Dances for Solidarity

27 Sep
by Sarah Dahnke
About the guest blogger: Sarah Dahnke is a Brooklyn-based choreographer, multimedia artist, and arts educator. She creates performance experiences that often feature non-performers, highlighting and celebrating the nuances of natural, untrained human movement. She works with public school students to facilitate the creation of their own choreography and video projects, makes giant group dances to teach to the general public, and films instructional videos to disseminate dance sequences widely. Her video work has been curated nationally by Dance Films Association, DCTV, Tiny Dance Film Festival, Hyde Park Arts Center, Ruth Page Center for the Arts and Gowanus Ballroom as well as internationally across The Philippines. Her choreography has occurred on stages, in streets, on the Internet, in music videos, on roofs, in galleries and more. Some of these places include The Kitchen, CPR-Center for Performance Research, Grace Exhibition Space, Dance Theater Workshop, The New York Transit Museum, Northside Festival and Lollapalooza.

Dances for Solidarity is my newest project, and it aims to create ephemeral connections between people who are in solitary confinement and those who are not through written correspondence and dance. Myself and my collaborators have created a 10-step written movement sequence, and this is included in a letter that we mail to those in solitary (an initial list was provided by Black and Pink). From there, we engage in more individualized correspondence with those who write back.

As a choreographer, I often create work that falls under the categories of “participatory performance” or “community-based performance,” where people who are not trained dancers end up as the main performers. I’ve been interested in working with incarcerated people for a long time, but I didn’t exactly know how we could make a dance together even if I were granted access to a prison.

In 2013, I saw a traveling photography exhibit created by Solitary Watch at Photoville, titled Photo Requests from Solitary. In this work, the project leaders wrote to people on in solitary confinement and asked what image from the outside they would like to see, then the artists crowd sourced these images and sent them back. These images then made up this exhibit. It was incredibly powerful, and it sparked the idea that one way I could create dances for and with incarcerated folks would me through written correspondence. After letting that marinate for a little while, this project manifested.

This project requires a lot of support, and I’ve been lucky to tap into a growing network. I’ve been granted space by Abrons Arts Center to hold weekly letter writing clinics. Culture Push awarded me the Fellowship for Utopian Practice, which offers logistical, moral and financial support. I have some dedicated artistic collaborators and regular letter writers. As we continue to write to those in solitary around the country, this network will also need to grow. One thing I’m working on is setting up satellite letter writing groups around the country.

The prison mail system is slow, plus not everyone who we write will necessarily respond. But responses are coming in, and so far they are really wonderful. Many people thank us for showing our support, for reaching out, for offering a lifeline to the outside world. Many people have terrible things to say about the conditions they are kept in, about how their prisons are short staffed and therefore unable to give them the one hour of recreation time they are supposed to have outside of their cell each day. But inside of these letters we are also given lovely descriptions of how this dance made people feel. So many of our pen pals felt awkward or silly doing a dance all alone, but once they gave it a try, it became fun or empowering or uplifting or transformative. One man told us a story about how he said “hell no I’m not doing this” but ended up doing it with six of his fellow inmates during their rec time.

I’m excited to see how this project continues to grow and the responses we continue to get, and I’m trying to get more people involved. If you are in the New York area, please follow us on Facebook to find out when we are holding letter writing clinics. If you are not in the New York area, you can contact me about setting up a letter writing clinic for Dances for Solidarity in your area: sarah (at) sarahdahnke.com.

Beyond our Prisons

12 Sep

“Sometimes you gotta get ‘pulled away’ from your life in order to realize that you were already ‘away’ mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”

                                                                                         -Glenn Robinson

Glenn Robinson is 33 years old. J.R. Furst is 31. Glenn Robinson is of African American descent, and J.R. is white-ish. Glenn was hustling, stealing and providing for his family by the age of 12, while J.R. was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. Glenn is serving 40 years at Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, LA. J.R. is not serving 40 years. These two individuals started corresponding—via handwritten letter—in November of 2012. Together they founded Beyond This Prison.

THE STORY

Bold Italics = Glenn’s Voice

Standard Font = J.R.’s Voice

Most of my friends are either dead of in Angola State Pen serving life sentences. As for family, well, I only have a few that are still on this journey with me. Everyone isn’t built to withstand the struggles and sacrifices that are to be made when dealing with an incarcerated loved one.

