Climbing The Walls: Incarceration and Art

by Todd Hollfelder
About the guest contributor: “Though I don’t like being labeled, or “summed up” by definitions, there are two tags I must live with.  First, I am an artist… I have been my entire life.  I dabble in different mediums and play with many forms of expression.  I call myself an illustrator because the intent of all my work is to share a story.  Places I’ve been.  Things I’ve seen.  Feelings I’ve dealt with.  Second, I am a felon… I will be one for the rest of my life.  I was released from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections custody in April, 2018.  I was allowed to concentrate on my work, watch it mature, and see other’s talents grow.  Through creative competition we became a collective.”   
Self Portrait 1 Hat
Self Portrait

Hi!  My name is Todd or, for the past 3 years, Wisconsin Department of Corrections #632011.  I will have my numeric “nickname” for the next 6 years in Community Custody.  For those unfamiliar with the term, I will be on “paper” and continuously monitored.  I was incarcerated 2/13/2015 for violating the terms of my bond and in July 2015 was handed a 4-year sentence, mandatory release date of February 10, 2019… my 51st birthday.  Fortunately, I’m a non-violent offender.  I integrated smoothly into the prison lifestyle and routine.  For this I was eligible for an Earned Release Program and cut 10 months off my ‘bid’.  Unfortunately, the time I saved on my time ‘in’ was tacked on to my early release.

Let me tell you a little about where I come from!  I grew up in an upper middle-class suburb of Milwaukee, WI.  My family isn’t what I would call wealthy but we definitely were raised “privileged”.  We were never denied anything and rarely heard the word ‘no’.  I believed I was invincible… my family would get me out of every situation I got into.  If I was broke, they’d give me money.  If my bills were late, they would catch them up.  When I got arrested, they covered my bail and got me the best possible legal representation.  I was a well-adjusted kid who never got into any trouble… well, except getting suspended for smoking on school grounds and skipping gym class.  I have 7 DUIs under my belt now and never was in prison.  This time there was no getting out of it!  The Judge told me clearly, “… you’ve gotten away with this too many times and haven’t received enough punishment…”.  He handed down the sentence of 4 years in, 6 years out for a grand total of 10 years, the maximum punishment he could legally impose.

So, here I am at 47 years old on my way to the prison Intake facility!  I’m in handcuffs and shackles, locked in the back of a bus, with a bunch of ‘real’ criminals.  Most of these guys are murderers, rapists and abusers (they’d done things I couldn’t even fathom).  My offense didn’t hurt anyone… I’d had no accidents or damaged any property.  I’m thinking, “OMG”, what are these people going to do to someone like me?  Am I going to have to live with these men or be housed with ‘lesser’ offenders?  What are the living conditions going to be?  We’ve all seen the movies… is it really like that?

Warut Visitation Rules
Visitation Rules

I wasn’t so much scared of my situation, it was more anxiety that dominated my mind.  The more I was around these soon-to-be “roommates” the more I decided I wasn’t going to be around them.  I withdrew into reading novels.  I found it a way to transport myself to other places, different stories and a better class of people.  In Intake we weren’t allowed to have much.  I read about 5 books a week, all day and night long, to take me away and avoid speaking to the characters I was forced to room with.  I was so thankful when I got moved out of intake into a regular medium-security location where I could finally purchase my own clothes, shoes, TV and hobby supplies!!

I found television to be a very temporary, mindless escape… maybe solely a distraction from the world I was residing in.  Books are great but reading became more of a tedium than a diversion.  I had ordered a sketchpad and some drawing pencils, colored pencils and pastels but I hadn’t actually created anything in a long time.  As we all get older, responsibilities and obligations often force us to put our passions to the side.  While I’d created art on the outside, and I was devoted to it, I didn’t have the time to express myself the way I truly desired to.  Now, on a forced break from reality, I didn’t have to worry about anything.  I had no bills to pay.  I had no commitments to family or work.  Even though it was barely edible, I didn’t have to think about what I was going to eat, go grocery shopping or cook.  I could go to bed and get up whenever I felt like it… except for count times and the occasional fire drill!  It seemed to be the perfect time to return to my first love, drawing.

