Archive by Author

What the Warden Doesn’t Know

11 Dec

By Treacy Ziegler

Leroy Sodorff, A Texas prison, coffee and ink drawing

I’m in the deputy warden’s office for an interview; I want to volunteer as an art teacher in a maximum-security men’s prison.  I sit facing the deputy’s desk while she reads my resume.

As with many artists’ resumes, mine begins with a list of the solo exhibitions.  After 20 years as an artist, my resume lists about 35 solo exhibitions in various galleries in various cities.  These are followed by group shows; probably more than is listed, but after a while, I think, “Who cares?” and eliminate most of them.

My resume then lists various awards and grants I have received as well as exhibition catalogs, reviews, papers, essays, and art collections in which I am represented.

When the deputy finishes reading, she says to me, quite seriously, “So, basically, you’ve never worked a day in your life.”

One can only wonder, “If it isn’t work, then what is it?”

What the warden doesn’t know is that art is a conversation. She also doesn’t know that after 20 years, the conversation in the commercial art world has become redundant, and I search for another audience.

Initially, I had not been thinking in terms of prisoners as my new audience. The audience I had in mind — whoever they were — did not have the two main variables that so often describe an art audience: money and power. In removing these two factors, I think of prisoners.

I wrote letters to wardens and superintendents randomly picked throughout the United States, asking each if I might exhibit my art in their prison.  My request would have been better received, perhaps, if I talked about art in terms of therapy or rehabilitation.  But I didn’t.  I merely wanted to have an exhibition in their prison.

As an artist, I didn’t want to institutionalize art nor what I do as therapy.  When I mention I want to exhibit in prisons, a common response is, “Oh, that is so therapeutic!” “Therapeutic?” I think. “Does that describe my exhibitions for gallery audiences — ‘Come to my exhibition.  I’m doing therapy on you’?”

My intention was to exhibit with the same approach as with any venue: Put up my work without the expectation that it will be a “good thing” for the viewer.  Instead, let my art be judged as it will be judged.

Mostly, my random letter evoked rejections — the “what-do-you-think-this-place-is?” reaction. However, I got favorable responses from others who were intrigued with my offer.

In the process of exhibiting my art in prisons, I realize things.

In prison, where relationships are based upon hierarchy of power, two roles are permitted for the non-prisoner: The non-prisoner can be part of the group that disciplines and punishes, or the non-prisoner can be part of the group that helps. In relationship to either group, no matter how benevolent the helper may be, the prisoner is never equal.  Art conversations demand openness between people of equal power.  This is not permitted between prisoner and non-prisoner, regardless of whether the non-prisoner is a helper or punisher.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, etching, “Prison” 1761, Italian.

Guards are particularly sensitive to maintaining this hierarchy between non-prisoners and prisoners.  They experience the presence of my art as a threat to that hierarchy.  The guards more readily accept prisoners’ art exhibitions; these support the hierarchical legacy of patronization.  (Developing prison art exhibitions is a struggle for me; forcing me to consider how best to present prisoner art without the patronization it might suggest; making me wonder if prison art can truly be seen as art.  (For an exhibition addressing this issue see Without the Wall.)

Maybe the guards intuit that in making art accessible to everyone there is danger of democracy.  In exhibiting non-prisoner art in prison, all viewers become equal in relationship to the art.  Everyone becomes a judge: The prisoner can hate my art, like my art, or choose to be indifferent.

In exhibiting my art to be judged by prisoners without the defensive cloak of “doing therapy and being their helper,” I break two fundamental rules of prison: never become vulnerable to and never trust an inmate.  As an artist I must be vulnerable to engage in an honest conversation, and I trust the prisoners with my art — to do with as they wish.

I am also reminded of the very physicality of art.  Visual art takes up space: It is spatially living and yearns for a home.  In this yearning to find a home, art reveals desire.

As a volunteer in prison, it is forbidden to leave anything personal behind, lest it undermine the political structure of the prison. However, when I leave a prison, I do not leave without a trace.  In the physicality of art, I leave behind my personal baggage, which contains loneliness, hope, disappointment, fear, insecurity, or whatever else might be found in my art.

So many prison rules are broken; something personal, something vulnerable, something trusting, something me.

And yet I have no defense. I am not acting in the concern of rehab.  I am only concerned about this conversation of art.  It is a conversation in which I become whole only through another equal person; the viewer, the audience, the listener, the prisoner.

Furthermore, art is a contradiction.  Its physicality knows no boundaries, and in this, I break another prison rule:  When I do become a volunteer art teacher in the deputy warden’s maximum-security prison, she eventually takes disciplinary action against me.  Apparently, she informs me, I have been speaking out of bounds — speaking to prisoners about things not related to my subject of art.

But, of course, the warden doesn’t know.

I tell her, “That’s impossible. Outside of art, there is nothing to say.”

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, etching, “Prison” 1761, Italian.