I had totally blocked contact with family & friends, because I figured that was a perfect solution—blocking all communication from the outside world. It turns out that I was only paralyzing myself.

Imagine going in for surgery. The anesthesiologist puts the needle in your arm. You lose the ability to move or speak, but you are still aware and can still feel. They wheel you into the operating room. You’re trying trying trying to let the doctors know that you’re still awake. They’re about to SLICE INTO YOUR SKIN! Stopppp!! Stopppp!!

…All is lost though. Your efforts are futile. Everything except for your mind and heart are comatose. You simply can’t connect with the outside world. As the knife cuts into the skin, you SCREAM bloody murder, but no one can hear you.

That’s sort of what my young life felt like…

In the environment where I grew up, everyone has some kind of motive for their affiliation, so trust isn’t something you give away easily. It’s actually been in prison (where I’ve resided since I was 17) that I’ve learned that everyone isn’t out to gain off of me. Prison has taught me how to love, respect, appreciate, trust and accept people in a whole different light. In here, you’re alone! You can own your reality and grow as an individual, or you can die inside of a barricaded mind.

My ‘waking up moment’ came in the form of writing. One night, I felt so isolated and so deranged that something just popped. I’d gotten so low that I ended up coming out the other side. I was 16 years old.

I’d gotten stoned with some ‘friends’ of mine. Smoking marijuana was not pleasant to me, but I didn’t feel well anyways, so what was the difference? We drove around doing nothing. I was dealing with three different kinds of fog: the misty one descending on the city streets, the smoke of the marijuana in the car, and my foggy mind. That’s a lot of fog!

Later, after having been released from my duties as a ‘friend’, I was in my room feeling demonic. Feeling sick. Feeling ill. Feeling like a monster. I turned on the television to distract myself, and I also turned on a Bob Dylan record. I needed all the white noise I could get.

Bob Dylan was loud. The television was louder. I wasn’t touching the volume dials of either, but it felt like the levels were rising. My ears felt like they were going to bleed. It was too much!!!!!! I lost my sh*t. I flipped. I reached a boiling point. I wanted to scream, but I’d lost my voice a long time ago—if I ever even had it. Because I had no voice, my body screamed for me. It heaved itself, and it awkwardly fell into the chair at my desk. Without full control of my motor skills, my hands flopped onto the keyboard like dead fish…

That’s when it happened. The chair was like an electrical outlet, and my tailbone was like a plug. Once the circuit was connected, my spine straightened, my shoulders pulled back, and my eyes focused. I regained the motor skills in my hands…and BLAST OFF. My fingers moved like gigantic spiders across the keyboard. My body was literally shaking. As fast as my fingers were moving, I would’ve liked for them to move faster! The energy surge was that strong.

I thought to myself, THIS IS FREEDOM!!!! I FEEL FREEEEE!!

Well, I’ve chased that feeling ever since. Everything I do in my life is an attempt (consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously) to be in touch with my core truth, and to express and nurture it in a courageous way.

Through chasing this feeling of freedom, I came across Glenn Robinson. I needed an ally. I needed to create a resonance chamber. Unconsciously, my Yang was looking for a Yin—and the cosmos obliged.

I checked out www.writeaprisoner.com, and I scanned through hundreds of profiles. Out of all those individuals, I just happened to find Glenn. Right from the first letter, I got this sense from him like, “It’s about time, J.R., I’ve been waiting for you!” We hit the ground running.

I’d gotten on www.writeaprisoner.com to meet new people and to try and establish healthy relationships with some down to earth, unbiased individuals. II was basically just throwing rocks in a big pond trying to create ripple that stood out from the others.

I was self-conscious of how J.R. might be viewing me. I’m a young black man that’s doing time for a capital offense, and I came from a rough upbringing. He, on the other hand, is a well-bred white guy from the other side of the tracks. Usually my type is looked down upon by his type—or so I thought.

After a few correspondences, though, I learned that he’s a genuine brother with a beautiful outlook on life, and that he and I are 2 soljas fighting the same war—just from separate sets of circumstances. It’s a war of bringing people out of their mental & spiritual prisons.

