Still Life In Prison

15 Jan

By Treacy Ziegler

puppet drawings 2.

Still live drawing by prisoner David

“….tear the memory from my eyes” – Tom Waits


In prison, where time can be ignored, the prisoner Joe says he no longer looks at a clock, “I don’t think about time. What difference can it make to me when I’m serving life without parole? Every day, every minute is the same.”  His statement, without anger or regret, reflects the uselessness of measuring temporal change in prison and makes me wonder if still life drawing is a genre for which my students have expert affinity.


As visual arrangements of objects, some still lifes present as visual pleasure while others are arrangements of symbolic objects challenging the viewer to decode its meaning. Think of the religious still life with the skull and fly; or a Dutch still life of opulent middle class life. But in art school I learned that beneath these arrangements, a still life screams of a problem more basic than decoding meaning or giving aesthetic pleasure.


While nothing is profound in the realization that living is constant change, it wasn’t until art school, when asked to draw from life, I was confronted with relentless change at every level. Despite Joe’s assessment of sameness; nothing is the same in any day or minute: Landscape painting is complicated by our moving relationship to the sun, changing light and shadow patterns that, in turn, alter the shape of things upon that landscape. A stationary nude model is never stationary. Skin and muscle are constantly challenged by gravity, shifting not only the pose, but also making the person look different. Drawing a still life makes very explicit the world’s restlessness, compounded by the difficulty in reconciling that movement onto a nonmoving paper or canvas. But art school, sensitive to this difficulty, dedicated an entire room known as the still life room, thus, providing an antithesis – albeit abstract and incomplete – to this metaphysical squirming.


In the still life room, movement is slowed for students learning to draw or paint. Artificial light provides constant light and shadow masses; plastic flowers interrupt the cycle of living and dying. But even within the stasis of the still life room, movement is not stopped.


The still life room had several different stations of arranged objects but none were arranged with the concern of decoding meaning. Content and meaning were abandoned for learning composition, replacing meaning with form, and creating diagonals against verticals against horizontals with tonal or color variations; abstract qualities that are felt but conceptually overlooked by the novice viewer.


But prisoners most often feel the need to create meaning in their art; the I-want-to-express-myself-to-be-a-better-person art that is often portrayed in prison art classes. Can I ask the prisoners to draw without content and meaning? Will they be pulled into a world of abstract diagonal, horizontal and vertical forms without reference to objects providing stories? Most people cannot. Insisting that meaning is the door to any experience, many museum visitors demand, “What does the painting mean?”


For my prison art class, I compromise and bring objects instead of abstractions for the prisoners to draw. By doing so, I also bring the inevitable meaning that surrounds those objects like an opaque dirt cloud. Meaning is always everywhere, not to be manufactured on command, but experienced as it ruthlessly burrows into our lives.


I bring a small toy farm, a provincial farm from France; a strange farm to bring into the prison.  (I still hold to the idea that form is currently more important than content – only because form is ignored by most beginning artists.) To me, the fact it is a farm is unimportant.  I wanted something with planes extending into space; a primitive dwelling consisting of interior and exterior dimensions.   I borrowed this farm from my friend’s young kids 18 years ago. At that time, I wanted to simulate a place in my studio where I could draw space without light changing – like the still life room.  It is not a typical toy farm; the farmhouse and outbuildings are made with white stucco walls while the rest of the farm is made of wood.   The farm consists of two adjacent buildings with slanted roofs.  It is simple, it reflects light and it is directional, extending through space in several directions.


I never gave the farm back to the young kids and now they are too old; no longer wanting to explore this simulated space.    The prisoner Nathan is interested in such space and built a tenement construction. I initially thought Nathan’s building would be excellent for the class to draw. What I liked about it was the dichotomy between exterior and interior compartments; playing with undisclosed meaning of space with the arbitrariness of boundaries.   When I told Nathan how much I liked the construction, he worked harder on it. Unfortunately, in doing so, he made the arbitrariness less vague with little details and signs; giving too much meaning. With meaning overly defined, the building became flat. We went back to drawing the provincial farm that remained basic; no living people, no animals, no details; but haunted by living and therefore, straddling between meaning and no meaning.


Another thing I bring into class is a vintage puppet from the 1940’s. It is a clown. Something about this clown makes me think of Twilight Zone or Chucky from the horror movie. Another prisoner, also named Joe, suggests the clown puppet is Pennywise from Stephen King’s novel. I don’t tell the students this strange puppet is the only thing my mother gave me. This statement isn’t true; an exaggeration. I do remember it as the only thing my mother ever gave me and, therefore, it becomes the only thing. But all of this is very illegal to tell the prisoners; illegal not because it’s false, but because it is personal. It carries a sense of regret, a personal hole in my armor. This hole, the prison administration tells me, will lead me into bringing knives and cell phones for the prisoners to escape.


