Piercing the wall: An invitation through letters on art

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

 

      unsignificantly      off the coast      there was

     a splash quite unnoticed

     this was

     Icarus drowning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Kara Walker

 

by Manuel Gonzalez, III

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

Coffee stained art
Coffee stained art by Leroy Sodorff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PAC’s online gallery leads to a big opportunity for artist Conor Broderick

About the contributor: Rebecca Kelly is Conor Broderick’s aunt. She is a New York City choreographer, founder of the Rebecca Kelly Ballet, and Artistic Director of the Tahawus Cultural Center, in Au Sable Forks, NY. 

For my nephew Conor, an artist whose work is featured in PAC’s online gallery, 2017 topped off with an invitation (and rush deadline) to design a menu cover for EDWINS Restaurant of Cleveland, OH, which was being highlighted for a significant awards dinner at the James Beard Foundation in NYC.

The James Beard Foundation’s mission is to celebrate, nurture, and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone.

The EDWINS Restaurant website describes EDWINS’ Founder and CEO, Brandon Edwin Chrostowski, as being “on a mission to change the face of re-entry in the United States. In 2007, he founded EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute. His belief that ‘every human being regardless of their past has the right to a fair and equal future’ is what drove the creation of EDWINS.” EDWINS draws diners for its lauded classic French fare, but the best things to come out of its kitchen may be the formerly incarcerated adults who receive hospitality and culinary training through the eatery’s Leadership Institute, 95% of whom have been able to secure employment after graduation.

Brandon reached out to Wendy at PAC about his “art for dinner” menu concept, saying, “We’ve been invited to cook at the James Beard House in NYC, one of the highest honors in the culinary world.  When cooking here we also provide the menu. And for the front of the menu I’m looking to feature a work of art. The night will be filled with decadent French food, wine and of course our mission. Along with our restaurant and training center on the outside we also have programs in thirteen prisons. In all my time I have yet to see art like I see on your site, and I am hoping that you could help me find an artist for the art work for the front of the menu.”

On December 18, Wendy passed along the opportunity to design a menu cover to Conor and other artists whose work is shown in the PAC gallery.  The deadline was for the finished work to arrive by January 5. I really wasn’t sure if Conor would take on the challenge — particularly at this complicated and dark time of year. The holiday period is tough enough for many people. Suddenly Conor would be dealing with an outside deadline. Incarceration makes the time pass differently — days and weeks merge or stretch into unmeasurable spans. His art room suddenly had limited access due to the holiday schedules of correction officers. The mail room was only open one day a week to send larger packages.

Painting has had the most tremendous impact on Conor. At first, possibly it was a release, a way to pass time, but it has grown into something more like a companion, and conversation, a passion, a window into a new world. Conor was always artistic, studying drawing, painting and design, in high school under the guidance of a beloved teacher.  But in more recent years, as he tackled watercolor he eagerly acquired new skills.

Watercolor is complex because it requires a great deal of forethought and planning.  His growing techniques in this medium are self-taught. His grand-father and another adult friend, both artists, mentor him through the mail.

 In the fall, Conor began to take a college distance learning program to complete his interrupted Associates Degree.  In addition to courses in Business and Sociology, he is taking a course called Exploring Art: A Global, Thematic Approach. The resulting grade on his first paper was an A! The prison also asked him to design and teach a course in watercolor painting in the spring.

Conor said yes to the menu challenge!  He managed to get his work into the mail on January 3rd. He thought to send me the USPS tracking number, so I would know when it could arrive. But then it waited in the prison for two days, and afterwards must have traveled by pony express. Or maybe it was the East Coast snow storm. It was ten days before it finally arrived. Meanwhile Brandon was as calm and encouraging as could be throughout my updates about missing mail. He simply said, “I love beating the odds.” But I was on tenterhooks.

Finally, on the afternoon of Saturday the 12th, the artwork arrived! Conor wrote:  “My menu was a combination of oil pastel, watercolor, ink, ink pencils, as well as a varnish (on the knife and spoon).  I used a picture you took (of Carnegie Hall) in Manhattan for the perspective.” The result was a looming cityscape with a gleaming knife and spoon in the foreground. The towering buildings and walls were painted in shades of browns, blues and grays, illuminated by a yellow, ochre, and rose sky.  Brandon wrote, “Amazing,” when he received the design.

January 17, 2018. On the day of the event, we met Brandon to pick up a sample menu, and received a quick tour of the James Beard House. The site was a narrow brownstone in the West Village, with an impressive walled garden, terrace and dining rooms. Its basement is devoted to a surprisingly compact kitchen and receiving room. The atmosphere was focused and quiet, filled with very busy staff deftly arranging and filling dishes. Passing through the kitchen, and terrace, we were shown the elegant dining rooms upstairs on the first floor.

Brandon told us that they would seat 78 guests that night — quite a few more than expected. All the handsome menu designs (there were six) were bold, vivid, and varied, 13x 16, and printed on a fine heavy linen-vinyl stock, with the hand-printed menu on the backs. All but Conor’s had signage integrated over the design.  Perhaps because his design arrived late, there wasn’t time to add logo and names and dates.  His menu looked unique.

This holiday season turned out to be a creative period for Conor, which brings to his parents and to all his family peace and pride. We have PAC to thank for connecting Conor to this opportunity!

Brandon Chrostowski
Brandon Chrostowski, Chef of EDWINS Restaurant of Cleveland OH, holding Conor’s menu design, just before his awards event at the James Beard House and Foundation, NYC.
Top chef in kitchen
Brandon and staff in the kitchen.
Table setting 2
Table setting
Menu design Edwins Restaurant
Conor’s menu design
Detail of Conor menu design
Detail of Conor’s menu design
Conor Broderick, artist, 2017

 

Still Life In Prison

By Treacy Ziegler

puppet drawings 2.

Still life drawing by prisoner David

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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