I’d spent my life dealing with internal incarceration and he’d spent his life dealing with external incarceration. His world looked like what my world sort of felt like, and vica-versa. Both of us sought freedom. In fact, as I did more and more research, I found that most humans are looking for freedom on some level. Whether it be that nice sense of freedom that comes from finally clocking out of work at 5:00, or the freedom to marry whomever we choose, or the freedom to be out of debt, or the freedom from anxiety, anger, fear and stress. Most of us seem to want to feel free.

Large swaths of society (consciously, or unconsciously) see color, status and background as an important factor when getting acquainted. That’s an ugly disease that doesn’t exist between myself and J.R. He’s become a brother to me. He’s a vanguard and a second spirit. When you’re going through hardships in life, it’s isn’t about who started that journey with you; it’s about who helps you cross the finish line. It’s about the ones you can count on to help you make it through. That’s J.R.! He’s a right-hand man…sort of like a 1st grade homie.

It’s as if we’ve been through life 2gether. We’re the best of both worlds! “The Gangsta & The Gentleman”! Through viewing our friendship, hopefully the world can see that true friends aren’t built off of color or upbringing. We are BEYOND This Prison!

As part of our co-founded organization, I edit chunks of Glenn’s letters, have them illustrated, and then post them on www.beyondthisprison.com. I host Youth Programs where we connect youngsters with their own incarcerated pen-pals, and they create art based off of the correspondences. I also facilitate all inclusive workshops called UNSHACKLINGS where we run highly participatory activities using prison not only in the literal sense, but in the metaphorical sense as well.

Over the past 3 years, Glenn and I have composed hundreds of handwritten letters, written dozens and dozens of emails, and have a phone conversation on at least a weekly basis. In December, I took an epic 54 hour Greyhound bus ride to Louisiana to meet him for the the first time.

The journey’s just beginning…

JRWeez

J.R. can be contacted at beyondthisprison@gmail.com.

Lyle May is Reading and Writing As Fast As He Can — on Death Row

3 Jun

This piece was re-posted, with permission, from PrisonWriters.com. The author, Lyle C. May, is on Death Row in North Carolina.

In early childhood, writing was this scrawling the symbols of English language with little understanding of their purpose. Large, crooked letters staggered like drunks across the page, jockeying for position and uniformity. My letter R was often backward, the vowels never really touched the bottom line and I couldn’t quite get the hang of the lower case k. Their meaning was a vague thing in my mind. I knew the alphabet made words used in speech and books, but that was all. The power of language, a tiny part of a vast universe, was beyond my experience and unimaginable.

My adolescence was marked by an inability to express my thoughts and emotions. I floundered with how to speak my mind and these unsaid things turned into hungry rats gnawing on my nerves. Communicating as a shy teenager is hard enough, but instead of overcoming my social anxieties and reaching out to those who could help me, I chose less idealistic ways — unhealthy and delinquent ways.

Writing about the difficulties plaguing my life never occurred to me. In my mind there was too much garbage crowding out common sense and good ideas.

My first real understanding of writing as a way of communicating arrived without fanfare. I was locked up in the Maine youth center and had no access to a phone. The only way to reach the outside world was by letter.

Not until my imprisonment on death row at the age of 21 did I begin to fully realize how important writing can be. Initially my letters to friends and family were unclear and fell short of what I wanted to say. How do you explain the situation like facing execution? It took time, a lot of practice, and this overwhelming need to be understood before my writing could evolve enough to help others see from my eyes.

About eight years into my incarceration I was granted the opportunity to enroll in some college courses. Though my education ended with a GED attained when I was 17, I was more than ready to take up the challenge of a higher education. Among the first few things to open my mind was that everything I read had to be conveyed in the clearest possible manner. Demonstrating this in writing went hand in hand with comprehension. Maybe, if I paid more attention in school and didn’t drop out my sophomore year, comprehensive reading and writing wouldn’t have seemed like some new and fabulous skill that swelled my chest with its potential.

It helps that since coming to prison I have fallen in love with reading. I began reading to take my mind away from the things beyond my control. This in turn revealed to me the power of writing to influence minds. Not exactly new, groundbreaking stuff, but to me this was an epiphany. The writing and psychology courses showed me that reading requires reflection and analysis just like our lives do. Understanding the nuances of the English language and value of being proficient with it has greatly improved how I write and think. Writing makes life possible in any circumstance.