Chained To Repetition

9 Nov

By Treacy Ziegler

Jerome Washington cropped

Prisoner Jerome Washington, drawing still from the animation Moth and Light created by prisoners primarily in solitary confinement, and based upon Bradley’s moth

When Bo was released from prison, the guards took bets predicting as to how long he would last on the outside.    As a volunteer art teacher in the prison, I didn’t find these wagers among guards shocking; I was used to the insensitivity.   But it made me sad.  From what source does such skepticism rise?  Is it a lack of goodwill towards the prisoners or just a sense of realism in the guard’s assumption that prisoners are bound to a cycle of repetition?

Bo was a fun member of the prison art class and although I was happy for his released, he would be missed.  Bo reminded me of many art students I have known; quirky and imaginative with comments making me laugh.   He had a certain amount of talent for drawing – what I would expect in a high school student – suggesting good potential that could eventually be matured into something else.  (I had encouraged Bo to think about art school when he was released.) Like high school students, prisoners are bound to an authority (be it parents or prison) that forces them to work within restrictive limitations.  But unlike the high school students who have greater opportunity for exposure to things that can eventually break those limitations, prisoners do not have this opportunity. I’ve seen prison artists such as Bo draw the same pictures year in and year out; the endless repetition of something that gives them credit in prison, but does nothing to help them see beyond.

However, to the guards, Bo was less of an artist and just one more drug-dealing criminal.  “He likes the stuff too much to stay away from it.”  That Bo’s both parents are in prison does not diminish the guards’ assumption.

On this particular day, before Bo was released, the prisoner Bradley brings a moth to art class.  He rescued it from other prisoners who were attempting to kill it.  When Bradley says to me, “Come see what I found,” I follow him to a table where he opens an ornate marquetry box much like the box the prisoner Joe gave to me earlier in the day.  Bradley, like Joe, made a fancy wooden box surprisingly from Popsicle sticks. That the box is made of Popsicle sticks is not obvious; the box looks like it is made of expensive wood cut into mosaic patterns stained with coffee or cinnamon that prisoners buy in the prison commissary.

The prisoners have been making these beautiful boxes over and over again for years; they are boxes for precious things, jewelry boxes. Some are very large; some are small. Some are made for wives, others for mothers, sisters, friends.  Some of these boxes are lined with velvet compartments for rings or earrings. When Joe gave me the box, he said, “You can put whatever you want in it.”

However, inside Bradley’s jewelry box, the box he made for his mother and lined with violet velvet for her rings, is a very large golden moth.  I didn’t expect to see a moth.   I had been explaining complimentary color harmony to the class, and with that in mind, I comment, “Complimentary colors; ocher against violet.”

In this moth, I see a tan fuzzy face with brown eyes; the tan face is a shade away from the ocher wings and the brown eyes are in deep contrast to the tan. The moth reminds me of a barn owl — that very strange creature looking both human and alien. The moth’s eyes dart back and forth with what I take to be curiosity.

animation2016 100

Prisoner Anwar Tapia, drawing still for animation Moth and Light

My second reaction to Bradley’s moth is, “We should draw this moth.”  The most frequent comment I make to this art class of prisoners is, “Draw from life.”  Drawing from life instead of the imagination presents the unpredictable.  Things are discovered when they are drawn without preconception of what something looks like.  Unfortunately, most imaginations have not been stretched enough to leave preconceptions behind, leading many to redundancy.

While the boxes are beautiful, making the boxes is predictable.  The men follow a pattern and the mosaic arrangements are sequential, requiring much craft and care. However, drawing a moth rescued from the prison yard does not follow a formula; it follows a personal visual conversation with the moth. As I tell my class, “Cézanne says the landscape spoke to him and because of that, he discovered the unknown through drawing.”

The drawings I typically see from prisoners are drawings rendered from photographs or from their imagination; clichéd hearts and countless big-bosomed women smiling at the viewer, copied from Playboy-like magazines. These drawings suggest habitual repetition; a retreat; like the perpetual skulls I see in Bo drawings.  Or that pervasive woman with a red nose and scars all over her face that is repeated in so many prisoners’ drawings in prisons throughout the United States.

I tell my class, “You are already inmates in the department of corrections. When you copy a photograph, you make yourself a double inmate. You become an inmate to a photograph.”  Drawing from life enables the artist to discover new territories; like the high school student exposed to an outside world breaking parental shackles and learning to see the world through their own eyes.   Noting this, I wonder why prisoners are so intent on working from their imaginations or from  photographs keeping them locked where they are.

Furthermore, the camera can be a cruel, one-eyed guard who, unlike an artist drawing from life, does not make a meaningful distinction between a chair and a person; living and dead; happy and sad. And although a photo may “speak” to the viewer, it does not listen. It does not provide the reciprocal dialogue of which Cézanne speaks when he experienced landscape in the exploration of possibilities.

Despite my suggestions, Bradley has other intentions.  He asks that I take the moth outside the prison. “Free the moth,” Bradley says, “He will be killed in here.” I don’t know if moths are gendered. I suppose neither does Bradley.

I agree to free the moth, placing the moth into my box; the box that Joe gave me. When I tell the recreation therapist of the moth and my plans to free it, he reminds me that while the box has proper papers to leave the prison, the moth does not.  To guards, the moth is contraband.  The recreation therapist suggests freeing the moth inside the prison.  I argue saying, “That is the whole point, the moth is not free in here.”

