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

11 Aug

By Treacy Ziegler

lawrence smith Tehachapi prison(1)

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

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

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

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

mondrian wetkapelle

 Piet Mondrian, Westkapelle

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

Identifying the point

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

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

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

Friedrich Monk By The Sea

Caspar David Friedrich, The Monk by the Sea.

Collapsing planes of prison

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

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

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

simone martini

 Simone Martini, Madonna of Mercy

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

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

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


 Piet Mondrian, Composition

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

Without ambiguity, all is dead

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Leaves: Letters from Prison

31 Jul

By Treacy Ziegler

armando macias on death row

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

Falling leaves

Letters from prison

But now you’ve got the gist 

of what my letters mean.

You’re reading them again

The ones you didn’t burn”

Leonard Cohen, “The letters”


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

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

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

Clarence’s Letters

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

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

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

“Dear Treacy,

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

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

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

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


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

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

I’m sorry for writing you.

I’m just bored. 

I’ve tried your program.

But I’m bored with it.

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

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

manuel gonzalez

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

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

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

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

jackey sollars, faces , e copy

Jackey’s drawing

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

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

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

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

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


The Art of Absolute Loneliness

26 Jun

By Treacy Ziegler

Billy-Sell-self-portrait-1-2Bill Sell’s self- portrait

It was in June, 2013, that Billy Sell hung himself.  I assume a guard discovered him because he had been living in solitary confinement for the past six years. Billy had been in prison for 16 years.  He was 32 years old at his death.  Found hanging in his cell, Billy was first unresponsive and later died in the infirmary. Billy had taken part in the California hunger strike by prisoners against solitary confinement.

Billy first wrote to me a number of years ago.  He asked where he was supposed to send the assignments for the through-the-mail art curriculum I provide for prisoners. Billy added that he knew I wouldn’t be able to answer him personally — assuming that the rules would forbid this.  Unknown to Billy, I am able to write to any prisoner in prisons where I do not volunteer. I wrote back to Billy thanking him for his letter and said that I would be interested in receiving his completed assignments.

However, in Billy’s next letter, he apologized for taking up my time. He wrote: “I must be honest with you as I know you are with me.  As I am writing, (and have weighed this out) regrets sink in my heart heavily. I do not or will not be able to participate properly in the art program.  I feel as I have wasted your time. My tools prevent me from giving a solid effort and the poor quality is a waste of your time. It was never my intention to waste your time.”

When I read this, I felt Billy’s depression reflected in the letter. I wrote back to Billy saying, “I want to apologize for any discomfort I may have caused you in regard to the art project. It was not my intention to make you feel bad about the art.”  I continued to write that I was not interested in a display of perfectly rendered skills, but rather a visual investigation through art. I ended the letter with: “Anyway, if you don’t want to draw, that’s fine; just write back anyway and keep in the loop.”

Inspired by Bernini

Billy did write back, again surprised that I took the time to write him.  This letter also reflected a depression that seemed to prevent him from drawing.  I wrote back to him, sending art that I thought would interest him.  Then surprisingly, after several more exchanges of letters, I received a number of drawings from Billy.  These drawings surprised me mostly for the energy and because he was obviously more comfortable in drawing than he believed himself to be.  In the letter accompanying the art, Billy wrote, “I want to thank you for being the nudge that you are,” and explained that he wanted to do drawings of the Virgin of Guadalupe for his mother. He also talked about other art that he liked: Bernini and some sculpture.

Billy and I continued to correspond; he sent me drawings, and I sent him artwork that his drawings suggested to me and that I thought would inspire him.  In his May letter, he seemed excited to start a life-size drawing of his cell. His plan was a drawing that would be eight feet by six feet.  Once, during his one-hour-out-of-the-cell time, he had inspired other prisoners to draw life-size versions of their cells.  I had originally asked Billy to draw his cell this large size because I hoped it would give him space and empowerment.

In Billy’s letter right before his death, he wrote about art, about colors, about how holidays don’t mean much in prison, and about a drawing of mine that I sent him.  Billy said he liked my explanation of the drawing; the explanation gave him insight he felt he did not have himself.  He thought his own vision was too mechanical.  My response to that comment in my next letter would be to take issue of this assessment of his eye. It was my experience that his eye was not mechanical; rather it was an eye sensitive to light, shadows, and nuances.

In his last letter, Billy sent me additional drawings and his self-portrait.

What happened?

I don’t know if Billy was depressed.  Of course, death by hanging is usually considered a suicide.  Further investigation is being conducted.  State law in California requires that all prisoners who participate in hunger strikes must be monitored and screened for mental health issues.  Unofficial word has it that Billy requested help in the days before his death.  I write to other prisoners in solitary confinement who seem to be dealing with mental health issues — paranoia, delusion, and absolute loneliness.

I think it is ironic, however, to consider absolute loneliness a mental health issue when one is required to live in solitary confinement. The absolute loneliness that one experiences in a situation of solitary confinement can only be considered a normal state of being, resulting from an abnormal requirement. If, however, absolute loneliness is not a mental health issue, but a normal state of being, then it could be concluded that the prison would not be required to respond to it as a problem. Ironic.

The prison system is on a mission of destruction.

I recently read of a woman who, when she was a passenger on a plane she thought was going to crash, turned to her unknown neighbor and asked, “Can I take your hand?  I want to feel the touch of another person when the plane crashes.”

