The Incarceration of Kindness – Installment 1

by Treacy Ziegler

Still from the animation – “The naked mole-rat’s journey.” Created by the artists across the United State participating in the Prisoner Express art program – a distant learning project. Gary Farlow, animator of this particular still.

 

This post is written in installments exploring what is understood as kindness in prison.  In writing this post, I asked prisoners across the United States to share their experiences of kindness in prison.

 Kindness makes you idle, worse, unnatural.

        Douglas Oliver

Richie is a student in my art class where I had been volunteering at a high security prison. Walking with other prisoners through the prison yard to the building that houses the class, he pushes a metal walker upon which he is dependent.  Richie’s legs are unable to stand on their own. I do not know the cause of his disability. The fact that we are in prison makes me assume this disability is the result of violence rather than a congenital problem such as cerebral palsy. Other than location, I don’t know why I make this assumption.  When Richie reaches the stairs, he cannot maneuver up on his own. One prisoner takes Richie’s walker while another prisoner lends him an arm to lean upon while he ascends the stairs. This is not the first time I’ve seen prisoners helping another prisoner; particularly prisoners with handicaps attempting to traverse the landscape of prison. There are few efforts to make this landscape friendly to anyone.  I am struck with the automatic help given to Richie. There is no hesitation in the prisoners’ help to Richie and Richie does not hesitate in accepting.

As a volunteer art teacher in prisons of several states, I’ve witnessed a number of these acts of kindness between prisoners – perhaps, acts that could be seen as random personal acts of kindness.  However, the more I observe, not only does kindness seem less random, it seems less the domain of a single person. This confuses me. I had always thought of kindness as an attribute of an individual, clumping kindness with anything that can be said about a person, “…. tall, lanky, and very kind.”

Prison changed that understanding for me. Instead, kindness seems to be dependent upon an underlying structure or system. Moreover, it seems necessary for that community to interpret kindness: if someone is kind to me for no clear reason, I might question whether it is kindness or not; whereas if someone punches me in the nose, the violence of that punch is clear, regardless of the why. Not knowing the dynamics of the kindness shown to me, I must look to the context.

Of course, I am but a volunteer observer. How do prisoners understand kindness in prison? I asked this question of prisoners participating in a through-the-mail program in which I create art curriculums for prisoners across the United States. The prisoners in receiving the newsletters and course offerings represent every state and approximately 1000 prisons. I have greater freedom asking questions in the newsletter than I do while teaching in prison workshops where my conversation is restricted.

In a newsletter sent to 2500 prisoner participants (this number has more recently grown to 6500), I asked the prisoners to share four different situations of kindness they might have experienced or observed:

Kindness that felt sincere;

Kindness that seemed to be masquerading for something else;

Kindness that began with sincere intention, but got misinterpreted and misdirected into another action (often violence);

Kindness between a prisoner and staff or volunteer; what I refer to as “across the border” kindness.

Just to be clear – all my questions were informal inquiries and not a research project!

While I don’t want to undermine the prisoners’ answers  – about 50 prisoners answered the questions – I have to consider their answers in the context of prison where anything written or said can be used against the prisoner in a parole hearing. I often encounter posed-for-parole answers while teaching in prisons. When prisoners answer my question as to why they want to take the art class, they frequently answer; “I want to better myself;” “I want to express myself,” and so on.  Sometimes when I challenge these answers, by asking “Yeah, but why really?”  I get different answers:  “I want to make money,”  “I want to hang with the tattoo artists in class,” and other less than ideal-ridden answers.  

In some cases, prisoners in answering the questions described themselves as the person being kind.  Most letters are screened by the administration and it is probably good to sound like a kind person to the administration. Later, when I asked prisoners similar questions but substituted violence for kindness, no one had any violent experiences to contribute. Of course, the prisoner Logan suggested I was insane to even asked such a question, saying. “ No one wants to write about witnessing or participating in violence”.    

The prisoners’ answers to the first question of “sincere acts of kindness” described prison kindness in two ways: kindness as giving something tangible and kindness that was intangible. It seems understandable in prison where prisoners are required to live with so little personal belongings, kindness is experienced as sharing material goods. They shared clothes, toiletries, food, coffee, and so on. On the other hand, intangible kindness included empathy, concern, respect, encouragement, and other acts of goodwill.

The prisoner John writes about being without any material goods and another prisoner offering him things with which to get by:  “I had a bad run-in with one of the ranking officers and was locked up and had all my property taken from me. I didn’t even have a toothbrush or toilet paper. Another inmate in lock-up saw how bad a shape I was in and just gave me a toothbrush, toilet paper, and other items I needed. He did not want anything in return.  He just said, “Man, I’ve been there.”