When I leave for the day, I take the box that Joe gave me containing the moth that Bradley gave me.  With the recreation therapist, I walk across the large prison yard to the first set of gates.  Like most prisons, this prison has two sets of gates; the gate from the inner prison to the administrative building; a second gate leading from there to the outside.  I suppose the double gates protect the administration from revolting prisoners.  It is the recreation therapist’s idea to free the moth between the administrative building and the exit building; beyond the point of any potential moth-killing prisoners and before the point of contraband-confiscating guards.

We open the box to free the moth.  It flies out of Joe’s box, but to my surprise, the moth suddenly turns right and, in doing so, retreats circular, back to the inner prison.

The moth’s flight is portent.  Months after Bo is released – I’m not sure what guard won the bet – he returns.  When Bo pops his head into the art room with a hearty, “Hi!”  I can’t help but wonder, “”home?”  I heard that Bo was back, and this time, he will be here much longer.

How does anyone, not just prisoners, break out of the circle of repetition when we are given limitations that lead to the same conclusions?   Limitations asking that we fall upon that which we did before; copying the same boxes, drawing the same pictures with that same skull or same big-bosomed smiling woman; drawn again and again into infinitum.

Journey to Self

7 Nov

by: Peggy Lamb, Exploring Creativity Coordinator for Truth Be Told

Rca, Krystal, Brandi, Kathy, Linda and Nancy. Six women in the white garb of inmates and I sit in a circle in the spacious chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, TX. They are in the Female Sex Offender Treatment Program. We are here to do a deep dive into creativity – to collaboratively create Journey to Self, a dance/theater piece they will perform in Truth Be Told’s Miracles in Human Form show for their fellow inmates.
I look at their nervous and expectant faces. These six women have been chosen to participate in this project by their therapists because they have demonstrated a commitment to their recovery.
I reassure them that my intention is to create a divinely inspired, perfectly-imperfect piece. I see their breathing deepen and faces relax a bit but sill they are nervous and insecure. They are not professional dancers and have never performed. Who wouldn’t be nervous?
It’s time to move, to quiet monkey-mind and feel our feet! We start with saying our name and doing a movement, then Whoosh-Bang-Pow (a movement game that gets even the most uptight person laughing.) After Whoosh-Bang-Pow I lead them in Flocking, an exercise that culminates in the group walking together at the same tempo (which is harder than it sounds.). We’ll use this in the final section of our performance when the women-in-white form a procession and walk slowly downstage to Alison Krause’s Down to the River to Pray.
We gather again in a circle – a much more relaxed and embodied group of women. We read a couple of poems I’ve selected: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver (tell me about despair, yours and I will tell you mine), The Healing Time by Pesha Gertler (the old wounds, the old misdirections, and I lift them one by one close to my heart and I say holy holy), and that powerful quote by Maya Angelou,
“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” I ask the group if they are familiar with Maya Angelou. Most of them are through her Phenomenal Woman poem. Brandi, a white, thirty-something  mother of six says, “I named my daughter after her.”
Through writing prompts such as “Write a ten word memoir” we create the written material that serves as a springboard for dance material. I ask the women to create three movements that symbolize the parts of their lives they chose to write about. This is the hardest part for most of them. They want to do pantomime. Eventually their robotic, pantomimic movements slowly become imbued with the core of their being, as much as these deeply scarred and wounded women can deliver at this time.
I call this section of the piece, “I could tell you a story” and it is the heart of Journey to Self. The body, in its cellular wisdom, can express that which we do not have words for. One woman’s movement is simply opening her mouth and arms wide. She has been in prison for over 20 years for molesting her children. Another woman’s movement is simple side-to-side sways – a beautiful movement. For her it meant how she was influenced by other people and did have her own sense of self.
The warden has allowed us two three-hour slots of rehearsal time – a miracle in the world of TDCJ. By the end of our second rehearsal, these women and I have created a beautiful heart-felt dance. I am stunned and awed by their courage, their willingness to step outside their comfort zones, their vulnerability and discipline.
As one woman said during our de-brief, “In the free word I always had have my wigs, make-up, heels and sexy clothes. I didn’t know how to be just me. In this piece I am more naked and vulnerable than I’ve ever been. And yet, I feel more peaceful than I’ve ever felt.”
As for me, this deep dive into the holy water of dancing with incarcerated women leaves my body heart and spirit vibrating with gratitude. I shake my head in wonder and awe at how I stumbled into this divinely choreographed and divinely designed volunteer work.

Prison’s noose of absolute truth

11 Oct

By Treacy Ziegler


Anthony Washington, drawing for the project Dear Self, Dear Other

We seek truth in many things and demand absolute truth when someone has done wrong.

“Who did it?” is the first question asked after a crime, followed by “how” and “why;” the primary questions determining identity, causality, and motive of a crime

Identification is a strange thing. It is a paradox of revelation and limitation.  It seeks to enlighten only to cast the identified into a conceptual box — a thing with its individuality removed to fit into a universal.  For most, being fitted into an identity is not totally destructive since we live in multiple identities, changing them with the fluidity of daily existence.  I exist as artist, mother, wife, prison volunteer, friend, and so on.