My first attempts were primitive, at least in my eyes, but they impressed others.  I didn’t care about, or need, the approval of others but it was flattering.  These drawings were/are a part of me!  I could transport myself to new worlds, make them tangible and be however I wanted them to be.  My fellow inmates would sometimes question my images.  They didn’t understand artistic vision doesn’t have to be representational… it doesn’t have to consist of recognizable imagery.  My work wasn’t for them though, it was for me!  I refused to draw portraits for them.  I absolutely wouldn’t make greeting cards!  My work is art… not crafts!  Later on, I did start to do portraits but there were a few conditions.  I didn’t set a “price” for my work but they had no input into the finished project and I would accept tokens of gratitude.  They couldn’t view the piece until it was complete.  And don’t bother me, it’ll be done when it’s done.

I must explain that I’m not an anti-social kind of guy!  I’d made a conscious decision to separate myself from the environment to which I was subjected.  I didn’t want to get to know anybody.  I knew I’d do my time for me, get it over with, and never have to see any of these people ever again.  The chances of myself, and most of the others, being in the same social circles and spaces on the outside was slim.  In this context, my art became my downfall.  The more I created the more others wanted to talk to me.  They wanted to see my work.  They wanted to talk about my projects.  They wanted to show me their talents… with words, visual images, crochet, needlepoint, leathercraft, beading, some dance and the list goes on within the perimeters of the prison’s restrictions.   For many this was their first exposure to expressing themselves in ways that weren’t destructive to themselves or others.  And they were proud of their work.  They valued my opinions and asked for my suggestions as to how to improve their visions.  Even though I was keeping my distance and not letting down my “walls” (I thought), I developed superficial (again, I thought) relationships… more than acquaintances but not quite friends.

Fantasy Family Portrait
Fantasy Family Portrait

To elaborate on the ‘I thought’ statements.  I believed I was hiding behind “walls” to protect myself from getting to know the other convicts in my personal space 24/7/365.  What I failed to recognize was that my work, and my input into theirs’, slowly exposed pieces of myself.  I gained insight into their lives because, when asked to view or make suggestions on their works, I could see into their minds.  I could read their emotions about where they’ve been, are currently and where they want to be in the future.  We developed an unspoken form of communication.  A way to maintain our masculinity while “discussing” our feelings of fear, on relationships, about caring for one another.  All the things men don’t usually talk about with each other.

One of my favorite statements, I heard it all the time, was “I can’t draw.” Or “I can’t do that”.  There is no right or wrong in art.  There is no good or bad in creation.  I’d tell people, “Yes, you can!”.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a stick figure or a colorful “scribble” with colored pencils.  “I’ll help inspire you!”.  “Are you having fun?”, “Relaxing?”, “Releasing the frustration of another taxing day?”.  The point being, are you feeling anything?!!  Art is about reaction.  If you have an opinion or elicit a reaction you’re alive.  You’re expressing a view, a viewpoint and that’s creation.  I was able to introduce technique but had to remind guys not to try to do what I do… one of me is enough.  Be your own person!  See through your own eyes!  Interpret according to your own beliefs and values!  Of course, one of the toughest principles is always OBSERVE, OBSERVE, OBSERVE!  Shut your mouth and listen… don’t just hear, LISTEN.  Open your eyes but don’t just look, SEE!  Absorb the good and the bad around you.  Visualize what makes you happy.  Express the things that piss you off.  Whatever it is, get it out!!

The arts are one of the few positive things about prison.  For me, it allowed the opportunity to see my craft mature.  Looking at my early works with only #2 pencil on typing paper to what I’m accomplishing, and still growing, now is amazing.  I saw others experiment successfully in a variety of mediums.  One of my co-artist inmates, who claimed he’d never been creative, composed a spectacular “collage” (all hand drawn and cut out) representing his favorite football team, the San Francisco 49ers.  Others did brilliant portraits from photographs of their loved ones using a grid technique.  Patterns were available for purchase to those who preferred to work in brightly colored yarns.  Some got their friends and family to send them adult coloring book pages to enjoy and release tension.  It wasn’t unusual to see groups of guys sitting around the same table conversing and immersed in their activities of choice!

Sometimes, however, our efforts were stifled by the subjective rules of the DOC.  For example; I drew a New Orleans Mardi Gras scene in which there was a woman flashing her breasts to get beads that were thrown from the balconies.  Another inmate drew a very artistic topless woman with large boobs.  He got cited for “inappropriate material” where, when the correctional officers were questioned about it, my drawing was considered acceptable because of the context.  We had to be very careful about anything depicting violence but not all was seen as unacceptable.  Subjects construed as racist could land one in the “hole” but, again, it depended on context.  I illustrated my frustrations about the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri (I forget what year that was) depicting a racially diverse group defending themselves against the police while stores were being looted and cars were on fire.  It wasn’t considered unacceptable since the violence was implied more than vivid.  It was tricky to sometimes push the line as serious disciplinary action could be imposed upon you.  But really, who wants to concentrate on drawing bunnies and pretty flowers in a place where it is difficult to wake up in the morning and smile at your cellie!

