Piercing the wall: An invitation through letters on art

by Treacy Ziegler
Henry Haro - Seeing the Sun
Prisoner Henry Haro,  “Seeing the sky” – as part of the Points of a Compass project

 

      unsignificantly      off the coast      there was

     a splash quite unnoticed

     this was

     Icarus drowning

William Carlos Williams’ poem on Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting – Landscape with the fall of Icarus:

Landscape with the fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Belgium, 1525-1569
Landscape with the fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Belgium, 1525-1569

On visiting a particular prison for the first time to conduct an art workshop with the prisoners, I averted the inevitable invitation of seeing the prison’s Bob Ross mural – that mural painted by a prisoner in the style of the famous public television personality who taught the world – and prisons – the joy of painting.

“Before you show me the Bob Ross mural, I got to tell you, I don’t like Bob Ross nor am I a fan of his teaching.”   The prisoners were surprised I knew of the prison’s mural.  More surprising was that I didn’t like Bob Ross’s art, “You mean, you don’t like him?”  Most surprising was being direct in saying so.  But teaching in various prisons in several states and having a through-the-mail art project with 700 prisons throughout the United States, I’ve learned that many prisons have such a mural, that Bob Ross has become the Godfather of art in prison, and that in teaching, it is best to be supportive but direct.

Unfortunately, in prison there is little art experience beyond Bob.  (My complaint about Bob is that he taught art as formulaic and encouraged the world to paint the sky through his eyes and not the individual’s.  This lack of visual autonomy supports the incarceration status.)  So when Wendy Jason, the site manager of Prison Arts Coalition suggested creating a network of artist-to-artist correspondence, developing a dialogue on art between artists on the outside and artists on the inside via a conversation through mail, I was enthusiastic.  I hesitate to speak of it as a pen-pal service.  Pen-pal suggests other things.  Instead, this correspondence has the potential of offering a dialogue focused on art knowledge, experience, discussing mediums and techniques, and art philosophy.  Since by definition a conversation goes both ways, the art experience of both parties can be expanded.

Most artists from the outside will probably not go to prison – there are all sorts of restrictions: time, distance, and so on.   But the United States postal service offers another avenue.  Developing a relationship focused on art eliminates some of the potential problems of pen-pal correspondence; over dependence upon the person outside, unintended romantic and other potential confusion when the correspondence has no specific focus.

Over the past eight years as volunteer art director of Prisoner Express, a distant learning program, I’ve had numerous writing relationships to prisoners. There are 4500 prisoners in the program and because it is a distant learning program, all prisoners are required to write into the program. We offer numerous projects in which the prisoner can participate.  But many prisoners write additional personal letters and inquiries.  Many of these inquiries are about art.

Most prison libraries do not have art books. Apparently, they are the first books to get stolen from the library.  Beyond Bob Ross, few artists are familiar to prisoners; Michelangelo, Picasso, Van Gogh. Frida has her day in prison, as does M.C. Escher. But other artists, even Rembrandt, are often not understood; as one art student in my prison class suggested, “I wouldn’t give 5 cents for a Rembrandt.” While it isn’t important this prisoner agrees Rembrandt is great, this prisoner’s experience of art might be expanded in understanding why some artists come to the front and some don’t; how art functions within a society beyond aesthetics taste; how art speaks for – or against – a particular race, generation, or class; and how art has influenced the beliefs of society.  Art is much more than pretty pictures and self-expression.

I personally receive lots of letters from prisoners and tried through the years to write back to most – a hard task with 4500 prisoners. Sometimes they write after their art was published in the general newsletter,  “I’ve been walking on clouds ever since I saw my drawing in the newsletter.”  Sometimes the prisoner has a question about one of the art curriculums.  Some letters and prisoners stand out.

Raymond first wrote to me six years ago when he was working on a drawing curriculum I sent prisoners who signed up for the course. Raymond seemed excited to work on the different assignments in the curriculum; light and shadow, perspective and other drawing exercises. However, he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to do a successful job because he was currently in solitary confinement and his drawing materials were limited to the single interior cylinder of a pen that is permitted to prisoners in solitary. Pencils are not allowed in the hole.  Regardless, he sent me several drawings. From this work, I thought Raymond might be interested in the work of Piranesi, Georges De La Tour and Courbet; sending him photocopies of these artists’ art in my reply letter.