But I like the clown with its 1940’s casting of a plastic head that appears different than today’s plastic, and a floppy body.  The floppy body is dressed in a one-piece cotton flight suit, white with red polka dots. He wears large white shoes made of the same plastic as his head.   I assume it is a male clown.    The floppy body moves according to strings attached to a wooden bar.  It is a marionette; it is Chucky the killer-clown-marionette that I bring into a maximum-security prison for the prisoners to draw.


I bring in a plastic dragon knowing many dragons are drawn in prison. In my class, the third Joe (… so many Joes in prison, it could come as a warning to parents: Name your child Joe, and he will live in prison.) draws them constantly. I tell number 3 Joe, “If you want to draw dragons, then draw this one; not one from your imagination. Any dragon drawn from your imagination will only be redundant because you haven’t looked at a dragon extended through space defined by light and shadow.” Of course, this is a stupid thing to say; all dragons are imaginary. And the students eagerly agree, “Yes, a stupid thing to say.”


If dragons are all imaginary what difference is there between drawing this plastic dragon from Joe drawing a dragon from his imagination? When the prisoners don’t know the answer, I suggest it is the relativism that characterizes the imagination, bringing everything imagined under the single filter of the self. I suggest we build sculptural dragons to draw. If the class were to build an imaginary sculptural dragon and then draw it, the self’s power diminishes making room for outside context – light and shadow, placement, form, – thus expanding the phenomenal experience of the dragon. We don’t have materials for building dragons and the class settles upon drawing the plastic one I bring to class.


In expanding the prisoners’ knowledge of art history, I bring examples of Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings. Despite Morandi’s reputation as the primary 20th century still life painter, the prisoners are unimpressed and Douglas states, “I wouldn’t give you 5 cents for that painting.” While I love Morandi’s paintings, I understand Douglas’ dislike. Painting after painting, Morandi presents groupings of bottles. Many of the bottles stand shoulder to shoulder extending across the canvas. Many of the paintings break compositional art school rules; tangents are everywhere.  But the prisoners are bored and breaking their boredom, I mimic Morandi’s mother with whom he lived, imagining her asking, “But George, why so many bottles? Why can’t you draw a nice girl for once?” Douglas agrees; all the prisoners have at one time or another brought drawings of smiling big-bosomed women to class.


But why the bottles? Certainly, there is no symbolic meaning in bottles for Morandi. In fact, it is reported that Morandi removed labels of the bottles to bleach any signification, painting the bottles a flat color to minimize reflection. Like the still life room, he created arrangements that reach beyond conceptual meaning; reaching even beyond elements of form to greater basic of ontological dimensions – here, there, absence, presence, together, apart, isolated, union, and so on. The appearance of stillness in Morandi’s paintings – like the still life room – underscores its unattainability outside an ideal. There is tension between the bottles; invisible vibration of atoms or the moment before an arrow is released making restricted movement more powerful than action.


With this thought, I inevitably think of prisoners and their unique experience living in an ultimate landscape of restriction. What would Morandi draw if he were a prisoner?   Would he experience it not as a sentence but as opportunity to penetrate beneath the stillness? Would Morandi experience his stripped identity as a restriction or a freedom? After all, what is the price of identity and meaning?

In some ways, meaning is similar to the still life room in that they are both control mechanisms. The still life room slows movement and meaning stabilizes life into the familiar and understandable. But while the still life room controls movement in order to see differently, meaning controls in order to see sameness – enabling the chair to be recognized always as a chair. And while that helps in moving through daily life, it also means that a silly clown will always be identified as the short-end of a maternal relationship. – life gets trapped by meaning and memory.


Morandi strips the bottles of meaning, breaking them from the past and allowing the many bottles to be unique. In this, he creates a state of non-meaning that will not be conquered the way meaning is tamed into submission. And because meaning is always through the filter of “me” (to me, for me, and through me), when meaning is abandoned, that “me” is abandoned to potential unknown.


What would Morandi draw in prison? He would probably draw big-bosomed women and celebrities. In prison, still life rooms are dangerous in that they teach artists to become astute observers of the world. For prisons, it is best to have prisoners maintain focus upon an inmate-self whose identity and meaning can be controlled rather than allow prisoners to overcome the trap of identity in becoming powerful witnesses of the world they live.






Corrections . . . Because being in prison can be hazardous to your health.

