay by paypal. A percentage of sales will be donated to Inside Out Reentry Community, a returning citizens support organization, and should you wish to donate any amount above the $16 cover price, this will go to the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance.



An important message from PAC’s manager — please read on!

Dear PAC Community,

I’m excited to share some big news with you! Over the coming months, the Prison Arts Coalition will undergo a transformation to incorporate as the Justice Arts Coalition (JAC), a 501c3 nonprofit organization. In the spirit of the vision that drove PAC’s founders, the JAC will become an organizing body for institutions and individuals across the globe that believe in the power of the arts to ignite change. The JAC will unite people at the intersection of the arts and justice, cultivating community among system-involved artists, their loved ones, educators, scholars, activists, and advocates.

Through hosting in-person trainings, workshops, and conferences, in addition to serving as an online network and archive for resources such as curricula, grant listings, and program evaluation materials, the JAC will foster a collective voice and increase visibility and advocacy for artists working in and around justice systems.

Woan Crocheting - Part 2 of Bars Triptych
by Carole Alden

The JAC’s development is the culmination of the efforts of a Steering Committee comprised of teaching artists and arts advocates that formed at the 2015 Arts in Corrections: Opportunities for Justice and Rehabilitation conference. It is being made possible with seed funding generously contributed by California Lawyers for the Arts and the Warhol Foundation, and fiscal sponsorship provided by The William James Association

You can look forward to changes here on the website. All of the current content will remain intact, but there will be new pages, resources, announcements about ways to get involved with and support the JAC through membership opportunities, donations, and events. We’ll be sharing updates via social media, and plan to roll out a crowdsourcing campaign in the near future, so be sure to follow PAC (soon to become the JAC!) on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to stay in the know. And, we’ll be introducing the JAC in June at Arts in Corrections: Reframing the Landscape of Justice. We hope to see you there!

White Tiger
White Tiger by Daniel Owens

I’m thankful to everyone who has helped to grow and shape PAC over the years. I’ve met so many inspiring people through my work behind the scenes here. These relationships have fueled me, and they serve as reminders that while all of the information, stories, and artwork that PAC has been able to share is incredibly important, it’s the human connection sparked by the sharing of these resources that matters most of all. I’m honored to be a part of the JAC’s efforts to expand and strengthen this web of community.

If you have questions about the JAC, or ideas for the founders to consider as we take our next steps, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at pacoalitionadmin@gmail.com

With gratitude,

Wendy Jason, PAC Manager

If you would like to contribute to the development of the JAC, please follow this link to make a tax-deductible donation through our fiscal sponsor. We need and value your support!

Conference Announcement: Reframing the Landscape of Justice

California Lawyers for the Arts and the William James Association

in collaboration with

Santa Clara University and the Justice Arts Coalition

presents

Arts in Corrections: Reframing the Landscape of Justice

June 24 – 28, 2019

Santa Clara University

500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053

This national conference will provide professional development opportunities for artists who work in correctional institutions at all levels and best practices for arts administrators who would like to learn how to implement and manage these programs.

Participants in this conference will have opportunities to

  • Share best practices in program development and curriculum design
  • Learn about current research models, including evaluation and documentation
  • Develop opportunities to collaborate with justice reform advocates in different states and nationally
  • Participate in workshops showcasing exemplary programs for juveniles and adults, as well as restorative justice and re-entry models
  • Learn how to build public awareness and enhance programmatic sustainability
  • Continue to build the Justice Arts Coalition as a national support organization for artists who teach in correctional institutions and artists coming home
  • Participate in art classes in various disciplines taught by master artists

* Monday, June 24th is reserved as a pre-conference training day for arts providers   and contractors teaching in the CA State Prison System

* Friday’s schedule features Future IDs Workshops at Alcatraz

Confirmed speakers include:

Jimmy Santiago Baca, Conference Artist-in-Residence, as well as Beth Bienvenu, National Endowment for the Arts; Anne Bown-Crawford, California Arts Council; Larry Brewster, University of San Francisco; Dameion Brown and Lesley Currier, Marin Shakespeare Company; Annie Buckley, California State University – San Bernardino; Laura Caulfield, University of Wolverhampton, UK; Mary Cohen, University of Iowa; Mandy Gardner, Southwest Correctional Arts Network (SCAN); Allia Griffin, Santa Clara University; Jane Golden, Philadelphia Mural Arts; Beverly Iseghohi, Urban League of Greater Atlanta; Ashley Lucas, University of Michigan; Dorsey Nunn, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children / All of Us or None; Meade Palidofsky, Story Catchers Theatre; Gregory Sale, Arizona State University; Kyes Stevens, Auburn University; Curt L. Tofteland, Shakespeare Behind Bars; Ella Turenne, Occidental College / Inside Out Prison Exchange Program

Contractors in the California Arts Council state prison arts program should contact their providers to register. 

Artists and staff affiliated with local and state arts agencies throughout the United States should contact CLA conference staff for special discounts available through NEA funding. 