In the years since my incarceration I found that writing is a tool more useful than any other, one that’s always existed in my life. Since learning how to use it, writing has become a crucial element of my survival in prison because it’s the only way I can prove my continued existence to the rest of the world. Edward Bulwer Lytton may have said “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but for me it has become the skeleton key for every locked door barring my way. I seek now to find the door it has yet to open, appreciating the power of writing throughout my journey.

 

A request for teaching artists from a NYC photojournalist:

13 May

Dear all,

I am a portrait photographer and photojournalist keenly interested in documenting the work of prison arts rehabilitation programs. I am a New York City based photographer who has worked on assignment for publications including the Village Voice, New York Observer, Out Magazine, City & State, Capital New York, etc. I have also been fortunate enough to do ongoing pro bono work for UN Women’s global HeForShe initiative for gender equality, an issue that I am extremely passionate about.

For a while now I have been interested in working with prisoners, especially within the context of arts rehabilitation. My aim would be to create a multimedia piece documenting both the work of the organization or program in general, as well as honing in on individuals and telling their stories, focusing on their art and journey through and beyond the criminal justice system.

I was extremely moved by a piece recently published by National Geographic about art therapy for soldiers suffering from PTSD. I would like to adopt a similar holistic multimedia approach in my work, in order to create a dialogue and collaboration with programs and inmates.

If you are interested in collaborating or speaking with me please check out my website for examples of my work here and feel free to email me at celeste@celestesloman.com.

Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to hearing from you!

My best,

Celeste

Call for submissions: writing by artists who facilitate workshops inside

3 Apr

Project: An anthology of writing by artists who lead/teach (or previously led/taught) arts workshops inside correctional facilities. I seek submissions to construct a book proposal for publication.

Submission Guidelines + Instructions: Writing must be inspired by your prison work. It does not need to be directly connected to a specific event, experience, or person. Please indicate where names/identifying information has been changed.

  • Writing may be fiction, non-fiction, prose, poetry, experimental, non-traditional, un-categorizable.
  • You may submit as many pieces as you like (though not all are guaranteed inclusion in the anthology)
  • No length restrictions
  • Previously published material is acceptable, though un-published is preferred
  • .doc or .docx format, 12 pt. font
  • Email submissions + submission form to correctionswriting@gmail.com

Submissions accepted now through September 15, 2015

About: My name is Leigh Sugar. I previously edited the Annual Anthology of Michigan Prisoner Creative Writing and facilitated creative writing workshops inside Michigan state prisons (both through the Prison Creative Arts Project). I have seen anthologies of writing by inmates, but never a collection of writing by the artists who facilitate or teach writing behind bars. My motivation to embark on this project stems from reflecting on how heavily my own writing has been influenced by my experience going inside prison, and not feeling like I have an outlet or a means by which to share that writing. I know have this writing based on my time inside, so I know others must as well. It is critical that we strengthen our connections to each other and find ways to share our experiences and writing so we can expand the reach of the creative work that is generated in connection to the criminal justice system. I feel a real artistic resonance with other writers who bring their craft to prison and am committed to creating an entire collection of our writing. No contract yet exists for this volume; accepted abstracts will be organized into a book proposal, which I will then submit to publishers.

More information at http://www.correctionswriting.wordpress.com. Please circulate this call to any individuals or organizations you know involved in prison writing.

Call for submissions – Transforming Grief: Personal and Communal Loss in the Work of Remaking the World

17 Feb

DEADLINE: March 25, 2015

Transforming Grief is rooted in the belief that the most potent stories—the ones most capable of informing critical shifts—are those that emerge from our hearts and lives, our learning and intervulnerability. This anthology will bring together writers from a variety of perspectives striving to unearth the transformative value of grief as an individual and collective experience through creative nonfiction.

The works in this collection will include compelling narratives and strong arguments that embody a deep exploration of ideas and themes, using concrete, lived personal and/or communal engagements with a spectrum of losses to illuminate larger questions about the sociopolitical forces at play in the world and our lives. As a body of writing and thinking, this compendium will also look at the ways in which grief is a natural response to present-day social systems, and can be mobilized to generate prefigurative experimentation in self-organization while reclaiming our imagination and humanity.