However, in crime, once who, how, and why have been determined through the legal process, and who has been incarcerated, prison guarantees maintaining that determined truth through its insistence upon a single identity for the prisoner.  The prisoner is an inmate 24-7.  The status of inmate eclipses any other identity that may reveal a prisoner as a more complex individual – father, son, wife, daughter, friend – roles allowing the person to expand in who they are.

This determined and absolute truth is further controlled by prison through limiting information. As a volunteer prison art teacher, it is illegal for me to ask who, how, and why regarding my students’ crimes. Likewise, it is forbidden for me to know any personal details of students’ lives and to share any of my personal information with them.  This could essentially limit the exchange of personal information between a prisoner and myself to last names and the DIN number of the prisoner.

But legality is often a moot point in prison.  In prison, disclosure of information is based upon power and not upon rights.  So while I cannot ask anything of prisoners, guards often describe to me the details of a crime despite the prisoners’ rights of confidentiality: “Did you know that inmate X threw his wife off a cliff; inmate Y torched his victim and watched him burn to death; inmate Z murdered and raped three women?”

That the guards taunt me with crime details of my students is understandable. Beneath this antagonism, the guards are asking a valid question: Can I feel positive toward prisoners when I know the extent of their crimes?  Can I reconcile the paradox between a violent crime and the accused who may be a very good student?  For some reason, I am not concerned with these contradictory dynamics.  I usually know the crimes of my students.  It seems as though ignoring that part of the student’s life is a different kind of identity control.

Ironically, the first prisoner I met in any prison is an artist who received his MFA from the same art school I attended.  Joe was in art school at the same time that I was, but I didn’t know him until teaching in prison.  Years after first meeting Joe, I explained our connection to a staff person.  This staff shrugged it off but suggested I not tell anyone else.

Joe is serving a life sentence.  He accepts responsibility for his crime with a forthrightness that was probably a factor in getting that sentence.  He says, though, that one person asked him about his crime history in a way that gets at his own understanding of why he is in prison.  Instead of asking, “What did you do?” the person asked, “What happened to you?”  For Joe, this best describes his experience because, “I used to be just a real normal guy.”

He knows it’s crazy, but Joe feels as if his life became cursed — he can even pinpoint the moment of the curse. On a trip to Mexico with his wife, while climbing the Mayan pyramids, Joe mimicked the statue of the pyramid’s god.  He realized immediately that he had committed an act of great disrespect.  Joe says, “But it was too late. It seems everything after that went so wrong for me and my wife.” Rationally he does not believe in the Mayan curse, but emotionally he does; it gives him an alternative perspective, perhaps, one with hope.

Joe’s comments remind me of something the prisoner Richard said: “You know, how you get close to something and you know you shouldn’t get so close, but you do anyway, moving towards a cliff that is pulling you — and before you know it, it is too late?”  He motions with his eyes at the imaginary cliff hovering in front of us, ready to pull whomever over its edge.

Such accounts of crime do not fit the determined absolute truth insisted by prison and the criminal system.   Instead, the accounts represent personal interpretations.  To some people, these stories may appear as excuses; blaming invisible forces and creating havoc with causality; the “I didn’t really do it; I couldn’t help it.” Of course, the question becomes how are invisible forces reconciled with personal accountability necessary for agency?

In a super-maximum security prison, the men do what they are told at all times — shower, eat, take recreation; nothing is left up to them.  In art class, their emotional fragility is extreme.  When they drop their pencils, they’ll often yell, “You made me do that!”   The prisoners forget that in blaming me and not being accountable, they relinquish control of the pencil and give me their last shred of independence.

If we are victims of total causality and everything is determined through cause and effect, we cannot believe in the ability to make independent decisions.   I tell the class, “When you give up all responsibility, you eventually will not be able to move your head to look at something of your own volition…..and when that happens…. you will be bemoaning for the good old days when you lived in the free state of the super-max.”  They stop blaming me for the dropping of their pencils.

What is truth when all of us — not just prisoners — exist in these constant paradoxes?  Confronted by forces outside our control while being held accountable for those same forces is just one of many ontological contradictions to which our lives are bound.  How does one navigate living in such paradoxes?

Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer tells us that while science (in this case, forensics and prison) seeks to present the truth of a single story, the experience of art tells us there is no single story.  In art, there are only our stories, with no simple answers to whomhow, or why.  In art, none of us stand outside the circle of investigation – we are all involved.

Art, too, can be used as a platform for declaring a specific truth with prescriptions for public moral improvement.  But art’s strength is in declaring nothing, and by doing so, enables us a means to exist with creative non-prescriptive ambiguity in the multiplicity of stories that persists beyond every final answer that poses as absolute truth.

If prison could be developed as a creative response to compassionate accountability, what would it look like?


In the company of a door, a bed, and a toilet

19 Sep

By: Treacy Ziegler

Arthur Tyler door,

Arthur Tyler, “Door of death row,”  monotype, courtesy of the artist

Volunteering in prison as an art teacher is hard, and I often ask myself why continue? Often I get the answer from the prison students.  A couple of years ago, a new student joined my class in a closed-security prison. During class, I mention the through-the-mail art program I teach, which brings art projects to prisoners in solitary confinement nationally. At the end of class, Arthur Tyler, the new student, asked if I know any prisoners on Ohio’s death row. I think of participating prisoners on death row — Armando and Robert on California’s death row and others in various states — but I can’t think of anyone on Ohio’s.