NOLA 1949 Mardi Gras Gay Krewe
Mardi Gras 1949 – Krewe of Yuga

It’s really fascinating to look back on the whole experience now… even though it hasn’t been that long.  To think about the conversations that started over a drawing, a poem, or a song.  The feelings that were communicated without speaking.  The bonds created by my knowing, somewhere, someone may be thinking about the positive aspects of being incarcerated because my work is hanging on their wall or framed on their desk.  Even if it’s just held by a magnet on a refrigerator, I’ve impacted somebody else’s life in any number of ways.  A reminder of where we’ve been, where we’re going and to be thankful in the moment that we’ve survived (hopefully overcome) our shortcomings.  I like to believe some of the men I inspired, and who inspired me, have continued to pursue their newly found freedom of expression.  A constructive outlet for their emotions.  A diversion from returning to where they’ve been.  A way to create a future they can visualize.  In some way everyone is in a prison of their own creation….

Joan Rivers Cadillac Alone
Joan Rivers Alone in a Cadillac

 

“Art kept us sane”: An interview with memoir author Logan Crannell

About the writer, Logan Crannell: I’m a visual artist from Provo, UT who opted to move into my truck with my dog Jack, after I got divorced.  We travelled together and ended up in Boise, ID to visit a friend. Things spiraled out of control, and I got imprisoned for 4 months, facing a ten year sentence.  I got released on Oct. 5th, 2016.
From Wendy, PAC Administrator: Logan Crannell wrote to PAC seeking some support in promoting his memoir, Hands Down – a story of incarceration, which hits Amazon today. I asked him if he’d like to contribute a blog post about it, and he eagerly agreed, requesting that I provide him with a few questions to get his thoughts flowing. I did so, and the following is what he offered in return. I’m sure you’ll be as moved by his words as I am, and I ask that you share this interview, and Logan’s book, with anyone who might find them meaningful — WJ

~~~

Hands Down Cover with 0.125 bleeds-1

WJ: How did the process/act of writing help you to cope with being incarcerated?

LC:  Writing grounded me and kept my mind from circling in on itself.  Being locked in a concrete cell for twenty-one hours a day, you get consumed by repetitive and irrational thoughts.  It’s important to get them out of your system, otherwise they eat you alive.

Excerpt:

I rested there, despondent.  Zach, walking laps along the yellow line, stopped and approached.  He took a seat and put his elbows on the table.

“You’re not overthinking, are you?” he asked, leaning in

“Yes, I am.  I can’t help it.”

“Listen, bro,” he said, “You can’t think about the past and the future in here because they’re not ours.  They don’t belong to us, anymore.  All we get is today.  You have to focus on the things you can control.  It’s the little things that save you.”

It was wisdom, what he told me.

WJ:   You mentioned that you have a background in filmmaking.  What similarities and differences did you discover between the way you told a story in writing versus in film?

LC:  Yes, I grew up in a family of professional filmmakers and photographers, so I naturally told stories that way, but I was never comfortable with words.  They felt foreign to me; my interest lay with capturing images and feelings visually. When it came to dialogue, I’d bring in writers to deal with it. I didn’t care to be involved.

Then, in jail, in court, listening to my life and reputation get dismantled, I realized that words would ultimately set me free; they were my only tool of defense.  They became invaluable to me. No one seemed interested in my version of events, or claims of innocence, so documenting my words was a form of retaliation. Then, it turned  into something far more personal, as I examined my life and choices leading up to my arrest, which comprises the first section of the book.

WJ:  How did your surroundings influence your voice? Your perspective?

LC:  It got raw.  I came face-to-face with my fears, insecurities and failures; and I absolutely could not progress until I challenged them directly.  I couldn’t hide behind the distractions of the outside world. I felt bare, with nothing left to lose by writing my honest observations.  

As I got closer with my cellmates, my own story took a backseat, and I focused on their lives and outlooks.  The book transformed into our story.  Not just mine.  

Excerpt:

“How many mattresses are out there?”

“One.”

It was our nightly ritual; the counting of the mats.  At 10:30 pm, the deputies placed mattresses on the table by the control desk, the number of which signaled to us how many new inmates were on their way to cell block.  On our Walk, we had the only cell with a vacancy. The lights went out. I waited for my eyes to adjust, then continued reading The Screwtape Letters, by C.S Lewis; a rare find from the jail library.

“Did anybody come in?” Zach asked

“Not yet,” Zeek replied

