Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body and my heart opens wide.
These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18 month cognitive therapy program. They live together in a special dorm in which community is emphasized. Each of these 28 women has committed a crime which will brand them for life as sex offenders.
Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things, men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.
I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ web site but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong. I, or the artist I bring, share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and re-define oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am Large, I contain Multitudes”. I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than just sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses and visual artists with gifts to share.
When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost four years that I’ve been going up there once a month – it is work that deeply feeds my soul.
Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call “Elements”. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core – pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out. Shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!
My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on “I am Earth” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture – a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, nature, etc. Each woman shares her gesture and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming) and we go around the circle dancing each women’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance!
We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts: “I am Air”, “I am Fire” and “I am Water”. By the end of the class we’ve created four dances and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of.
The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community. One woman comments “I didn’t know I was creative!” Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.” One that touches my heart so deeply is “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”
I am filled with awe at their willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I LOVE this work – my soul is filled with joy and gratitude.
by Treacy Ziegler
About the guest blogger: Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University. In this voluntary project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 2,300 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.
Time for the prisoner is often imagined as an endless dimension of doing nothing. Not surprisingly then on hearing that I provide in-prison art workshops and through-the-mail art projects for prisoners throughout the United States, people sometimes respond, “There is so little to do in prison – they must really welcome the programs you provide,”
But prison time is not always as it seems.
For some prisoners (those with shorter sentences, or those about to get out – and for a maximum-security prison, “about to get out” may mean “in a year”) the experience of time is the contrary. They experience a lack of it. These prisoners spend their days completing the required laundry list of things needed for parole; a list including such things as anger management classes, drug rehabilitation, counseling and in some states, the required GED a prisoner must obtain before paroled.
Art is not on that laundry list and I can only assume that the prison system shares the same values on art as the public school system. Art is superfluous; perhaps what some guards refer to as “finger painting.”
Because of the required tasks for parole, many of the prisoners who participate in my prison workshops and through-the-mail projects are those prisoners known as “lifers;” folks who are going nowhere and can treat the laundry list with a certain amount of disregard.
And yet, even the in-prison art classes for which only lifers may have time, there is a selection process. It is not surprising that a person in SHU cannot attend. However, I am surprised to find that many of my classes are often primarily white, particularly when one considers that the majority of the prisoners are black and Latino. When I ask, “Why?” I have been told on one occasion, “Blacks get more tickets.”
We do not live in a post-racial society and anyone thinking otherwise might want to spend an afternoon in prison – focused not upon the racism between prisoners but the racism of the entire structure that supports a prisoner’s racist inclinations. Prison survives by a racist structure of divide-and-conquer.
It is in response to this power structure of discrimination within the prison, that I develop through-the-mail art curriculums offered to anyone who wants to join. Death row? Solitary confinement? Tickets? No problem. Anyone in the 2500 member prisoner network of Prisoner Express through the United States who wants to participate in the curriculum can participate.
The basic curriculum is on drawing referred to as Drawing From Life. While it is not necessary to complete this drawing curriculum, it gives the prisoner a basic understanding of my philosophy on art and seeing.
My experience, and therefore my curriculum, often goes against what prisoner artists have been taught or what they experience as art.
My primary experience is that art is a conversation existing of more than a single entity participating in the experience; hence making art a conversation rather than a monologue. In this way, the creative process emerges more as a dynamic “listening” than as an individual expression.
This “conversation” develops on three levels. The first level of conversation involves the uniquely personal exploration between the artist and the world. For the visual artist, this exploration often takes the form of drawing.
The second conversation takes place between the artist and the medium (paint, clay, ink, pencil) transforming that initial exploration into metaphor. Here the creative process is dependent upon a call-and-response conversation between the materials and the artist; the marks on the paper or the rakes on the clay revealing itself to the artist like a Ouija board forceful in where it wants to go. Like the Ouija board, the paint, the clay or the ink has a life of its own.
The third level of conversation is between the art and the viewer. On this third level of conversation, the artist retreats allowing the art to speak directly with the viewer.