For more info, to contact us, and/or to submit a piece, see our Web site: http://transforming-grief.net/

Like our page to follow our work: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Transforming-Grief/774013049331958?ref=br_tf

Subscribe to our e-annoucements list for occasional updates on the anthology and related projects/events: http://transforming-grief.net/contact

Please help us to get the word out and circulate this call throughout your networks.

Drawing for Life

8 Feb

by Treacy Ziegler

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

 

Time for the prisoner is often imagined as an endless dimension of doing nothing. Not surprisingly then on hearing that I provide in-prison art workshops and through-the-mail art projects for prisoners throughout the United States, people sometimes respond, “There is so little to do in prison – they must really welcome the programs you provide,”

But prison time is not always as it seems.

For some prisoners (those with shorter sentences, or those about to get out – and for a maximum-security prison, “about to get out” may mean “in a year”) the experience of time is the contrary. They experience a lack of it. These prisoners spend their days completing the required laundry list of things needed for parole; a list including such things as anger management classes, drug rehabilitation, counseling and in some states, the required GED a prisoner must obtain before paroled.

Art is not on that laundry list and I can only assume that the prison system shares the same values on art as the public school system. Art is superfluous; perhaps what some guards refer to as “finger painting.”

Because of the required tasks for parole, many of the prisoners who participate in my prison workshops and through-the-mail projects are those prisoners known as “lifers;” folks who are going nowhere and can treat the laundry list with a certain amount of disregard.

And yet, even the in-prison art classes for which only lifers may have time, there is a selection process. It is not surprising that a person in SHU cannot attend. However, I am surprised to find that many of my classes are often primarily white, particularly when one considers that the majority of the prisoners are black and Latino. When I ask, “Why?” I have been told on one occasion, “Blacks get more tickets.”

We do not live in a post-racial society and anyone thinking otherwise might want to spend an afternoon in prison – focused not upon the racism between prisoners but the racism of the entire structure that supports a prisoner’s racist inclinations. Prison survives by a racist structure of divide-and-conquer.

It is in response to this power structure of discrimination within the prison, that I develop through-the-mail art curriculums offered to anyone who wants to join. Death row? Solitary confinement? Tickets?  No problem. Anyone in the 2500 member prisoner network of Prisoner Express through the United States who wants to participate in the curriculum can participate.

The basic curriculum is on drawing referred to as Drawing From Life. While it is not necessary to complete this drawing curriculum, it gives the prisoner a basic understanding of my philosophy on art and seeing.

My experience, and therefore my curriculum, often goes against what prisoner artists have been taught or what they experience as art.

My primary experience is that art is a conversation existing of more than a single entity participating in the experience; hence making art a conversation rather than a monologue. In this way, the creative process emerges more as a dynamic “listening” than as an individual expression.

This “conversation” develops on three levels. The first level of conversation involves the uniquely personal exploration between the artist and the world. For the visual artist, this exploration often takes the form of drawing.

The second conversation takes place between the artist and the medium (paint, clay, ink, pencil) transforming that initial exploration into metaphor. Here the creative process is dependent upon a call-and-response conversation between the materials and the artist; the marks on the paper or the rakes on the clay revealing itself to the artist like a Ouija board forceful in where it wants to go. Like the Ouija board, the paint, the clay or the ink has a life of its own.

The third level of conversation is between the art and the viewer. On this third level of conversation, the artist retreats allowing the art to speak directly with the viewer.

These levels of conversation do not exist in prison art: one assumes there is nothing to visually explore in prison; the artist’s materials are often reduced to just computer paper and an interior of a pen (particularly if the prisoner is in solitary confinement); material with too little authority to speak on its own; and the main focus of prison art is the prisoner, the art never speaks for itself. In fact, without the “prisoner” label, much of the work would be ignored. Interest in the art tends to be based upon the fact that the artist is a prisoner not because of the work itself.

Evidence that the first level of conversation does not exist in prison is the numerous drawings I receive from the 2500 prisoners.

