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The Roots of Die Jim Crow

30 Jun
Pulled from the Introduction to Die Jim Crow EP Book, available at diejimcrow.com and Amazon.com.
by Fury Young

It’s been three years since a notebook jot-down outlining the idea for what would become the concept album project Die Jim Crow. I was on the B train to Kingsborough Community College where I was studying history. There was a book in my hand and I was about halfway through it. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.

I was twenty-three years old and I wasn’t sure what my truest pas- sion was. Music? Filmmaking? History? Activism? I’m halfway through the book, about two stops from the end of the line and I write down:

“A concept album* called The New Jim Crow (*a la Amused to Death).”

Yes, my title—not too original. We’ll call it an homage. Amused to Death? A concept album by Roger Waters about humans amusing them- selves to death with TV. The album came out pre-internet. Worth listening to. It’s use of repeating musical themes, intense builds between tracks, and dark sociopolitical commentary appealed to me. Later on Pink Floyd’s The Wall (which Waters also wrote) would become a greater inspiration.

I’m a Jew from the Lower East Side of New York City who has not been to prison. Why did I care? To start with, the book in my hand. I was reading about this very current and domestic human rights crisis, so well researched in Alexander’s book, beautifully articulated—but I was lacking the personal stories. I wanted to hear it from the folks who were living the “New Jim Crow.”

I got off at the last stop and waited for the bus. “If I take on this project, I am going to meet people who I will know for the rest of my life. People who will change my life forever.” The bus arrives.

Growing up in L.E.S, I saw a lot—drug dealers, drug addicts, prostitutes, parolees, you name it. In my late teens I met a man who was all of the above at one point or another. He became a close friend. Alexander Pridgen. You can find a movie I made about him on the internet.

I knew others who’d done time as well. A few of them I considered friends. But I had no idea, prior to reading The New Jim Crow, of the scope of the issue: so many affected, so historically rooted, so nationwide, so many things.

I could elaborate on other reasons for becoming obsessed with this project, but I’ll keep it simple and turn these reasons into a question, one I’m still asking today. What is freedom?

Three years and hundreds of prison letters later, here I am — but much more importantly — here WE are. Die Jim Crow has gone from a notebook scribble to a realized project involving artists formerly and currently incarcerated from all over the country. Recordings have been done with formerly incarcerated artists in Wichita, KS; New Orleans, LA; Philly, PA; and Brooklyn, NY. At Warren Correctional Institution, a close-security state prison in Ohio, myself and DJC co-producer/ engineer dr. Israel have worked closely with solo artists on their music, in addition to the prison’s 22-member choir UMOJA (“unity” in Swahili).

From this body of work, we are thrilled to present to you the Die Jim Crow EP — the first sample of what the Die Jim Crow full length album will sound like.

Because digital is how most people consume music these days, we’ve decided to release an accompanying book that honors the many artists and stories on this album. Die Jim Crow is a massive project in scope, and all the energy that went into this EP simply could not be contained in a short digital booklet. And that’s just the six song sample.

The Die Jim Crow LP, a full length double album of 20+ original tracks, will also have a book accompaniment, and hopefully much more. Although the project is still in its early stages (it takes years to lay the groundwork for a project like this, so far three and counting), it feels like a natural and necessary progression for this music to be toured across America, especially in areas hit the hardest by mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow. But why stop there? In order to catapult great change, the music should also reach those of other backgrounds and political leanings—so wide promotion and international touring is also part of the plan.

The LP tells a three act story: pre-prison, prison, reentry. Similar to the LP, the Die Jim Crow EP follows this three act trajectory — albeit in a looser way. The first two songs take place outside the penitentiary walls (with “My Name Be Jim Crow” in some sort of strange farcical history land and “Tired and Weary” in a jail and a courtroom), the next two strictly in prison, and the final tracks back on the streets: wandering, exhausted, in a nightmare, broke, homeless, lost, beat — but not broken.

Also reminiscent of the soon-to-be LP, this album features artists from across the country — often within the same song — both in prison and formerly incarcerated. For example, “Headed to the Streets” was written by B.L. Shirelle during her incarceration, sent to Mark Springer and Anthony McKinney at Warren Correctional Institution for composition, discussed for months between myself, Mark, and Ant over the phone and in letters, then recorded at WCI with a full band and Ant on the first hook and verse. Once B.L. was released from Muncy State Correctional Institution in December 2015, dr. Israel and I drove down to Philly and recorded her vocal there. This unique method of song-making —— a combination of production inside and outside prison walls—is what I’ll call the “Die Jim Crow model.”

The one song on the Die Jim Crow EP that does not feature vocals and/or instrumentation from Warren Correctional Institution is “Plastic Bag,” which was written, co-performed, and lived by Carl Dukes. Dukes spent 31 years in New York State prisons only to return to the streets homeless, even though his parole officer had promised him housing. The powerful outro is the voice of Apostle Heloise, who served four years also in the NYS system.

