Thoughts on Prison Art
Is there hope for a prison writer? To the prison writer, hope says, “Generate as much work as you can possibly keep in your property, develop your craft, complete diverse projects of literary substance, and above all, don’t stop because one day, they’ll ask, 'What have you written?’” The prison writer ought to drop a load of work before the inquirer, like dumping duffle bags of money onto a table.
One day. That’s all they might ever have. If that.
Why ask, “Is there hope for a prison writer?” Because I’m one of them. My true question though is, “Is there hope for a prisoner?” Because I’m one of those too.
When people are dehumanized, depersonalized, and devalued, out goes their conduct, self-esteem, patterns of thought, skills, trades, language, and their arts, In their place you get recklessness, self-loathing, broken logic, resignation, illiteracy, and ‘prison art’.
What is ‘prison art’ besides art performed or created inside some type of corrections institution? I could describe it by the business envelope, by its predominant culture of counterfeiters and copycats, by its freestyle rapping in the chowhall, by its jewelry and accessories crafted from trash and boot pleather, or by its storytellers - the prison writers. I think its most significant features concern what it’s not.
Typically the artist in prison is undersupplied and overlooked. In other words, hardly any resources, platform, or opportunity are offered from the arts world wherewith they might fairly contribute or compete.
Being any type of artist in the ‘free’ is costly and requires sacrifices. In prison, we have the time artists dream of, but with limited access to the tools and materials to actualize our dreams. We must settle for the colored pencils that don’t quite fit in a normal adult hand, or an undisciplined poetry absent of form, rhyme, or reason. Also, our craft shop was dismantled years ago. Where is the exhibit, and in what gallery, showing the sketches, the drama, the misery in uncuffed
With no craftshop, basic art supplies on commissary, artists are forced to steal materials or find a way to smuggle a graphite pencil through a visit. Others will claim to be Christian to join the choir and sing for pennies of glory, or to play an instrument. Likewise, the sacrifices required are far too levitical for anyone only moderately interested in such a high-maintenance art. It breaks my heart to live in a nation that can sleep at night after turning its back on itself. 0f course, our circumstances are of our own choosing. But in our pursuit of righted wrongs and redeemed time, we go practically unsupported.
But I have a flame and I wish all prison artists shared this flame in me (no matter how quixotic it may sound). Don’t settle for selling a portrait for $10 worth of freeze dried coffee. With every piece of work, jab the sleeping world awake! Demand they see you! Who cares if they won’t educate you! We’ll self-educate. Colored oils are hard to come by Change the game! Go outside the painter’s box. Create something that’ll cause ‘free world’ artists to ask, “Where’d you find...? How’d you do...?”
Despite canceled persons in prison being given the short stick, there is a minority of prison artists who know nothing but the hustle. Here is where I stand, raise my fist, cross my arms over my chest and chant “Wakanda forever!!” to honor all the choral vocalists, acoustic guitarists, boot painters, chip bag jewel makers, newspaper sculptors, free verse poets,
landscape artists, family portraitists, tiny cross carvers, unit muralists, drama team players, praise team dancers, freestyle rappers, water colorists, graffiti taggers, tattoo artists, rec yard bodybuilders, artisans, craftsmen, the emcees of talent shows, the talent, the skit-wrighters, the undiscovered comedians, Sunday service keyboardists, the sign language karaoke-ists, and splintered stick drummers.
What if we found purpose in our art? We would realize it is of value once we see we are of value. Can you see that the value of what we do - our art, specifically - is contingent upon the value of who we are; our social identity? We have something to say because we are alive. We’re creative, suffering, and challenged by this place to look at ourselves. Based upon what we’ve seen, we create. Yet, our creative expressions are songs sung to a nation with selective hearing.
Then, a project such as this issue of Culture Clash comes along. With a simple opportunity, it counters all the challenges we’ve endured as artists, as human beings - to be seen, read, heard, understood, and accepted.
Because of one’s platform, a group of us were entrusted. That’s opposite to our experience in prison - one man can ruin an entire wing’s opportunity to commissary or dayroom (it’s how they keep us at each other’s neck and not theirs.) Here, however, one man earned a redeeming opportunity for others. That inspires hope. That inspires us to organize and show our worth. The opportunity becomes purpose to the pen and pencil.
This effort, this issue, is a mere glint upon the horizon of prison reform, and a call-out for free and incarcerated artists to unite in bettering ourselves, our relationships, and our communities. As idealistic and romantic as this might appear, it is reasonable, and it is right. Since I haven’t given up on humanity yet, I believe there’s hope to be had. Despite myriad obstacles, underdogs overcome.
I love art because I love the way people wrestle down their mediums of choice to say something so simple, “I exist.” If you are an artist -- I love you. If you exist -- I love you.
And, for all the times I forgot that love, I’m so sorry.