Prison is a crashing plane and all that remains is an extending hand.

billy-cellBilly’s drawing of his solitary cell

The Restorative Word

19 May

By Matt Malyon

Ted, a local youth, was booked in Juvenile Detention on July 8, 2015, the day of our first ever Underground Writing workshop. In November, Ted and I began to meet regularly on Mondays for an hour. Inside a locked 8 x 6 room, with security cameras and heavy doors, Ted began to share about his upbringing in a middle class home, the conflicts that began to tear his parents apart, and the present-day entrenched isolation within his immediate family. This familial decline led to a spiraling sense of self, and subsequently assisted Ted’s descent into depression, drugs, and criminal offenses.

Unable to discuss the details of his case (per his lawyer’s advice), we conversed around and near the subject.  And Ted continued to attend Underground Writing workshops.

Feedback from Ted’s public defender was extremely encouraging for our program early on: after beginning to regularly read and write, Ted’s whole outlook changed.  In fact, it helped him get off antidepressants. And Ted was indeed excited about writing. We talked a great deal about fiction and poetry. (He enjoys reading Sherman Alexie and Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson and Jimmy Santiago Baca.) We looked over and edited his many short stories in progress.  One day, almost like a confession, he told me he’d written his first poem. Youth are not allowed pencils in their cells . . . Ted told me he’d written the poem in soap on his mirror.

This image has haunted me for over a year. I can picture the scene in which Ted has just completed his poem. I see him, in his orange jumpsuit, gazing into the mirror at the reflection he has so often been terrified of, angry with, and ashamed of: himself. But this time he’s seeing himself with words striped across his body. Unlike the black vertical bars of a cell, these are white and horizontal, words appearing almost as stabilizing bars that he can grasp. As he gazes at the lines, proud of the poem he has created, Ted sees himself embodied in and through words, a revision in progress, a version of what could be.

“. . . attending words, revising lives” is our program’s tagline.  And I believe this is happening—word by word.


Some of the student writing I’ve read over the past year suggests an inability for students to picture a better future—sometimes any future at all.  They feel stuck in the present moment.  Underground Writing aims to facilitate encounters with good literature and to provide generative writing prompts that allow students to re-view their lives.  We hope to assist in the restoration of each student’s imagination.


“What does this image remind you of?” I ask, holding up a piece of paper for the students to view during a workshop in Juvenile Detention.

Ted smirks and looks across the table at Diana and Mary.

“Bars,” he says.  “Right?  Prison bars.”

“Yeah, prison bars,” Diana says.  Mary nods in agreement.

We talk about living in a cell.  The youth—ages 15-16—describe it as “a dark hole, a pit, a—”

“That’s vivid,” I say.  “Hold up, though, because I want you to write some of this down.”

I hand out “The Face of a Cell,” a poem written by a youth in Seattle’s juvenile detention system.  We each take a turn reading—“If my cell were a person . . .” it begins.

The first writing prompt: write a physical description of your cell.  The results are varied: “I’m behind the red metal door . . . locked until the guards unlock it . . . staring at the off-white colored walls, off-white color floors . . . I realize if I don’t stop running, I will keep ending up behind the red metal door.”

I transition the group.  “Sometimes we need to see in a different way, to have our vision altered—right?”

Ted furrows his eyebrows and tosses his head slightly back.  “What?”

I pull out a piece of paper.  What do these remind you of?


After a pause, “Lines, or like the bars turned sideways,” Diana says.

“Right,” I say.  “Now watch this.”

Out from behind the image, I slide a paper with a Reginald Dwayne Betts poem in couplets that mirrors the horizontal bars.”

“Whoa,” Ted says, leaning forward.  Diana and Mary smile and gaze at the image.

“This is a poem in couplets, or what rappers might call ‘bars’.  When we view things differently—say, hard situations like being inside Juvenile Detention—they can start to become something else.  And we can do that sort of thing through writing.”

Our second writing prompt: revisit your cell in your mind and write about the feelings and thoughts you have there.

The students read the results from their notebooks: “I think about gettin’ out . . . Sometimes I feel no one pays attention to what I want . . . I think that I don’t belong here.”

“Let’s transition to another scene,” I say, handing out Czeslaw Milosz’ poem, “A Gift.”  We discuss the narrator’s life, the way he’s chosen to see things, and his sense of the future.

After five minutes on the poem, I show the students a final picture.  It’s the same as the second image, but with a single dark line on each side of the horizontal bars.  There are a few guesses and confused looks.

“It’s a ladder,” I say.  The kids sigh and laugh.  “Difficult things can help us see differently, even better.”

“Makes sense,” Mary says.

“For the final prompt, I want you to take the writing you’ve already done today and climb up it, as it were, so that you can see a future for yourself . . . and then I want you to write about what you see there.”

“ . . . looking at the sky, thinking about myself,” Ted writes, “ . . . I think I’m a good kid.”

Mary begins, “I think I can graduate.  I always try my best . . .”

In a fitting conclusion, Diana shares last: “I want to climb out of the hole I’m digging myself and see what I can accomplish . . . I want to see myself getting past all the things I’ve been through and not let them define me anymore.”


Matt Malyon founded and directs Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in Washington’s Skagit Valley through literary engagement and personal restoration.  His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination, and has been published or is forthcoming in various journals.  He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.  His long-form essay about Underground Writing—“The Stories We Save May Include Our Own”—is forthcoming in Iron City Magazine, Issue No. 2.

The Roots of Die Jim Crow

30 Jun
Pulled from the Introduction to Die Jim Crow EP Book, available at and
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

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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.