I hope this project creates constructive dialogue and action. Confronting and dismantling the broken American incarceration machine will take a mountain of work, of which Die Jim Crow is an exciting part. I hope the music makes you feel something real, something deep, something both disempowering and empowering, and puts you in the shoes of the artists who created it.

We look forward to continuing the journey.

 

Fury Young and DJC artist Apostle Heloise

Fury Young and DJC artist Apostle Heloise

DJC poster art, collage by Fury Young

DJC poster art, collage by Fury Young

DJC artist Leon Benson at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Benson has served 17 years thus far for a murder he did not commit.

DJC artist Leon Benson at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Benson has served 17 years thus far for a murder he did not commit.

 

Follow Die Jim Crow at diejimcrow.com

facebook/twitter/instagram: /diejimcrow

youtube channel

 

 

Seeking input on building a national prison arts association

5 Jan

Dear friends of The Prison Arts Coalition:

Building upon a new level of cultural awareness regarding the benefits of arts in corrections programs, we would like to know if an expanded national organization would be a valuable asset to you and the work you do.

In these early stages, we feel the association could offer the following to its members:

  • Raise awareness of programmatic efficacy
  • Host national or regional conferences
  • Share best practices
  • Foster community
  • Support, collect and disseminate relevant research
  • Offer professional development opportunities
  • What else can you imagine?

The following 5-minute survey is designed to help better understand the need for a national prison arts association and how it can best serve potential members like you.  Your input is incredibly valuable during this early stage.

National Prison Arts Survey

We are hoping to collect all responses by January 29th.

Thank you for your time!

This survey has been developed with input by an ad hoc steering committee of prison arts advocates and practitioners, including:

Cynthia Gutierrez – Barrios Unidos Prison Project

Ella Turenne – Artist, Activist, EducatorOccidental College

Freddy Gutierrez – Community Worker, Performing Artist

Illya Kowalchuk – Pop Culture Classroom

Jonathan Blanco – Oregon State Penitentiary Hobby Shop

Laurie Brooks – William James Association

Lesley Currier – Marin Shakespeare Company

Nate Henry-Silva – Imagine Bus Project

Nathalie Costa Thill – Adirondack Center for Writing

Treacy Ziegler – An Open Window

Victoria Sammartino – Voices UnBroken

Wendy Jason – Prison Arts Coalition

Alma Robinson – California Lawyers for the Arts

Weston Dombroski – California Lawyers for the Arts

An Excavation of Seeing

3 Oct

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.  Before studying art,  Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. 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 3,500 prisoners throughout the United States.

I am in the housing unit of a men’s maximum-security prison looking at drawings of a prisoner the others call Columbia.

Most of Columbia’s drawings are cartoons – typical of drawings I see in prison. Among his assortments, I see Sponge Bob, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs, but then I see a drawing of a deer.  It is still in the cartoon style but there is something about the drawing making it different and giving it more resonance.

In this mental health unit where individual prison cells line one side of the large room, I go to Columbia’s cell asking about the deer drawing.

Columbia describes how he was a deer hunter and while hunting came upon a deer in the woods; not particularly unusual for deer hunting.  But while he placed his scope upon the deer, he was struck by the deer’s returning gaze upon him and in this look, Columbia said, I could see all the perspectives of the deer at once. It was the impact of the deer looking back at him that Columbia attempted to convey in the drawing.

While some may dismiss the magic of deer’s return look as crazy talk – after all, we are in this prison mental health unit – I think otherwise.  Instead I think of a statement made by the nineteenth century French painter Cezanne on drawing landscape.  Cezanne said, the landscape speaks to me.

As a visual dialogue with landscape, Cezanne does not see a thing-with-facts, but rather experiences a relationship. Cezanne knows not to impose his intention on this dialogue; neither his preconceptions nor what he thinks he should draw into the creative process.

In the flash of the deer’s gaze, Columbia had a Cezanne-moment where preconceived knowledge is abandoned enabling him to draw the deer in all its perspectives and making photographic or geometric logic irrelevant.

In another prison in another state, Nathan draws in the designated corner. I don’t know how long he has been in this prison or for how long he will be here. His is a crime that, I’ve concluded in my years of going to prisons, everyone is capable of committing in the perfect storm of any life.

Mostly, I leave Nathan to his drawings and constructions. Although Nathan draws what he sees from life, he quickly turns his focus upon the drawing paper.  While some may suggest that he works from imagination, this doesn’t really describe the process.  Nathan is still in conversation but it is now with the marks on his paper pulling him into the world; thus preventing him from falling into the solipsism and visual redundancy that often happens when the artist feels imagination and self-oriented intention reign. Marks and materials have voices of their own and listening to them leads Nathan to new territories in this corner of the prison.