Download Registration Form PDF HERE 

For more information, please contact conference staff at:

aic@calawyersforthearts.org or (415) 775-7200 x 101

“We, the Unbound”

by Peggy Rambach

Address for the HOC Mural Project Unveiling Celebration with MIT at the Suffolk County House of Correction

Feb. 15, 2019

We, The Unbound
We, The Unbound A collaboration between artists at MIT and The Suffolk County House of Correction. Directed by Sara Brown. Acrylic on canvas, 40in x 60in panels.

Lately, we’ve all been hearing a lot about walls – whether we like it or not.

And as a result, we can’t help thinking about what a wall represents: division, protection, confinement – all of which are a necessary part of a facility like this.

But a wall can also be a canvas that inspires imagination and creativity.

Mural design work

And big walls, like this one, communicate a message with a particular kind of power.

The message of the women in the Women’s Program here, who designed this work of art in just four, one and a half hour classes, was conveyed in this way:

One might interpret the eyes as the eyes of the soul, and our sorrows illustrated by tears. And so often – if we’re patient enough – we find our sadness leads to new growth represented in the form of the tree. Jellyfish are unconfined by walls and water. Walls become the universe, a ceiling the sky, and flowers break through anything that might stop them from blooming. All of this saying, that no matter what, we have to capacity to break through what may confine us. And that’s why everyone wanted a doorway that leads to the light of possibility and hope.

Practice eye

And so, art transformed a blank wall into the image, I would say, of human resilience, showed how we can dissolve, scale and transform any wall that may threaten to permanently confine us. Walls like: disappointment, failure, addiction, poverty, fear, heartbreak, prejudice, and any number of traumas we encounter as we live our lives.

If we are human, it’s pretty hard to avoid one or all of these things — no matter our life circumstances.

That is why a large part of the HOC Mural Project’s vision was to form an unlikely union between two groups of people in two very different life circumstances.  

Instruction with Sara Brown

One group would be considered to be privileged, celebrated for their skills and the social and technological contributions they will make to our country and even the world. The other, once back in society, will have a great deal to face and overcome, including stigma and a sense of alienation, in order to establish a life that is secure and settled, productive, and healthy.

And yet, put these two groups together in this room to learn together how to make what you see before you, and what lies between them is no division, only respect, camaraderie, and friendship.

Group photo MIT and HOC

My role in this project was small. I thought of having the women here paint a mural long ago, and I made the first overture to MIT. Other than that, I pretty much just stood around; and while standing around, I couldn’t help but observe. And this is what I saw:

I saw an immediate bond develop between Mijin and Sokhee, created not only by a common purpose but by a common language.

I saw and heard everyone express admiration and respect for Johanna’s portrait of mother and child, and I saw Johanna glow with new-found confidence in herself as an artist.

Painting the mural

I saw admiration and respect for Yahaira’s leadership, and the patience and perseverance that she and Jennifer brought to the two full weeks they worked together to perfectly execute the leaves on the tree.

I saw the moment that Allison, urged on by everyone’s encouragement, broke through her hesitation to put paint to canvas. I saw Lesley and Farrah, Norma and Graciane let go of self-doubt to engage whole-heartedly in every aspect of the experience. Along with the creative work, they often took on the less romantic yet equally important task of prep work and clean up.

Painting the mural

I saw the group’s dependence on Taylor and Johanna’s ability to make the sky, and dependence on how all the MIT students effortlessly measured and strung the grids that showed everyone where to place each image.

 I watched how everyone arrived each day to immediately plunge in and work without a break (unless there was pizza and doughnuts) until it was time to go.

And I saw everyone, without exception, contribute his or her individual strengths to a single purpose and goal — in no way motivated by ego or the need for individual recognition.

Practice leaves

And I have to mention Yinka. Yinka’s candle, the image she suggested be in the design and the image that perfectly depicted Yinka’s spirit, one that brought her to come and work cheerfully on this mural just a few hours before she knew she would be deported to Nigeria and separated, perhaps permanently, from her husband and two young sons. Yinka’s optimism and courage and faith was an example to us all, and I believe we will always think of that candle as the symbol of the light Yinka brought to our lives.

Design work

So again, there was no wall at all between the individuals who made this work of art. And because they experienced that unity in a tactile and visceral way, they will disperse what they learned here throughout their lives, and I hope influence those who might see only division where there is unity and only difference where there is always commonality.

This may just have been this project’s greatest achievement of all.

I am proud to have been part of this institution, the Suffolk County House of Correction, and to have witnessed two very different institutions cooperate and collaborate to make all of this happen, spurred by a common belief in the value of art to heal, unify, and inspire.

Group photo

MIT Mural, Installed Feb. 1 2019

Funding for this project was provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of the Vice Chancellor and The Council for the Arts at MIT.

About the guest contributor:

Peggy Rambach M.A., M.F.A., is the author of several books and is recognized primarily as a writer, though she has become intensely devoted to pastel.  She has studied with local pastel artists and is otherwise, self-taught. She has taught as a non-benefit employee at Suffolk County House of Correction since 2008.
Along with her work in Corrections, Ms. Rambach has taught in healthcare, in social service centers, and in the Medical Humanities. She has received grants and fellowships from the Schwartz Center, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, The Massachusetts Literacy Foundation, and the Yaddo and MacDowell artist colonies. Ms. Rambach is also a featured artist in the documentary film: The Healing Arts, New Pathways to Health.