5 Jan
Corrections Cover Art

by Ronald McKeithen

About the contributor: Connie Kohler is a semi-retired professor emerita at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.  She is the producer of several radio dramas highlighting health issues. She has been working with inmates since 2013. 

Johnny Gunn, aka Hardcore, played football in high school and for a while in community college.  His large, athletic frame was once intimidating, giving him a place high in the prison pecking order.  But, now in his 50’s, though Hardcore still does bench presses, much of his muscle has turned to flab, a condition he doesn’t seem to acknowledge as he continues his steady diet of honey buns and other delights from the commissary.  Now he has diabetes and must change his eating behavior.  After injuring a big toe, Hardcore is at risk of losing it or more.  But he’s more focused on being an advisor and friend and keeping his status as big man on the block.

Ron is a younger inmate who sees that Hardcore’s days as king of the block are numbered and challenges Hardcore for the position.  When a new inmate named Jimmy H arrives he asks who is the meanest guy who nobody will mess with.  While Hardcore tries to claim that distinction, other guys in the block tell Jimmy H it’s Ron. Ron is the toughest.  But Ron has issues, too.  Back home his mom and siblings aren’t doing so well – which causes Ron much stress.  He’s had a couple of passing out spells that might mean high blood pressure. But he’s not one to go whining to some pathetic prison doctor.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to emulate Ron, Jimmy H seeks out the local tattoo maker, a guy called Skillet.  He gets a homemade tattoo from Skillet who uses ashes and soap for ink and a makeshift tattoo gun.  When Jimmy H starts feeling sick, he learns that his tattoo has led to Hepatitis C.  Now it’s Jimmy’s turn to use a homemade instrument as he goes after Skillet with a shiv.

Unfortunately, when Charles McCracken, one of the older lifers, tries to stop Jimmy H, he gets the sharp end of the shiv in his arm.  Charles has been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease and has spells of confusion.  He tells Johnny Gunn (Hardcore) that he is scared about what will happen to him as he looses control of his wits and body.  When he wanders uninvited into another inmate’s cell and comes very close to getting beaten, he’s put into a cell in the infirmary for his own protection.  But Hardcore and others worry that Charles will only get worse in solitary.

These are some of the inmates in the fictional prison called United Correctional Facility.  They were created by a group of prisoners in an Alabama maximum security prison as the cast of characters for “Corrections”.   “Corrections” is the title of a serial drama (in audio format) that prisoners write and perform.  The first season was aired by a local radio station and the second season script is near completion.  The tagline for Corrections is,  “Because being incarcerated is hazardous to your health!”

I facilitate weekly meetings of this group of writers and performers.  Because my background is in public health, the drama revolves around health issues common in prison. The writing follows what has been called the “entertainment education” (EE) methodology.  Serial drama is a particularly good EE platform because it allows the story to model typical healthy and unhealthy behaviors and their consequences.  The goal of the drama is to change audience expectations about the consequences of behaviors such as overeating and smoking. This is done by showing a character suffering the negative health consequences these behaviors often lead to, such as getting a dirty tattoo leading to Hepatitis C.  Another goal is to promote a confident attitude toward changing unhealthy behaviors by having characters model how to do it with all the setbacks and small successes that are part of it.  By showing how the prisoners in the drama overcome typical obstacles to changing unhealthy behaviors, the drama gives the audience the sense that, “If he can do it, then I can do it.”  The primary intended audience is inmates but the group hopes to reach people in the free world to give them a different idea of what prisons and the people in them are like.

For season one the group identified TB (something the warden wanted addressed as well), diabetes and poor eating practices, Hepatitis C, stress and aging in prison as the most important health issues to address. Aging in prison is seen as especially important because many who were given long sentences during a “tough on crime” era are over 50 years old. As these inmates age, their health declines leading to chronic disease and dementia.  These are costly problems that the prison system in this country isn’t prepared to deal with.

In creating this drama, inmates have learned more about health and staying healthy.  For season 2 we are addressing the issue of screening for prostate cancer.  Several men were confused about the digital rectal exam versus colonoscopy.  One member of the group who had repeatedly refused to be screened by digital rectal exam, actually changed his mind after a few weeks of discussing how to influence inmates to consider getting checked.  Another health issue that the group researched and wrote into the script is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and it’s relationship to depression and violent behavior.

While writing this blog I asked inmates to write down what they would say in a blog. Below are samples of what several inmates wrote.


Daoud Boone

Imagine waking up every day to someone telling you when to eat

When to sleep

When to make your bed

When you will have the opportunity to visit with friends and family

Imagine waking up behind a barbwire fence

With limited rights . . . with limited sight . . . imagine be out of sight out of mind

Imagine a world of cell mates and lethal mazes

The men at United Prison don’t have to imagine this life

They live it . . .