Most of the work is tightly rendered drawings that I can classify into five main stereotypical sources for inspiration: photos of loved ones or famous people, tattoos, copying Playboy-like magazines, cartoons, and Bob Ross, or sometimes Thomas Kincaid. I know that the drawings are not an intimate exploration of the world because I see the same images over and over again from many different prisoners across the United States. The drawings suggest the craft of copying – very good copying, but copying.

When I mention in the Drawing From Life curriculum the five sources of drawings that I see in their art, several prisoners, such as Vonderic, write to me in agreement:

“It is true what you write about the five sources of art in prison – that is what most art is about here.”

Some of the prison work is very strong; what I would expect of a high school student who was destined for art school.

Herein lies the first problem. The prisoner, much like the high school student, is not working from his or her intimate visual relationship to the world because like the high school student, the prisoner is the ward of a higher authority forced to see the world through the eyes of another. That is why is it so common for both high school students and prisoners to use the photograph as the primary source for art – not trusting what it is they see themselves. Perhaps it is too late. By the time we are teenagers, the visual world is forgotten in favor of a conceptual world where it is enough to understand that the sky is blue and grass is green. Forgetting that in the direct experience, the sky is not simply blue and grass is not merely green.

Herein lies the second problem for personal visual exploration to occur in prison: It is better for overall prison maintenance if the prisoner keeps to the formulaic sky of how-to art books assuring that the prisoners’ eyes are kept inward or looking at the false clarity of a contrived world. No landscape drawing classes on the lawns of prison yards exploring the palette complexities of the sky.

Some prisoners write to say they prefer working from their imagination. Not knowing that an imagination without exploration develops into redundancy, makes the imagination just another prison.

Prison art is often associated with outsider art. But the outsider artist’s imagination is fueled by a keen sensitivity to the world – operating not without the world, but in the world where the rubber hits the road. James is a prisoner who does work intensely from an acutely wired imagination. This is from a series of drawings James did of toy zoo animals I brought to class. His art is not as interesting when working solely upon his imagination without the external excursion.

 James

In the Drawing From Life curriculum my primary concern addresses the first level of conversation – developing a personal exploration of the world.

Prison is a bleak world and a common complaint I receive from prisoners writing to me is, “There’s nothing here interesting to draw!”

But the sum of an artist’s world is not the sum of objects found in that world. Instead, the artist’s world is sets of relationships that are always changing: light and shadow, form and flatness, tonal variations, near and far. It is a world that is not concerned with conceptualized value-based “things.”

The curriculum invites the prisoner to explore this ever-changing world of relationships in a series of exercises. The first exercise is simple:

Sit in your cell – or any room wherever you are – and explore the pattern of light and shadow.   A light colored room works well. Start at any corner of the room and see how bands of light and shadow emerge; most often the corner has a light band.   Moving your eye out of the room’s corner, you will find a dark band, moving your eyes from that dark band you will discover another light band, – this continues forever. Dark, light, dark, light, dark, light, infinitum. Light and shadow make up our universe.

Chiaroscuro is an alluring phenomenon that is not lost on prisoners and Dan writes:

Now that I see chiaroscuro, I see it everywhere! The patterns of light through the window, the floor, the light bands cast across the corridor. The light that comes through the cell window!’

Another exercise asks the student to draw light and shadow bands by drawing a sphere. Leon, a prisoner who has never drawn before and lives in solitary confinement from Pelican Bay State Prison sends in his assignment of the sphere with notes:

Leon Martinez Sphere

The toilet paper roll or the coffee cup comes in handy when trying to understand light and shadow and the chiaroscuro of the world. Leon’s sends his drawings of both the toilet paper roll and his sneaker:

Martinez Toilet Paper

When Leon draws his cell, he makes a discovery.

Leon Small Cell

Leon Martinez Writing About Cell

Leon discovers that although it had always been hard to describe living in his cell to his family in words, he can describe it through drawings.

However, chiaroscuro is a phenomenon that challenges the basic structure of most prison art and for that matter, most high school art.  The majority of drawings I receive are based upon the “line”: and although the use of line seems “developmental”, it is not basic and stands contrary to the visual experience of the world.