When I draw a blank, Arthur quietly says he has just been released from Ohio’s death row, where he was held for 31 years.

Looking at Arthur, I imagine the freedom he must feel even in a freedom-less place like this high-security prison, leaving the room for the bathroom or drinking from the hallway water fountain. This impact of freedom reminds me of John Berger’s essay, “Mouse Story,” in which the narrator describes a mouse leaping from the cage as only a mouse newly freed can leap; a prisoner realizing his dream of freedom, even if it is only freedom into a high-security prison.

I think of Robert Deninno at Pelican Bay State Prison, California, living in solitary confinement for 10 years. After being released into general population of a maximum-security prison this past August, Robert writes to me, I have been smiling so much that my face hurts. I write back, Robert, You may be the only person who thinks living in a maximum-security prison makes for smiling. But that’s not true; several other men have been released from solitary, and for them, seeing the sky becomes a new experience.

robert deninno - seeing the sky email - points copy

Robert Deninno, Seeing the sky, pastel drawing, courtesy of the artist

But Arthur is not like Robert or the other men from solitary confinement, now living in general, relieved to feel the sun. When the parole board voted unanimously for his release, Arthur anticipated going home — but Ohio governor John Kasich vetoed this vote. I don’t know why. Some speculated releasing Arthur from prison would have interfered with the governor’s re-election campaign.  Arthur’s next hearing was in April 2016 when Kasich was running for US President, and again, Arthur was denied parole.  A third, fall 2017, hearing is planned, and I can only hope that it will end better for Arthur.

Life on death row

In class, I asked Arthur if art might be a means to explore life on death row. I don’t know what I mean by this question. Yet I know drawing can be an excavation of what is seen, so I ask him to keep a visual journal, drawing whatever comes into his head, like visual free associations.

Usually, I hesitate to ask for words from prisoners. In prison, where language can be misinterpreted and used in parole hearings, writing is reduced to platitudes. Prisoners produce purple prose in which they exchange raw experience for the niceties a public or parole board wants to hear. Regardless, I ask Arthur to write the words that come into his head while drawing.

I tell Arthur something I heard from another prisoner on death row: That despite having no future, this person couldn’t think without a future in his thoughts. This forward thinking is not from spiritual need or hope, but because our existence is ontologically structured with future. Walking down death’s row, we think of a future. Arthur was released to this prison two weeks before his scheduled execution.

Arthur shows me his drawing and words. There are three images on the paper; a door, a bed, and a toilet — three constant elements of Arthur’s life for 31 years. The words are of hope and survival; sentiments not addressing what either could possibly mean on death row. The words ring of a Hallmark card, albeit one from death row.

“I can only see myself”

I tell Arthur this not to be cruel to his writing but to penetrate beneath the words’ veneer. Arthur looks at the door he has drawn and says, I had no window in the cell; only a door with a small window. And because the window is dark, I can only see myself.

This descriptive analysis is the beginning of what I seek.  Not a could-have-been/should-have-been ideal state, but tangible elements upon which meaning is developed through a conversation consisting of a door, a bed, and a toilet.

It is strange that doors are metaphors for opportunity.  Most doors are closed, and all doors present a barrier-entrance dichotomy.  How does one exist within constant proximity of a locked door?  Does the door become a canvas upon which all emotions are projected, thus absorbing the inhabitant’s persona?  Or, is it a dark shadow upon the room’s landscape existing with a life of its own in total disregard to the inhabitant?

Life without intimacy

What does a bed say?  Does it speak to an intimacy or to a lack?  Does it speak to a family or partner long gone?

I don’t know the prisoners’ intimate lives; they don’t tell, and I don’t ask.  Once, however, a guard told me, These inmates care more about their bitches in here than their wives.  When I asked if this prison intimacy enables compassion that would be missing had the prisoners found no intimacy at all, the guard’s stare tells me my question is stupid, but I am stupider.

Looking at Arthur’s drawing of a death row bed void of any context, I can’t help but wonder how life continues without intimacy; not just sex, but love, hate, frustration, sharing, anxiety, disappointment, joy — feelings demanded in relationship to another person.

What does the toilet suggest? A reminder that no one is self-identical because constant change in daily life flushes away old aspects of self to be exchanged with new?  Or that in prison, the plumbing system of change does not work to accommodate a changing self? The prisoner is made to be self-identical, an inmate 24/7. When I ask prisoners if they ever think of themselves not as inmates, the most common answer I get is: When I am sleeping.

I don’t know how these basic elements — a door, a bed, and a toilet — of Arthur’s landscape spoke to him for 31 years. But now that evidence cannot justify Arthur’s years on death row, do they suggest a life wasted?