For some it will be the death of them!

Corrections is a story written by inmates

Addressing issues revolving around health in the prison environment

These inmates are using art to create a fictional radio drama that is true to life and will hopefully bring awareness and produce health behavior and social changes

These inmates are using a negative environment to grow, build, and be productive and positive

We call this program Corrections.  We meet, we discuss, we write, we record

We hope you listen and enjoy.

Alecio Randall (Alecio wrote the following as if he were me, Connie, in first person.)

This challenge takes me into the underside of society. There I help to identify health issues and corrective habits with men (whom) most have cast away from thought and mind.

We embattle (sic) a variety of topics, writing scripts, creating cast, and recording dialogue from inside prison. From high blood pressure to dementia to violence, any and every health issue is explored combined with real life inside on a fictional scale.

Various challenges of going to prison on a weekly basis don’t diminish the rewards of implementing change, hope, and positive ideas and habits. For the very men I know will re-enter society. Hopefully, the message of good health, getting rooted into these courageous and bright minds provides a toehold for change.

 Brandon Hawkins

We have a plethora of common goals and purposes in our agenda. We do not write just for entertainment, but so as not to bore our audience we do throw a healthy dose of entertainment into the mix.  One of our most vital goals is education. Educating the public on prison issues usually kept suppressed from the public, such as: aging, diseases, deficient health-care, drug abuse, etc.  And furthermore, not just how the day-to-day prison life affects inmates, but also how the officers, faculty and staff face challenges and risks daily by working a prison facilities.

Another one of our goals is to give the public an inside view of the issues prisoners face on average inside of prison facilities So when our audience listens to seasons of “Corrections” on the radio, they not only hear the drama, but we place them in the midst of it all, giving them a simulation effect of actually being there, and causing them to visualize the “writings on the wall” painted by our cast members.

James E. Rogers, Jr.

(Providing two examples of the issues we struggle with as a group. The group struggles often with whether to go for maximum realism vs. getting administration’s approval to air. Recently the question has been raised about possible harm from modeling illegal practices, such as using contraband cell phones to video bad goings on and get it out to the public. James commented on the issues below)

We debated whether or not we should use a cell phone to do a documentary of the elderly inmates. (Note: not in real life, but as an element of the scripted plot.)

A Side: the administration would view this as unacceptable. A way to promote b/s.

B Side: cell phones are being used throughout the US system.  Therefore those on this side of the debate want to be as realistic as possible and put the facts out there.  Also that cell phones are not being used as escape devices as the administration states. The majority of the cell phones are used so people can keep in touch with their loved ones, research to help with their appeals. Mainly to stay in touch with their loved ones, trying not to become so distant that when they do talk or see one another that it wouldn’t be strange, awkward or whatnot.

That debate led to another debate: how realistic should we be?

A Side: we don’t have to be 100% correct.

B Side: we don’t have to be 100% correct but we should be as realistic as possible because we are putting a lot of valuable information out there and if I was to do some research and find most of the info inaccurate then how would I know how much of this information that I could take as true.

Curtis Henderson

How arts brings awareness to health issues?

Expression is shown in many forms and the arts has its forms. Visual is the easiest to grasp, where shown through TV and being verbal. You once had silent TV as well to show these issues.

Radio is another form, but you need a hook or to be very creative to hold the audience’s attention. Promotion or with the health issue(s) at had they need to dramatize.







Non contagious


Stacey Manning

A lot of people in society view people in prison as big, hulking, tattooed killers. They can’t fathom the thought of them as humans that age, get sick, and die in here like people do in society.

For victims of crimes, when the judge says I sentence you ( . . . ) the saga ends. For criminals, it just begins. Often times the criminals end up in an overcrowded prison suffering from various ailments, not able to take care of themselves and no help from anyone to help them with day to day activities.

I hope that these dramas entertain as well as offer insight into these matters.

It has been the best experience of my life. I had never participated in anything like this. At times it’s so much fun it should be against the law. At other times it makes you want to scream. You just have to realize that we are not professionals or perfect, and we are here to entertain and spread a message. At times the message is lost because the entertainment takes over. So as you listen, remember that is as realistic as we were allowed to make it. The memorial (scene) was so close to me because I’ve attended several while here. The aging because I’m old now. I was 32 when I came. I’m 51 now. The health issues because I have some of them now. I hope you enjoy listening to Corrections and learn something, too.

“Corrections” Archive of Episodes






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?