Nathan Riggs, charcoal drawing, triptych, courtesy of the artist

Nathan Riggs, charcoal drawing, triptych, courtesy of the artist

That prison is a closed system makes for reshuffling materials; tattoo becomes drawings, magazines are copies and rarely is the immediate surrounding world – the one that is necessary for dialogue – used as a source for creating art.  The world is seen through a mirror darkly and then profusely copied.

Rarely do I see drawings where the prisoner-artist is looking directly at the world without the filters of another’s eyes through photographs. Prison drawings departing from copying photographs are often misunderstood and dismissed by other prisoners and prison staff in the demand for rendering photo-realism.

Perhaps, equating good art with the ability to copy a photograph may not be peculiar to prison. Public opinion as reflected on Instagram suggests the general population also regards ability to copy a photograph as great art.

When the prisoner Daniel in another prison shows me a portfolio of drawings that looks like any other sheet of tattoo drawing, I ask the class, how does a tattoo get authority as art?  Daniel suggests skill, someone else suggests ink, and another says design.

None of the above, I say, the tattoo gets authority from the body – from the arm, leg, neck, or whatever body part upon which it exists.  Take the tattoo off the body and it becomes a sorry deflated balloon.

Somewhat miffed that I didn’t praise his tattoo drawings, Daniel agrees saying, I’ve been sitting in my cell for 11 years wondering why I couldn’t get the same affect as an actual tattoo.

The artist cannot demand that a medium do what he or she wants the medium to do. As I tell the prisoner-artists, If you ever been in a flood, you know that water does what water wants, and the water in a watercolor is no different; falling and spreading upon the paper as it will.  Some of the students have been in floods and all have known falling.

If the artist is but one voice in a larger choir consisting of materials, mediums, color physics, so on, and whose voices are as important as the artist’s, what happens to self-expression?

When I ask my class if there is self-expression, because, after all, each one of them is the sum total of everyone they ever met, quoting some post-modern philosopher I forgotten, Samuel retorts, if I am the sum total of everyone I ever met, then why ain’t that sum total in here with me?!  A good question.

However, the question is not whether there is a self, but whether there is individual expression?

If I were intent on expressing myself it is likely my delivery would be more propaganda than expression, more thinking than experience, more hope than feelings; consisting of a visual running commentary of expectations from both myself and others. In other words, it is hard to discern what is truly my individual expression. This becomes particularly true in prison where individual expression may make or break a parole hearing.

Instead of self-expression, drawing becomes an act of listening in which there is no imposed agenda upon what is seen and thus allowing the visual dialogue to emerge. Translating this to the class, I ask them to forget meaning, forget expressing themselves and embark on a descriptive exploration of the world.

The prisoner Kaey takes issue with this. He believes that in order for his art to be significant, he must create meaning in it.

I hear both prisoner and non-prisoner artists say; I want to make something meaningful in my art – not realizing that meaning cannot be created or manufactured; that the construction of meaning leads to something contrived like an insincere Hallmark card.

Meaning is a funny thing.   If we are lucky meaning shows itself; meaning that is always there, meaning that is always already, meaning that is always everywhere; meaning that is larger than we, and meaning that we can never reach because meaning continuously extends.

But how is meaning revealed?  This was my question when I created the project Dear Self/Dear Other for the prisoners in the through-the-mail art curriculum.

It is my belief that meaning is revealed in the everyday images that make up our lives; personal images not created, not copied but excavated. And when the artist relinquishes control over meaning, these forgotten or ignored images surfaces – not necessarily to be understood but to be experienced.

In my own art, there is a primitive house on stilts that emerges in various forms throughout my paintings, sculpture and monoprints. I accepted its presence without knowing why until a viewer asked about its meaning at an exhibition.

Looking at the painting, I suddenly realized it was an image from when I was six years. This was a time when my family of five lived over a brothel in Little Havana, Miami after my father lost our Philadelphia upper-middle class house in a series of poker games, my baby sister was born dead, and my mom went temporarily crazy.

But on a fun family daytrip to Key West beating the heat of Miami, I discovered a house on stilts that appears seemingly planted over the water.  And while the ocean rushed beneath the house creating a sense of magic, I imagined us living in that house above the surf where my mother would be happy. Looking back to the viewer’s face at the exhibition, I realized; oops too much information.

An Island, oil on panel, courtesy of author

An Island, oil on panel, courtesy of author

Had I considered the connection myself while painting it, the information would have been too much for me interfering with the process of painting.  Free of my awareness, the painting emerged with its own voice allowing it to exist independently of what it meant to me and whatever message I might have imparted to it.  Knowing the history of my haphazard child is not a vital factor in experiencing my art.

