Tag Archives: Art in Prison

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

22 Jan

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

15 Jan

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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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.

 

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