Likewise, Davell describes the kindness he received after being released from a week in solitary confinement: “After a week in Ad seg, I was released to general population and in serious need for some deodorant.  Fortunately, I had a book of postal stamps that at half price sells for five dollars. All my personal property was in receiving and release. If I was lucky, I’d be getting it the next day but for the time being I needed to barter a book of stamps for a deodorant. I was escorted from Ad seg and housed in a 8-man cell. I made the 7th man. There was only one man in the cell as I entered. My first thought of him was he is a lame. So I sat on my bunk and waited to meet the other guys when they got in. The second guy I met gave off a scent of a guy who has been through the prison sentence and knew what time it was. After we introduced ourselves, I showed him my paperwork and ran down to him why I was in Ad seg (a misunderstanding). I told him I needed a deodorant, that I had a book of stamps. He provided me with a deodorant and let me sport his brand new tennis shoes until I got some from inmate laundry. I was moved by his kindness…. when I was issued my property I returned to the cell with all my stuff and I replaced what I got. It was my birthday and I was planning to cook a prison feast, so once I got situated, I cooked enough for the both of us. As I’m writing this, my allergies have been acting up and this same guy gave me a bottle of eye drops and a bottle of allergy tablets. That was kind.”

 Bradley tells me (Bradley is a prisoner in one of my classes): “I have a lot of money, so I try to give something to others.”I don’t know where Bradley gets his money and to what extent this makes his life less stressful, but I see how he helps younger prisoners in my class.  

Sometimes the exchange of money is not directly given to the needy prisoner but to a third person acting as intermediary. David writes: “I had a celly who was “riding” or paying protection by sex acts or washing clothes, etc. to a gang.  One of my friends gave me the money, $100, to “buy” my celly’s freedom from the gang under the condition that he remain anonymous to all.”  (I’m not sure why an intermediary was needed in this situation and David doesn’t explain.) 

Many of the prisoners who answered these questions are/were in solitary confinement, and Brian writes: “I am housed in a maximum security federal prison.  Acts of kindness are very very rare to say the least. Most kindness is perceived as a weakness and taken advantage of immediately. You walk into a housing unit and you stick out…you’re the only one in the room with bright orange deck shoes. You are being sized up and odds layed on if you’ll make it a week or not. Then a few guys will pool together and put a care package/starter kit bag together for you. It’s a one time shot and usually only if they think you might make it. It’s a no strings attached bag containing soap, shampoo, razors, clothes matching the colors of everyone else, and maybe coffee, soup, crackers, enough for a snack if you miss a meal your first couple days….. stuff until you’re situated and figure out a schedule.” When Brian describes the pooling together of a care package, there seems to be a structure for this empathy. Of course, living in this situation of being without basic things could just as easily create – and does create – a community of stealing. I wondered what enables a group to be givers instead of a group of takers?

In describing intangible kindness – empathy, listening and so on – the prisoner Armando writes: I was in isolation. We couldn’t see each other. Only hear each other. There was a skinhead and a Black homosexual next door to him. The Black homosexual was very depressed and on the verge of suicide. So the skinhead shared some of his smuggled-in coffee with him. Told him, he don’t like the gay stuff but would talk to him the days he was there. He’d encourage him (the Black prisoner) to stay strong. The reason was obvious. He did it outta of kindness. That skinhead did it often in a respectful way without making it seem like charity conversation. He’d listen.”

 In reading Armando’s description, I wonder, “What makes listening charity?  And what stigma is placed on this?”.

As in the general culture, kindness in prison appears to be made of similar elements – respect, giving, helping, listening, the feeling of goodwill towards another, compassion. That kindness can happen in prison is not the question – it does. Instead, in the next few posts I want to figure out not if but how kindness functions; understanding kindness not based upon the idiosyncratic virtues of an individual but how the community and structure of prison enables or hinders kindness. It seems to me that kindness in prison is most likely hindered not because prisoners are a bunch of unkind people. Instead, it seems that kindness is hindered because prison creates a single identity for the prisoners and then institutionalizes hate for that single identity of inmate. How does this institutionalized hate make kindness suspect between individuals, thus making kindness/lack of kindness not a function of an individual, but of a system? This is a question I explore along with the prisoners’ answers to the second question – describe experiences in which a prisoner was pretending to be kind to others for their own alternative gains – in the next installment.

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. 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 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.

It’s a start, but we’ve got a ways to go, still

by Kenneth E. Hartman

As I sit in the audience of assembled artists and corrections officials, writers and performers, along with a smattering of fellow returned citizens, I reflect on the magical nature of my own journey to this meeting, provoked to reverie by a tale of emotional torture and abuse told by a gentle, kind artist who once walked the same yards and felt the same arid winds of isolation I experienced for 38 years.