“Well, I’m going to bed.  God bless, you guys!” Zach said, pulling down his headband

I’d fallen asleep when Rick Kellner made his entrance, and he came in with a bang.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I’d like Rick – he bragged of his charges with such enthusiasm, though I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that underneath his thunder, there might be a man that grew up too damn fast.

  
WJ:  How has your experience within the criminal justice system changed the way you perceive art and/or the creative process?

LC:  Art has a vital role in lockdown.  It’s not disposable. I noticed inmate reactions to watching television; so many societal issues were irrelevant to them, and advertising commercials had no effect.  We couldn’t have any of those things, so the broadcast registered as noise to us. I was relieved – I’d finally found a place where marketing didn’t work. I thought to myself, ‘These people are picking up on completely different signals.  That’s awesome.’

It’s funny, because I got housed with inmates who lamented over how much better the conditions were in prison, as opposed to county, because they had access to art supplies.  My cellmate Rick did incredible drawings, but blank, white sheets of paper were a scarce commodity. We had to be resourceful and work with our limitations. It didn’t stop us.  I kept a 2-inch pen, wrapped in paper and adhesive labels to make it less pliable, safely in my sock since the jail considered it contraband.

Excerpt:

Rick produced a work of art, while free, at a stable point in his life, on a canvas measuring roughly four-foot-by-six.  He did the drawing in pencil; the image of an Elk, beside a river, on a cold morning.

He lost track of how long he spent perfecting it; each blade of grass, drop of moisture and dew, the hair of the Elk’s coat, its breath, all of it in vivid detail.  He spoke of its majesty, regarding it as his finest achievement, creatively. I believe Rick thought of that drawing often, in the darkest moments, pulling strength from it, when he felt at a loss.  I think it helped him see the goodness of his capabilities.

WJ:  What inspired you to keep writing? Were there times you lost the motivation? If so, how did you find it again?

LC:  I don’t recall losing motivation.  On the contrary; my cellmates would have to pry me off my journal, bring me down to earth, and encourage me to exercise and joke around.  I formed tight bonds with my cellies. We fueled one another with ideas and inspiring stories. Art kept us sane. We balanced it with spiritual practices and kept each other laughing.  

Excerpt:

Zach didn’t waiver from his routine, and his daily yoga session piqued Rick’s interest.  By that point, I joined Zach a few times a week, and it improved my flexibility. The floor got cramped with three of us, so I let Rick take a lesson.  Zach gradually taught him the steps and proper breathing techniques.

Rick’s body trembled, as he labored to maintain a stance.

“Zach, I can’t hold it.  I’m losing balance,” Rick pleaded

“You gotta breath deep with the motion, bro.  You can do it.”

Rick’s feet slid on the smooth concrete, “This is way harder than I thought.”

“Yoga ain’t no punk, Rick.”

WJ:  What gave you hope? Who/what inspired you?

LC:  Seeing my dog Jack, again.  He means the world to me. On the day of my arrest, I got far more concerned for his well-being than my own.  When the cops allowed me ‘my one phone call’ it wasn’t to a lawyer. I wanted to verify that Jack was safe and cared for.  My friends and family came through in a big way.

WJ:  What advice would you give to other creative thinkers who are locked up? Or to artists and writers who teach in prisons/jails?

LC:  Keep it unfiltered.  Don’t get influenced by history.  The art you do doesn’t have to be monumental.  That’s not the point. Your goal shouldn’t be to impress others.  Real art isn’t about your ego; it’s the release of ego that makes it sincere.  If it doesn’t heal you, don’t expect it to help others.  

While finishing the final draft of my book, page by page, I’d follow one instruction:  Did I keep it real and from the heart? Then, I’d ask two questions: What am I bringing awareness to?  And, am I ready to put this into the world?

To be a teacher in that environment, well, I think you have to create a circle of trust and safety, or the results won’t happen.  Everyone involved has to be comfortable and meet at eye level before they open up. My cell mates were hesitant when they saw me keeping a journal, but once they trusted my intentions, they wanted to be involved and contribute to it.  I’d quote em all day long.

Excerpt:

July 20th – Through the windshield of the transport bus, I witnessed sidewalks busy with people, wandering, arms full of shopping bags, wanting things. I saw advertisements for phone plans, menu options at fast food restaurants, and bands wearing the latest fashion.  I wasn’t missing anything; Cell 846 was my comfort zone; I’d power through the day, and go to my bunk and rest.