Lighthouses, guard towers, and the collapsing spatial planes of prison

11 Aug

By Treacy Ziegler

lawrence smith Tehachapi prison(1)

Lawrence Smith, prisoner, drawing of Tehachapi prison, California, courtesy of artist

A few years ago, my friend suggested a particular meadow I might want to draw. This friend, who is not actually an artist but with whom I draw on a regular basis, often suggests things to draw.

No, I said, the meadow is picturesque but not interesting enough — visually dynamic enough — to create a composition. I said it would be more interesting to sit on the side of the highway and draw the overpass of one road over another road: they offer light, shadow, and diagonals. The meadow merely offers nostalgia, nothing visually compelling.

Having made this distinction between the picturesque and something upon which to create a dynamic composition, I contradicted myself and suggested a road trip to draw lighthouses in Maryland and Virginia. The lighthouse seems to be the most picturesque image ever reproduced in photographs, paintings, and prints, running the gamut from the kitsch of Thomas Kinkade to Piet Mondrian’s early paintings of the lighthouse at Westkapelle

mondrian wetkapelle

 Piet Mondrian, Westkapelle

On this road trip, which developed into a kind of scavenger hunt of lighthouses, I was struck by the interesting names given to lighthouses, particularly the dislocating name of a lighthouse called Point No Point. What is a point without a point?

Identifying the point

Ambiguity surrounding lighthouses became more evident when I brought my drawings into the studio. I was working on a particular lighthouse painting and inadvertently placed it next to another working landscape. This other landscape was a nebulous scene of sky and water with just a suggestion of the horizon. When placed side by side, the paintings emphasized the lighthouse as form against the sea as non-form; the intersection of the tangible with the intangible.

On a clear day, the sea-sky nothingness is visually organized by the horizon; the irony is that this visually organizing horizon is an illusion.

Regardless of its illusion, the horizon works in conjunction with the vertical to create a world in which we understand. Our world is made up of horizons and verticals — with an occasional dramatic diagonal — and it is not surprising that Mondrian in his later works reduced his marks to lines signifying these two directions. While most creation myths of any culture begin with this horizontal line dividing earth and sky or heaven and hell, it is not until the vertical line is inserted that the world becomes inhabited. All landscape artists know this. Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea is a strong example of this inhabitation.

Friedrich Monk By The Sea

Caspar David Friedrich, The Monk by the Sea.

Collapsing planes of prison

I see many lighthouse drawings from my prison students. They are lumpen lighthouses; lighthouses for the spatially dispossessed. The sky is drawn on the same picture plane as the sea, the sea on the same plane as the lighthouse, the lighthouse on the same plane as the foreground, and the foreground on the same plane as the background.

There is no space in these drawings — as if the prisoners know what we do not; that measurable space does not actually exist. For what is measurable space in prison where 100 miles from home is equal to a single mile from home; a single mile is equal to never and nowhere from home; time and space collapsing into each other?  What purpose can distance and time have in prison?

I mention their spatial dilemma to my prison students suggesting to them; maybe you are living in a Gothic painting.

simone martini

 Simone Martini, Madonna of Mercy

I tell them that in a Gothic painting, a mountain could appear the same size as a man, or the Madonna may be 18 feet high sitting on a two-inch donkey. Space is collapsed to the foreground.

I tell the prisoners that in Mondrian’s later paintings, space also appears collapsed. Vertical and horizontal lines are painted on a white background. In neither the Gothic paintings or in later Mondrian abstractions are there any references to perspectival space.

But the prisoners are not living in a Gothic or Mondrian painting; they are living in the antithesis of that.  And unlike prison space, space in a Gothic painting is not destroyed but superseded with spirituality.  This kind of experience has no need for spatiality and, therefore, space becomes ambiguous.


 Piet Mondrian, Composition

Mondrian understands it is the ambiguity of space that gives meaningful dimension to human experience. In Mondrian’s later paintings, this ambiguous space is disclosed — space that cannot be identified by the grid of his lines or the whiteness upon which he paints this grid. This is the space between the lines and the whiteness; it is space not seen, but experienced; it is ubiquitous and mysterious space where the intangible intersects the tangible.

Without ambiguity, all is dead

There is no allowed mysterious space in prison and the dictated collapse of space is not replaced by meaning; all meaning is destroyed. Distance and time do not become irrelevant; they are totally nuked.

Where is the horizon in prison?  Why do I, anyone, need to see the horizon – a mere subjective line moving as I move; existing and not tangible; an illusion steadying me upon earth?   My students do not know and neither do I.  When a student hopefully interjects that he is living closer to home than ever before in his incarceration, I ask if this has made a difference in his life. He answers sadly: No, it doesn’t matter; no one ever visits me.

We do not live in measured space, and we cannot live in the annihilation of space.  Ultimately, we can only live in ambiguous space; space that is not dictated to fit a means or end.  Mondrian knew this as well as the Gothic painters.  I live – thrive – in subjective ambiguity to space.  If I had to run the mile to my neighbor for help, I could do it; that same mile to a person in a wheelchair could mean a death sentence. Without ambiguous space and the horizon, the fluidity of meaning is destroyed and life becomes insignificant.