While his drawings were compelling, it was his questions that evoked my interest. The questions suggested a person searching for greater understanding of both art and who he was in relationship to art.  There are those letters from prisoners who are not interested in learning.  These letters suggest a need for an affirmation of their existing skills;  “I’m the greatest artist in prison,” writes Donald.  While trying to be as supportive as possible, I am drawn to those artists who are willing to expand and challenge what they are already doing. Of course, the self can be challenged and battered in prison, and re-affirmation is important. But I understand my relationship to the prisoners is not as their counselor.  Instead I am a person to whom they can talk about art.  It just so happens that in pushing the parameters of art, people learn about themselves and gain strength from this knowledge.

Raymond’s questions seemed to reach beneath the surface exploring a deeper meaning in art.  In response to the images of Courbet and De La Tour, Raymond asked, “What is the difference between Courbet and De La Tour?”  On a superficial level, it is easily recognized they are both painters of people with the obvious difference of being from different eras.  But I realized Raymond was picking up something more fundamental.  Assessing their difference, I realized that Raymond was discerning the artists’ use of figures in their painting reflecting the sea change in how art functioned within society.  Courbet developed social commentary through social realism while De La Tour focused on an internal symbolism leaving the immediacy of the world.

Raymond’s thoughtful questions were even more surprising in that he had little formal education outside prison.  Raymond was incarcerated at 17 years of age and has been in prison for 20 years.  He received his high school GED in prison.  With no supportive family, he learned through his own means. Perhaps education has little impact on people’s capacity to understand the depth of art. I’ve heard friends with college education speak in superficial terms about a painting, reminding me of Woody Allen’s joke that after he sped read War and Peace, concluded, ”It was about Russia.”

 I often focus on paintings/sculpture of early Renaissance when I send art to prisoners – perhaps a little archaic for today’s inclusiveness.  But I understand that the prisoners with whom I write and meet in prison are often interested in classical drawing, and although some will argue, no one seems to draw as well – either before or after – as the white boys of the Renaissance.  (When Renaissance women and minorities, overlooked by history, are found, they will greatly contribute to this learning.)  I am particularly drawn to the paintings of the artists who were struggling to understand form.  Raphael gets too perfect for my taste.  My painting instructor called him divine because Raphael could draw a perfect circle.  But as I wrote to Raymond, “Why draw a perfect circle? – I’m more interested in seeing beyond to where that circle collapses under the burden of being perfect.  Hence, I send Raymond, Hans Memling’s diptych of a woman on one panel and a horse with a monkey on the other.  Raymond concludes his assessment, “This strange painting is inspiring,” after discussing its awkward-other-worldliness.

Inga Kimberly Brown, another artist writing to prisoners from the PE membership, takes a different approach and sends the prisoners Michael and Manuel more contemporary art.  When Manuel sent in art in the style of a silhouette – not knowing of Kara Walker’s work – Inga sent him a packet of her work including the legacy of the silhouette in the history of the American Black and slavery.

by Kara Walker

 

by Manuel Gonzalez, III

Some prisoners only send me their art with no added correspondence.  I have enough art from Leroy to have a solo exhibition of his work.  While I don’t have intense verbal correspondence with Leroy – often only receiving multiple drawings without a letter – his words on the drawings are humorous. Leroy reaches for the funny side of incarceration in surviving prison.  His work has an attractive design quality and I recently learned that Leroy spent much of his childhood accompanying his mother to quilt shows.

Coffee stained art
Coffee stained art by Leroy Sodorff

Clarence is another prisoner with whom I correspond – although it is mostly Clarence corresponding with me.  I receive about five letters a week from him.  Clarence is incarcerated in the mental health unit of a maximum-security prison.  There is a frenetic quality to his letters and I have boxes and boxes of his letters. I’m not sure when, but at some point of our correspondence, Clarence made me high priestess of a religion he developed.  I write this not in disrespect of Clarence or of mental illness. I actually am fond of Clarence’s thinking – he understands things other people find a bit obtuse.  Because I can’t always follow his letters, I engage with his letters on a visual plane – finding the marks upon the paper fascinating. Clarence recently sent me a string-bound notebook filled with pages in which every surface is covered with marks on worn paper shredded at the edges – a mysterious artifact. Clarence asks that I keep it safe and so I will.

In his continued letters, Raymond pondered the photocopies of art I sent him with comments and questions about different artists.  I sent him Caspar David Friedrich and in response to the painting, Monk on the Sea, Raymond writes:

“First off, the ‘The monk by the Sea’ was considered Friedrich’s most radical composition because he didn’t concern himself with creating an illusion of depth….. This lack of depth gives the piece a flat abstract quality.  So my question would be, what separates “abstract” in a painting from just being incomplete.”  A legitimate question for someone who has never encountered abstraction in a painting.