These levels of conversation do not exist in prison art: one assumes there is nothing to visually explore in prison; the artist’s materials are often reduced to just computer paper and an interior of a pen (particularly if the prisoner is in solitary confinement); material with too little authority to speak on its own; and the main focus of prison art is the prisoner, the art never speaks for itself. In fact, without the “prisoner” label, much of the work would be ignored. Interest in the art tends to be based upon the fact that the artist is a prisoner not because of the work itself.
Evidence that the first level of conversation does not exist in prison is the numerous drawings I receive from the 2500 prisoners.
Most of the work is tightly rendered drawings that I can classify into five main stereotypical sources for inspiration: photos of loved ones or famous people, tattoos, copying Playboy-like magazines, cartoons, and Bob Ross, or sometimes Thomas Kincaid. I know that the drawings are not an intimate exploration of the world because I see the same images over and over again from many different prisoners across the United States. The drawings suggest the craft of copying – very good copying, but copying.
When I mention in the Drawing From Life curriculum the five sources of drawings that I see in their art, several prisoners, such as Vonderic, write to me in agreement:
“It is true what you write about the five sources of art in prison – that is what most art is about here.”
Some of the prison work is very strong; what I would expect of a high school student who was destined for art school.
Herein lies the first problem. The prisoner, much like the high school student, is not working from his or her intimate visual relationship to the world because like the high school student, the prisoner is the ward of a higher authority forced to see the world through the eyes of another. That is why is it so common for both high school students and prisoners to use the photograph as the primary source for art – not trusting what it is they see themselves. Perhaps it is too late. By the time we are teenagers, the visual world is forgotten in favor of a conceptual world where it is enough to understand that the sky is blue and grass is green. Forgetting that in the direct experience, the sky is not simply blue and grass is not merely green.
Herein lies the second problem for personal visual exploration to occur in prison: It is better for overall prison maintenance if the prisoner keeps to the formulaic sky of how-to art books assuring that the prisoners’ eyes are kept inward or looking at the false clarity of a contrived world. No landscape drawing classes on the lawns of prison yards exploring the palette complexities of the sky.
Some prisoners write to say they prefer working from their imagination. Not knowing that an imagination without exploration develops into redundancy, makes the imagination just another prison.
Prison art is often associated with outsider art. But the outsider artist’s imagination is fueled by a keen sensitivity to the world – operating not without the world, but in the world where the rubber hits the road. James is a prisoner who does work intensely from an acutely wired imagination. This is from a series of drawings James did of toy zoo animals I brought to class. His art is not as interesting when working solely upon his imagination without the external excursion.
In the Drawing From Life curriculum my primary concern addresses the first level of conversation – developing a personal exploration of the world.
Prison is a bleak world and a common complaint I receive from prisoners writing to me is, “There’s nothing here interesting to draw!”
But the sum of an artist’s world is not the sum of objects found in that world. Instead, the artist’s world is sets of relationships that are always changing: light and shadow, form and flatness, tonal variations, near and far. It is a world that is not concerned with conceptualized value-based “things.”
The curriculum invites the prisoner to explore this ever-changing world of relationships in a series of exercises. The first exercise is simple:
Sit in your cell – or any room wherever you are – and explore the pattern of light and shadow. A light colored room works well. Start at any corner of the room and see how bands of light and shadow emerge; most often the corner has a light band. Moving your eye out of the room’s corner, you will find a dark band, moving your eyes from that dark band you will discover another light band, – this continues forever. Dark, light, dark, light, dark, light, infinitum. Light and shadow make up our universe.
Chiaroscuro is an alluring phenomenon that is not lost on prisoners and Dan writes:
“Now that I see chiaroscuro, I see it everywhere! The patterns of light through the window, the floor, the light bands cast across the corridor. The light that comes through the cell window!’
Another exercise asks the student to draw light and shadow bands by drawing a sphere. Leon, a prisoner who has never drawn before and lives in solitary confinement from Pelican Bay State Prison sends in his assignment of the sphere with notes:
The toilet paper roll or the coffee cup comes in handy when trying to understand light and shadow and the chiaroscuro of the world. Leon’s sends his drawings of both the toilet paper roll and his sneaker:
When Leon draws his cell, he makes a discovery.
Leon discovers that although it had always been hard to describe living in his cell to his family in words, he can describe it through drawings.
However, chiaroscuro is a phenomenon that challenges the basic structure of most prison art and for that matter, most high school art. The majority of drawings I receive are based upon the “line”: and although the use of line seems “developmental”, it is not basic and stands contrary to the visual experience of the world.