The story of a prisoner locked inside a cell, alone with his thoughts and fears, is a trope that defines prison narrative in fiction and movies. There is something both heartrending and heartwarming to consider in these tales of solitary “definement” – this act of finding oneself within the confines of the steel and concrete of a prison cell. While I listened to him recount his own harrowing experience of this, I became lost in nightmarish memories of other places and times. I could hear the clanking sound of heavy brass keys in the far distance. I felt the weight of those decades leaning on me.
But it’s October 16, 2018, on the vast, tree-lined campus of Sacramento State University in a large, windowed room in the Alumni Center. This is the California Art for Justice Forum; this is the place for “Addressing Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform Through the Arts.” Along one side of the room, tables are stacked with breakfast food: bagels and cream cheese, muffins and cut fruit. At the end of the last table, large brown Cambro drink dispensers – the exact size and color of the containers in the chow hall of the last prison I served time in, mere months ago. The coffee is much better here. Throughout the rest of the day a small army of food service workers keep replacing the offerings with new items. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser to serve the participants a box lunch like what prisoners eat every day.

In the opening panel, as the Chief of Rehabilitation in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation bats back requests for more programs, more art, more of anything, California Arts Council Deputy Director Ayanna Kiburi points out that eight million dollars a year is being allocated toward arts in the California prisons by her organization. I whip out my smart phone and do the math. It works out to about 7/1000ths of a percent of the twelve billion dollars pouring into the prisons for all the rest they accomplish for society. Obviously, art isn’t valued that highly.

During the first breakout sessions, I walk around the room, listening when I can, standing back when I can’t, and what I see and hear leaves me with that kind of déjà vu that feels heavy. It strikes me that many people with obviously big hearts and real commitment are having an argument with the past. How do we measure this? How do we get the system on board? I think it’s different now, right? We shouldn’t ask for too much! When I came to prison back in 1980, it was at the tail end of the last rehabilitation surge. In those days, at Old Folsom, no less, whole sections of Five Building were dedicated to painters and sculptors. Art Alley it was called. It vanished into the maw of the “get tough” era that followed.

When keynote speaker Luis Rodriguez, former Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and both personal hero and close friend of mine, takes to the dais to address the crowd he’s vibrating with righteous energy. He compares the current moment to the “birth of a new era,” and I pray right there that he’s right. His poet’s voice rises and falls, emphasizing and exhorting, calling to action all assembled. In what holds personal significance for me, he makes the point that his own troubled youth was rescued by one adult who “cared him straight.” Like most of us who fall off the rails and land on the other side of the law and society, he needed to be seen and heard, to be cared for and nurtured. Instead, the system of mass incarceration had steel and concrete, isolation and suffering in abundance, ready to break us down and destroy our spirits. I discovered a vocation for writing, and I found a way to write my way back to humanity. That my spirit wasn’t destroyed is a testament to the power of the arts, but I am a lucky exception to the rule. A few millions buy a few programs; many billions buy lots of concrete and steel cages.

The second plenary session addresses the convergence of arts education and criminal justice reform. Two of the five panelists are fellow returned citizens. The wise and measured jazz musician, Wesley Haye, and the fiery, impassioned Shakespearean actor Dameion Brown, both provide the kind of experiential knowledge that only those of us who have lived inside the lethal, electrified fences can impart. Dr. Larry Brewster, a giant in the field of arts education in prison, spends a considerable amount of time explaining to the room the Gordian knot of proving to the uninterested that arts matter for the unloved. He is valiant in his commitment and radiates charm.

Breakout sessions again continue the debate from the morning and discuss the various systems and obstacles that hamper the provision of substantial and meaningful arts education within the jails and prisons. The well-meaning and the hopeful confronting the hard end of current reality is on display.

At the closing remarks, the voices of Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts, and Laurie Brooks, executive director of the William James Association, eloquently express appreciation for what change has happened inside the prisons and jails and the fervent, desperate desire for still more that has been evident all day.

My mind drifts back to Henry Frank, fellow returned citizen, and his gripping recounting of being able to draw on a used lunch bag while being held in solitary confinement. I could feel him slip back inside the terrifying isolation of a cell, alone, unsure how long he would be held out of touch, out of the healing rays of the sun. That he could call on his training as an artist is a wonderful thing, to be sure. That he was placed in a situation where all he could do to maintain his sanity was draw on the inside of a crumpled bag is a damning indictment of the system of mass incarceration.

This state, all of this country, still has miles to go to achieve something like a system that values human beings more than the infliction of pain. We must not ever forget that sad truth.

About the guest contributor: Kenneth E. Hartman served 38 years in the California prison system. He is the author of the award-winning memoir “Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars. “His other books are “Christmas in Prison,” and “Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough.” He lives and works in the Los Angeles area as a writer. Ken can be contacted at: kennethehartman@hotmail.com

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.

Additional forums have taken place at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta on September 28, at Sacramento State University on October 16, at the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University in Alabama on October 19, and the last forum will be held at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16 (register here). For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org.

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)