Raymond seemed intrigued with the concept of chiaroscuro – those patterns of light and shadows – and drew light as it changed throughout the day in his cell.  Light, no matter how little or how much, is always present; even in prison.   It becomes an available subject for prisoners to draw.

Exploring light extended to non-artists as when Daniel Perkins became interested in his cellmate’s drawing assignment on light and shadow.  Consequently, Daniel spent a month measuring the changing sunrays coming through the window of his cell as the sun moved across the sky:

Sunrays in cell, recorded by Daniel Perkins
Sunrays in cell, recorded by Daniel Perkins

Later, Raymond asked about that phenomenon artists refer to as lost and found – elements in painting disappearing or becoming more evident; he asked about the difference between an illustration and fine art.  In one letter, Raymond asked if art needs to explain itself and to what extent a painting/artist is accountable for being understandable.  Even if I have no answers for these questions, they offered the opportunity for a thoughtful correspondence.

 Sometimes, I get questionable requests from prisoners.  I had been writing to Jimmy for a year or two when he asked if I send him pictures of children in swimsuits. He also asked for images of Sally Mann’s photographs, the photographer who took images of her children in the nude. I have no idea whether Jimmy is in prison for sexual predatory behaviors, but the request seemed wrong.

Perhaps, it was an innocent request.  In teaching at a men’s maximum-security prison, I brought several books on paintings; including those of Raphael.  In viewing the paintings of Raphael’s baby Jesus, I realized the inappropriateness for prison.  I told my class that while I was not directing my concerns to them, there were, in fact, individuals in prison who were confused about their sexuality in relationship to children.  Therefore, the rule was made that even little baby Jesus had to wear a diaper in prison.

I’m surprised the prison guards allowed the Raphael painting book into prison.  It’s hard to believe that the postal mailrooms in prisons are more diligent than the front gate in the search for contraband.  Regardless, rules are constant.  Some mail rules are obvious with obvious reasons; no nude children, no frontal nudes; no women in chains; no guns.  Then there are some not so obvious rules: no blank writing or drawing paper; no stickers (even stickers on the envelops with the return address); no hardbound books; and so on.

Most prisoners, particularly the above Jimmy who has been in prison for more than 20 years, know what is acceptable and what is not.  When I find a prisoner making such a request, I experience it as disrespectful.  Reiterating my relationship to Jimmy as not his therapist and it wasn’t my desire to point out the inappropriateness of his request, I stopped writing to him.  There are so many other individuals with whom to correspond.

When a recent law was enacted in California stating anyone incarcerated at 17 years of age or younger would automatically be scheduled for the parole board, Raymond asked if I would write a letter of recommendation for his hearing.  In his letter, Raymond told me why he was in prison – a 17 year old involved in a gang activity.  While the other members of the gang were not incarcerated, Raymond was.  He felt it was his lack of legal representation.

The question of a prisoner’s crime is one that people often asked – should the prison volunteer know what the prisoner did?  I know what most the prisoners have done.  As a realist, I’d rather be confronted with the contradiction of my feelings in order to understand them and move on.  What I have discovered is that my feelings towards a prisoner are based upon what the prisoner currently brings to the relationship and not on the crime.

Raymond was denied parole. The board was impressed with him, but thought he was too smart, seeing his intelligence as a threat.  I wondered if my letter had been a hindrance.  For a second hearing, scheduled in the following year, I again wrote a letter of recommendation.  In this letter I describe Raymond’s humility as I saw it through his ability to learn which reflected his ability not to know – that state of being vulnerable in allowing oneself not to know.

Granted parole, Raymond will be released from prison this month.  In his most recent letter, Raymond thanked me for what he feels to be my insight and experience in helping him become not only a better artist but also a better person.  Of course, his praise is more than I deserve.  Raymond success is his own.

Raymond now faces the challenges of entering a world he has very little experience of – he grew up in prison.  He writes how exciting but also how frightening this all seems to him. Perhaps through social media, email or even writing, we will continue to discuss the issues of art – that elusive subject giving rise to hope and a structure for understanding.

It is Wendy’s invitation to both artists and individuals with a working interest in the arts to develop friendships with artists who are incarcerated through letter correspondence and the exchange of creative works.  In the next couple of weeks, there will be a new page on the Prison Arts Coalition website inviting participation in this art correspondence, which we are calling the pARTner project.  You can email Wendy at pacoalitionadmin@gmail.com if you would like more information prior to the launch of the project. We imagine that we will very quickly have a long list of artists in prison who are eager to connect with, inspire, and learn from you.

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

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

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.

INMATE CONTRIBUTIONS

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.

Outbreak

Epidemic

Out-of-control

Deadly

Virus

Contagious

Non contagious

Cancer

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