Knowing that what is seen in the past continues to impact upon the present, I asked the participants in the Dear Self project to draw what they saw at six years of age.  But the waters of childhood are dangerous and, often, there is no house on stilts.

Nicholas writes that when he began drawing what he saw at 6 years old, nightmares from the past started to torment me, so I had to stop.

Reggie sends me a drawing of a lynching apparently occurring when he was 6 years old in 1959 in Philadelphia.  I am not sure if he saw the lynching or heard about it.  In either respect, I cannot help but wonder to what extent this early image of a lynching had upon Reggie whose life subsequently became one of violence; a history including his own violence towards others and, as he reports, being raped by the guards at Eastern State Penitentiary at 17 years old when he was first incarcerated.

Reginald McFadden, courtesy of the artist

Reginald McFadden, courtesy of the artist

Another prisoner writes of beatings he endured by his mother. The many stories from prisoners of being abused and neglected as children make it understandable why copying celebrity photographs may be preferable as the form of art in prison and why Kaey wants to invent meaning rather than to discover it.

But, art is not an escape from living; it is an entry into it; art not as therapy but art as breathing – taking everything in and out, good and bad for the creative gristmill.

When I leave Columbia’s prison, it is night and I drive the mile prison driveway to the main road through the white deer sanctuary that surrounds the prison.  I don’t know why the prison is built here although I later learn that the white deer is the symbol of redemption for Native Americans.

I did ask on my initial meeting with the Deputy Superintendent what would happen if I felt compelled to walk the beautiful paths through the high surrounding scrubs. She answers, you will be shot, making me think the vocabulary of redemption does not exist in this prison and the white deer are irrelevant to their programming.

But on this evening’s drive out, the moon is full and when I see its light reflected on the white deer in the scrubs, I see them as shooting stars. And as these deer appearing like stars turn to look at me, I think of Columbia.

Later, I paint a white deer.  At the bottom of the painting, I add the following words for Columbia knowing he may never walk the beautiful paths.

At night,
when others sleep
and the officers are playing cards,
I become the white deer blinded
in the headlight of the moon,
And I am.

Treacy Ziegler

Arnot Art Museum Installation, Landscapes of Confinement. The white deer.

Arnot Art Museum Installation, Landscapes of Confinement. The white deer.

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Call for Submissions – Re-entry Organizations and Resources Alliance Newsletter

30 Jan

The ROAR (Re-entry Organizations and Resources) Alliance is a collaboration of over 40 non-profit, faith-based and government agencies working to promote successful reentry from incarceration to the community. This is achieved by coordinating existing resources in the community, catalyzing collaboration and mutual learning among reentry organizations, and promoting greater awareness of reentry issues in the general public. It is our belief that successful reentry results in more productive lives for these individuals, healthier families and neighborhoods, and greater public safety and economic stability for our community.

The ROAR newsletter is a digest of resources, events, local and national news, action items, and volunteer opportunities addressing the specific needs those of us working in reentry.
We at ROAR believe the newsletter would be an excellent venue for featuring artists whose work speaks from their experiences with incarceration and reentry, either directly or as a loved one, friend, or supporter. Our goal is to compile a library of work and short bios from artists willing to share their work so that each ROAR issue will introduce our readers to a new artist and a little bit of their story.
If you or anyone you know are interested in having their art featured, please contact Maura Jess (maurajess@ymail.com) for more information.

 

I Wanted To Remind Us We Were People

9 Jan

by Elana Pritchard

About the guest blogger: Elana Pritchard is a cartoonist in Los Angeles.  Before she landed in jail she worked as an animator on Ralph Bakshi’s film, Last Days of Coney Island.  She is currently doing a Kickstarter to finish her animated cartoon, The Circus: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/341471863/the-circus

It’s been about a week since the comics I did inside the LA County jail system were first published in the LA Weekly, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the response.  People from all over the world have written to me expressing their support for what I have done and their contempt for inhumane practices for incarcerated peoples everywhere.  I have been in communication with the LA County Sheriff’s department and they have told me that due to these comics they have issued a new policy that all inmates must be given showers within 24 hours of entering the jail.  We are scheduled to meet next week to discuss further improvements.  And throughout all of this it seems the original, humble message of these comics is sticking: that we were people.  Even though we had a barcode on our wrist with a number and were called “bodies” by the staff, we were still people.

Many people in jail are still on trial and haven’t even been found guilty or innocent yet.  Many people made mistakes that you or I have made before in private, only they got caught.  There were mothers in there that missed their children.  There were kind people in there that cared about the arts and cared about each other.  I drew these comics to make us all laugh and remind us that even though there was a whole group of of people with badges and better clothes than we had telling us we didn’t matter… we DID matter and we WERE PEOPLE.

In that the comics were successful, and for that I am proud.

Elana Pritchard

All images were first published in the LA Weekly, 2015

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