The lighthouse called Point No Point compels me.  Unlike the other lighthouses that mark a specific point in space, this lighthouse makes no assumption. It is a lighthouse built upon water on which no permanent marking can be recorded; placed upon an ever-changing medium.  Like Mondrian’s space between the grid and the whiteness, Point No Point Lighthouse occupies ambiguous space facing an intangible horizon where meaning is full, always changing, and never reduced to absolutes; the lighthouse offers no clichés; it offers no false clarity.

I imagine this ambiguous space with an intangible horizon, and upon this moving horizon I imagine prisoners are walking, leading an eighteen-foot Madonna and her two-inch donkey.

Falling Leaves: Letters from Prison

31 Jul

By Treacy Ziegler

armando macias on death row

Armando Macias, prisoner at San Quentin, drawing from The Circle exhibition

Falling leaves

Letters from prison

But now you’ve got the gist 

of what my letters mean.

You’re reading them again

The ones you didn’t burn”

Leonard Cohen, “The letters”


The letters seem to accumulate indiscriminately on the furniture surfaces of my home.  At first, they were restricted to my son’s old bedroom, the room I use as a study.  But in time, the letters began to gather on my piano, table, and chairs; albeit in piles – this one to answer first, that for later, and the largest pile looming, as a question mark for which there is no ready response.

It’s hard to throw out these letters from prisoners received through the Prisoner Express program; a program that develops distant learning for 4500 prisoners.  Some are simple requests to participate in the program and are not difficult to put in the recycle bin.  It becomes more difficult to toss out letters in which I am directly addressed or where the writer seems in need of a listener.   Throwing out these letters, even when answered, feels like stamping upon the writer’s hope.  So I keep them.

As an artist, I immediately experience the physicality of the letters; what in art school we referred to as “marks upon the paper.”  Most prisoners’ letters are written by hand; although some are written on old-fashioned typewriters. The marks make evident the writer’s hand and, in doing so, convey something personal about the writer; sometimes even more personal than the actual meaning of the words. I feel Jerome’s hand holding the pen so tight and heavy that the reverse of his paper is embossed, creating its own beautiful surface.   Or the tidy block lettering of Jimmy’s letters.  I have boxes of letters from Clarence who writes almost daily. I’m drawn to his letters not so much for content but for the intensity and frenetic intent of the letter’s numerous pages, front and back, augmented by diagrams, pictures, and numbers referencing a religion of which Clarence knows or has developed for coping.

Clarence’s Letters

In the letters of the prisoners, I feel the hand that is rushed and the hand that has all the time in the world; writing slow and deliberate.  I experience the smudged ink from the pressure of the hand or letters written upon stained paper – coffee, blood, whatever.  Some letters are folded into tiny squares.  Many letters are on cheap lined paper.  Some letters are on recycled printed materials.  Jeff writes from a California prison on the reverse of his in-prison offense notice sending him back into solitary confinement.

With 4500 prisoners in the program, it seems that correspondence would get lost in the avalanche of letters, and yet, there is something so personal about the marks on these letters that I often recognize someone’s letter upside-down from across the room just from their handwriting.

Interestingly, however, these penmanship marks can be more personal than the meaning of the words – at least the opening salutations which tend to follow a similar litany; “Hope you are in good health, hope your dogs are well, your husband is well, your son’s ok,” and if the writer were to know my neighbors, they, too, would be blessed with good health. Leon always begins his letters with a variation of his holiday season letter:

“Dear Treacy,

Greeting!  Good day to you and everyone else.  I hope you enjoyed the holiday season and Happy New Year.  It’s a brand new year to start off on a good note.  I hope you find yourself in the best of health and happy spirits.”

 Yet, no matter how redundant the salutations may be, the opening greetings immediately express the writer’s hope for acceptance and to be taken seriously.   I recognize this hope – thinking of letters I have written to galleries hoping they will like my art.    But it is hard writing to an unknown person asking for validation of my worthiness, knowing more often than not it is futile.

 I’ve received letters from prisoners with no written message.   Derwin’s letters are often scraps of paper upon which he renders a drawing I sent to him.  It may be Derwin doesn’t read and write.  Some prisoners, like Jerome, learned to read and write in prison.  Despite the limitations, Derwin’s letters testifies to the US postal service’s diligence.  A letter from him, addressed with only my first name and zip code, successfully found its way to me.

Not all the letters seek acceptance; some seem to be a way for expressing remorse.  Joe wrote about murdering his wife and the regret he experiences not only in murdering her, but the loneliness he feels without her.  One could read this and become cynical – like well, what did you expect when you murdered her?  But cynicism is quickly replaced by spending time in prisons and learning murder is a very complex phenomenon.  I am convinced that anyone is capable of it but very few people who do, live without regret.   I think about James who before murdering his girlfriend high on drugs never had a single violation – not even a driving ticket.  Or Fred, who says until he murdered his ex-wife’s boyfriend in anger, “I used to be just a regular guy.” Tom writes of murdering his best friend who was also the father of his son’s best friend while high on bath salts and the pain and horror it caused everyone in his life.  I experience genuine grief in these letters or statements made by prisoners in prison. The words do not seem to be statements to evoke my sympathy or said just because the individual ended up in prison, but explicit expressions of regret for what they did.