My gaze shifted from the windshield to a black man seated in front of me, in the maximum security section; an iron gate divided us.  He reminded me of Tupac Shakur – maybe it was the nose ring.  How did he get to keep his nose ring?  How strange, that you can sit next to a person on a bus, and say nothing to them – and a month later, that person changes your life forever.

WJ:  What gave you the confidence to publish your story? What impact do you hope it will have?

Well, I felt a sense of obligation to publish since it wasn’t simply my story.  I promised those men I’d see it through.  

I have a dear friend, on the outside, that read the book.  Unfortunately, his long term relationship with his girlfriend had hit a rough patch, and they decided to take a break.  She moved out of state. Unbeknownst to me, he would read the book to her over the phone at night, and it helped them to rediscover and be grateful for what they had built.  That touched me deeply. It made my struggles worthwhile. That’s what I want for the book; to have the reader find a negative in their life and convert it into something positive.  That’s the victory.

WJ:  What are your goals for the future? How has the transition coming home been for you? Have you continued to write? If so, has it served a purpose during the transition?

LC:  Actually, I’m studying for my degree in floral design.  I’d practiced Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, throughout my adult life.  It brought me peace. I committed to making it my new career when I got out, so I’m really concentrated on that now.  The transition was rough. By the time they kicked me to the streets I’d lost my home, my car, my camera and computer equipment, both of my jobs, etc.  On top of that I now had a criminal record to contend with. At least I had my dog, and solid friends. I think that’s ultimately what the book is about; true friendship.  

Logan and Jack
Logan and Jack

If you’d like to connect with Logan (or Jack), email films.by.logan@gmail.com.

Hands Down: A Story of Incarceration, by Logan Crannell

The Artists Within: Conor Broderick on Friend and Fellow Artist, Jonathan Cashion

A note from the contributor, Conor Broderick, who encouraged Jon Cashion to share his work with PAC:  I feel art is very important for starting conversations about serious ideas. Expressing oneself can be good for the artist, but that artist’s work might help change someone’s life in a way that she or he might never know about. Learning about oneself is something that comes through the creative process, I have found, and so far there has been a lot of bright, colorful spontaneous expression in my work which speaks of who I am.

Abstract paintings, let alone abstract painters, are rare within the prison artist community where Jon resides. Jon began painting in March of 2016 with his long-time partner, Leslie. The two have been pushing one another and collaborating on paintings. The work that Jon and Leslie create together is a meeting of complementary styles. Leslie’s work, (which we hope to see independently soon) is surreal and combines well with Jon’s “craziness.” As with the Old Masters, two or more painters would work together on a project. Sometimes you cannot know who did what. In the end, all that matters is the effect the pieces have on the viewer.

 

The Journey
“The Journey” by Jon Cashion

With no formal art training, Jon obtains his knowledge through the various books available to him, as well as from learning from his peers. Within the prison environment, there is a lack of artistic direction to guide a developing artist. But this is where Jon sets himself apart. Jon’s work—mainly non-objective, impressionist/expressionist abstracts – is his voice. “…I have found a passion, a deep feeling of having to create something, that I can’t seem to get rid of,” he explains.

See Within
“Seeing Within” by Jon Cashion

Leslie goes into detail. “He started with these ravaged splatter paintings that resemble the result of a bunny encountering a truck in the night.” This describes the explosive energy Jon puts into his work.

Java Nightcap kangaroo
“Java Nightcap ‘Kangaroo'” by Jon Cashion

Jon is fascinated with bold hues and possesses a great eye for creating drama. He also creates on surfaces beyond the canvas, allowing him to paint more frequently. Jon makes his own canvas cut from old sheets.  He then paints the surfaces with his home-brewed gesso. For pastel work, he has developed a textured substrate painted over cardboard, using an acrylic blend containing concrete dust. Jon is currently working on a limited palette series that features homemade oil paints. No brush? No problem!  Random items become the brush – forks, toothbrushes, homemade atomizers, etc.

Yesternight's Adventure
“Yesternight’s Adventure” by Jon Cashion

Recently, Jon began to develop his figure painting skills.  He looks forward to combining this new subject matter with his familiar abstract efforts.  Jon plans to pursue finding his visual voice while future goals are to keep creating painting from life and to explore larger canvas formats.

Ice Cream at Tiffany's
“Ice Cream at Tiffany’s” by Jon Cashion