A line drawing of an apple has the caption asking: “What is this?” Obviously it is an apple and the only way the prisoner knows that it is an apple, is the line defining it. However, when I ask, “ Where is this line on the apple?” it cannot be found. Lines do not exist in the visual world. A line perceived in space is really a shadow – a thin shadow that is created by two forms coming together. Lines are symbols and serve as the basis for language. Using line in drawing bypasses the perceptual experience and goes directly to language. I suggest that if the student is going to draw this:
then the student might as well draw this:
Obviously, many great artists include line, but at this stage of exploration, line is kept at a distance because I want the prisoners to experience the world before the assertion of the line and its demand for conceptualization. How do you draw without a line?
Raymond sends me a drawing where he literally tries to make the drawing without lines – so soft there is no drawing. This is a literal interpretation of the assignment. But Raymond is not ignorant, perseveres and eventually gets it. This is Raymond’s interpretation of a drawing by Rembrandt – full of shadows and light.
Drawings of toilet paper rolls do not qualify as art any more than the countless drawings of big bosom women smiling at the viewer that I receive from prisoners. The drawings of toilet paper are not art. The drawings are a way of developing another access to experiencing the world. My friend Esther, a retired psychologist described how she saw the world differently when she was taught to draw light and shadow, and Joe, a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts student, explains, “I move differently through the world since I learned to draw…I sense things in a different way,” – noting that drawing is not just an “eye thing” but a total body thing.
Billy, a prisoner, writes,
“My mantra for falling asleep is, “It is not an apple. It is light and shadow.”
Lester in solitary confinement, writes to me,
“I want to draw what I see reflected in a drop of water on my desk,”
This sets off a series of letters between us about the Japanese wabi sabi – the Japanese aesthetic centered on change, decay, and imperfection.
In a later art curriculum, Points Of A Compass, I ask, “Where is the horizon in prison?” and Lester writes,
“I was copying horizons out of a magazine for the assignment, then all of a sudden I realize, these are not my horizons! I am a man without a personal horizon!”
My next question to Lester is, “What does it mean to be a man without a personal horizon?” Will Lester become an explorer, not to seize and colonize, but to find a self in relationship to place with the recognition that place is always shared, thus undermining the forced solitariness he is forced to exist?
The fatal flaw
But of course, art has a fatal flaw – one that exists both in and out of prison.
When Vonderic writes agreeing about the five sources in prison that get repeated, he also mentions that this is because
“… art in prison is about money.”
Art’s fatal flaw is that it can be so readily – and willingly – made into a product; turning conversation into profit. Art has always been associated with money – even when describing the negative as in the phrase ”the starving artist.” We associate art to success, and then narrowly define “success.”
So while art can be transformative at times, most often it is not. The difference became very distinct to me this fall when I attended Rutgers University’s art in prison conference, Marking Time.
At the conference I saw Bruce Levitt’s theatre group at Auburn prison where the prisoners-actors perform improvisational plays reenacting their own crimes – revealing both to themselves and to the audience, the prisoners’ profound sense of grief, remorse and pain. This filmed performance left me haunted for days. I listened to the biographical poem/prose recited by an incarcerated woman made so intense by her lack of affectation; the recitation guided only by her pain and the pain she caused.
During the conference, I took one night off and attended a cocktail party at a Sotheby’s fundraising for an NYC art school. In contrast to the art of the prisoners, art here was not directed at transformation of the spirit. Instead art became the reflection of glamor and money with the emphasis upon the celebrity of the artist and the dollar amount of their work.
On the train back to the conference feeling the superficiality of this art world that demands so much attention, I cried.
I cannot be surprised then when James writes to me saying that he asked a number of prisoners on his block to join a particular art project,
“But they said, ‘nah, they only do art for money’.”
Art is constantly made to justify its existence. It is demanded to fit into an economy; even when the economy is not money. The unassuming idea that art is “therapy” maintains an equation that reduces art to a tool utilizing the formula of “if this; then that”.
Art can only be transformative when existing outside all economic structures, be it money; corrections or therapy; and the strength of art is that it has the right to exist without justification – like a person.
Center For Transformative Action
Affiliated with Cornell University