I haven’t experienced sexual advances or disrespect of any kind from prisoners while conducting workshops face to face in prison.  Likewise, it is very rare to experience sexual references in the letters, although it happens.   Some are comical.  Logan writes imagining me as 20-year old with slinky blond hair covering one eye.  I published a photograph of myself in the next newsletter to establish that, in fact, I was not a 20 year-old blond with a come-hither look, but a middle-aged woman.  It didn’t matter.   I could have published myself with big floppy ears and a single eye in the middle of my forehead; fantasies still occur.

Jonathan’ s three letters to me were in the style of a poem.  In the first two letters, his verses expressed sexual desires toward me.  His third letter, however, seems to offer an apology for his first two letters:

I’m sorry for writing you.

I’m just bored. 

I’ve tried your program.

But I’m bored with it.

Likewise Garry’s letters contained sexual fantasies towards me.  I write back telling him I know he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by being disrespectful and that he will need to edit sexual material from future letters.   Garry follows my request for a while, but then slips back to the sexual matters.  I stop writing to him.

Reading Garry’s or Jonathan’s letters, I think about Mr. Warner, a 93-year old patient for whom I was responsible working as a nurse’s aid in an understaffed nursing home.  I was 12 years old.  It was a severe job forcing me into responsibilities no sane adult would have asked of anyone so young – bathing, dressing, nursing and administering medications to old, sick men.  On occasion, I even had to wash and prepare bodies after death for the undertaker.  One evening, while getting a roomful of men bathed and dressed for bed, it became apparent Mr. Warner was dying.  “He’s probably good for an hour or two,” the head nurse said.  Dying alone in a nursing home with just a 12-year old witness is so bleak that I wanted to provide something more dignified than the ice cream the nurse suggested me to feed Mr. Warner in his last hour.  I found a Bible and holding it in my left hand, read, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”  Instead of dignifying his dying, I was shocked to find Mr. Warner’s hand trying to get up my skirt, forcing me to repeatedly swat away his sexually active hand with my free hand and, thus, making his sad death even more pathetic.

manuel gonzalez

Manuel Gonzalez, III drawing for The circle show, prisoner in Tehachapi Prison.

Was it terror of impending death – the seemingly ultimate isolation – that reduced Mr. Warner to the biologic response of sexual aggression?  I think about what Eric said, the program director at a prison where I teach.  As we watched guards leading a young prisoner in handcuffs across the yard to the hole – his punishment for publicly masturbating – Eric said, “Some of the young kids who end up here are so reduced to terror and anxiety that that is all they can do. It’s ironic that the punishment is putting them into even greater isolation and terror.”   But the prisoners in my class are less generous with their assessment, suggesting, They’re not anxious – they raised themselves and had no one to tell them to keep it in their pants.”  Whichever way one chooses to see it, do these acts of sexual aggression mask a state of terror?

More often than sexualized is the potential for the prisoner to idealize the writer.   But pen pals are pen pals and when real limits are exposed, can be devastating to a prisoner.  The prisoner Jackey had a Cornell student pen pal for the years she attended the university.  When the student graduated and no longer wrote, Jackey became depressed.  Although I didn’t fill the gap left by the student, Jackey continued writing to me deeply hurt by the loss of his pen pal:

“It is ridiculous that me, a 60 year-old man, would fall in love with a college student pen pal who I never saw and knew I would never meet. But I feel so bad and just can’t get over it.”

jackey sollars, faces , e copy

Jackey’s drawing

It’s probably not surprising that there are fewer women than men participating in the programs – there are more men prisoners than women prisoners.  But it may also be how women prisoners experience their abilities. Katherine finished the Drawing from Life, a through-the-mail drawing course.  It is a challenging course asking the artist to work from life instead of copying photographs.  When I wrote to Katherine congratulating her on being the first women prisoner to complete the course, saying she deserved a prize, she wrote back,

“I’ve never won anything in my life, was never first at anything…. always last.  I am so thrilled!”  And then asked, “Could you give my prize to my daughter.  It’s her birthday and I don’t have anything to give her.”  I sent sketchbooks to both Katherine and her daughter.

Some prisoners write letters pontificating their incarceration with clichés heard on the prison yard.  Reading these, I remember as a teenager yelling at my dad when he’d repeat, as truth, clichés heard at truck stops or bars,  That’s just crap you learned from your beer buddies – why don’t you ever think for yourself?”

 Perhaps, I was a bit too harsh on my dad.  Can anyone express clearly an experience of living without falling back on tidy slogans to describe that life?   How more difficult is it for prisoners, who live in a world of controlled information and identity, to observe their experience without resorting to overused words and concepts?    The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben says it’s words themselves making us disabled communicators; disabled, because words are trapped in historical redundancy and cannot express the vibrancy and ambiguity of the presence.   Somehow, Agamben suggests, we have to find a way to “say the unsayable.”   Are the arts a way?

“Saying the unsayable,” demands the person giving expression be a keen observer; for without reflective observation, expression is fluff.  Is it possible for prisoners to astutely observe the ambiguity of his/her experience; and in doing so, become powerful witnesses of incarceration rather than powerless prisoners?