A line drawing of an apple has the caption asking: “What is this?”   Obviously it is an apple and the only way the prisoner knows that it is an apple, is the line defining it. However, when I ask, “ Where is this line on the apple?” it cannot be found.  Lines do not exist in the visual world. A line perceived in space is really a shadow – a thin shadow that is created by two forms coming together. Lines are symbols and serve as the basis for language. Using line in drawing bypasses the perceptual experience and goes directly to language. I suggest that if the student is going to draw this:

line drawing # 1

then the student might as well draw this:

2 face line drawing jpg

Obviously, many great artists include line, but at this stage of exploration, line is kept at a distance because I want the prisoners to experience the world before the assertion of the line and its demand for conceptualization. How do you draw without a line?

Raymond sends me a drawing where he literally tries to make the drawing without lines – so soft there is no drawing. This is a literal interpretation of the assignment. But Raymond is not ignorant, perseveres and eventually gets it. This is Raymond’s interpretation of a drawing by Rembrandt – full of shadows and light.

raymond and rembdrandt

Drawings of toilet paper rolls do not qualify as art any more than the countless drawings of big bosom women smiling at the viewer that I receive from prisoners. The drawings of toilet paper are not art. The drawings are a way of developing another access to experiencing the world. My friend Esther, a retired psychologist described how she saw the world differently when she was taught to draw light and shadow, and Joe, a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts student, explains, “I move differently through the world since I learned to draw…I sense things in a different way,” – noting that drawing is not just an “eye thing” but a total body thing.

Billy, a prisoner, writes,

“My mantra for falling asleep is, “It is not an apple. It is light and shadow.”

Lester in solitary confinement, writes to me,

“I want to draw what I see reflected in a drop of water on my desk,”

This sets off a series of letters between us about the Japanese wabi sabi – the Japanese aesthetic centered on change, decay, and imperfection.

In a later art curriculum, Points Of A Compass, I ask, “Where is the horizon in prison?” and Lester writes,

“I was copying horizons out of a magazine for the assignment, then all of a sudden I realize, these are not my horizons! I am a man without a personal horizon!”

My next question to Lester is, “What does it mean to be a man without a personal horizon?” Will Lester become an explorer, not to seize and colonize, but to find a self in relationship to place with the recognition that place is always shared, thus undermining the forced solitariness he is forced to exist?

The fatal flaw

But of course, art has a fatal flaw – one that exists both in and out of prison.

When Vonderic writes agreeing about the five sources in prison that get repeated, he also mentions that this is because

“… art in prison is about money.”

Art’s fatal flaw is that it can be so readily – and willingly – made into a product; turning conversation into profit. Art has always been associated with money – even when describing the negative as in the phrase ”the starving artist.”    We associate art to success, and then narrowly define “success.”

So while art can be transformative at times, most often it is not.   The difference became very distinct to me this fall when I attended Rutgers University’s art in prison conference, Marking Time.

At the conference I saw Bruce Levitt’s theatre group at Auburn prison where the prisoners-actors perform improvisational plays reenacting their own crimes – revealing both to themselves and to the audience, the prisoners’ profound sense of grief, remorse and pain.  This filmed performance left me haunted for days.  I listened to the biographical poem/prose recited by an incarcerated woman made so intense by her lack of affectation; the recitation guided only by her pain and the pain she caused.

During the conference, I took one night off and attended a cocktail party at a Sotheby’s fundraising for an NYC art school.  In contrast to the art of the prisoners, art here was not directed at transformation of the spirit.  Instead art became the reflection of glamor and money with the emphasis upon the celebrity of the artist and the dollar amount of their work.

On the train back to the conference feeling the superficiality of this art world that demands so much attention, I cried.

I cannot be surprised then when James writes to me saying that he asked a number of prisoners on his block to join a particular art project,

“But they said, ‘nah, they only do art for money’.”  

Art is constantly made to justify its existence. It is demanded to fit into an economy; even when the economy is not money. The unassuming idea that art is “therapy” maintains an equation that reduces art to a tool utilizing the formula of “if this; then that”.

Art can only be transformative when existing outside all economic structures, be it money; corrections or therapy; and the strength of art is that it has the right to exist without justification – like a person.

Treacy Ziegler,

An Open Window Project/Prisoner Express

Center For Transformative Action

Affiliated with Cornell University