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Inside Prison Art: A Q&A With Jeffrey Greene

Inside Prison Art: A Q&A With Jeffrey Greene

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Prison Art Lee Jupina

The world of prison art is quite literally removed from the machinations of the legal art market. By its very design, prison is intended to be a world cut off from society, a place for punitive contemplation. But from an artistic standpoint, the isolation and need for self-reflection are conducive to creative exploration. The Prison Arts Program run by the Community Partners in Action Program in Connecticut seeks to encourage this kind of work–not just for self-betterment, but to the benefit of the viewer of the creative output.

Although other arts programs affect a number of states nationwide, the Prison Arts Program Manager Jeffrey Greene has been exceptionally passionate about disseminating the ideology and ensuring the works are exhibited. Working with inmates was his first job out of art school, and his world view was immediately and greatly expanded upon. Leveraging his painting training with a newfound calling, he has watched the work of the inmates blossom over the years.

The results are staggering, and the means of expression is intensely powerful. Works have subsequently been shown at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, and are now on view in Hartford for its annual show at Capital Community College through June 28th. Calling himself a “one-person operation,” Greene spearheaded the showcase of over 750 works by more than 120 inmates.

Editor at Large Alexandra Bregman had a chance to speak more in-depth with Greene about the project and its far-reaching impact. Following her recent publication of The Bouvier Affair: A True Story, she has been fascinated by art crime at the upper echelons of the corrupted marketplace but had not yet considered the artistic practice within the walls of the prisons themselves.

prison art jeffrey greene jesus riosPrevious: Lee Jupina, On the Rails. Above: Jesus Rios with his work on the annual show poster in 2000. All images courtesy of the CPA if not otherwise noted.

After art school, you connected with an artist friend who had recently returned from the Peace Corps in Togo to run the prison arts program. Seeing how the prison operated was a huge wake-up call for you, coming from the somewhat pretentious world of semi-calculated art making to the passionate but stifled artistic practice of inmates. Was there an ‘aha moment’ working within the system that you realized how important the project should remain?

I’d say that the ‘aha moment’ came the moment I first visited a prison. I saw real people, in absurdly closed spaces, being compelled by those spaces to consider themselves, and the world, through absurdly narrow perspectives. Once I felt that (immediately) and saw, just through my interactions and conversations within the prison, that I and other visiting artists could open the space and widen perspectives, I realized the huge importance of the project. Even as young and naive as I was (and I was), all that was immediately clear.

I realized that an alien/outside presence within the prison changed the prison. I realized that through arts instruction a change in perspective would be brought back to the prison blocks and cells, and grow to infect everything. And I realized that most people (unless they have some practical reason to) don’t ever think of the prison or who lives there and that that magnifies the value of those who do start thinking of the lives lived in prison. There are constantly singular moments where the importance of the project is made clear. An example would be that correctional officers approach me within the prison, or at the front gate, to let me know about an artist in the prison I’ve yet to meet, or to share their experience watching the development of an artist in the program, or even to ask for advice in regard to their own artistically inclined children. That is huge – officers slowly become helpful and supportive colleagues, and then, again, the prison is changing.

As a specific example, I remember when the great Vincent Nardone first joined our workshop at Osborn Correctional Institution (Osbourne, CI), having already served 24 years in prison, all as an artist painting clipper ships. We asked him, “Why clipper ships?,” and he answered, “Because people like clipper ships,” – an answer we found totally inadequate in the workshop.

As a result, I assigned, to everyone, the project of drawing their own earliest memory. Everyone’s was amazing, personal and powerful, including Vincent’s. From there, Vincent went on to illustrate (in ballpoint pen) his whole life prior to prison, life with his family, on beach boardwalks, in diners, and at drive-in theaters, all in meticulous and loving detail. He became a time machine, and he transported his family (parents in their 80’s) back to a wonderful time in their lives…it would not have happened without the program. It just takes five minutes of conversation to turn someone away from a life of pointless, stereotypical, artistic pursuits in prison, and push them towards something personal, powerful, unique and transportive. Now, several years after his release, officers and other incarcerated individuals constantly ask about him.

A counselor called to say, “We’ve got an inmate making a life-sized cellmate out of saltine boxes. Is that art?” Yes! We got involved right away.

I remember, as well, a phone call from the mental health unit at Garner CI, an isolated maximum-security prison in the woods of western Connecticut. A counselor called to say, “We’ve got an inmate making a life-sized cellmate out of saltine boxes. Is that art?” Yes! We got involved right away. The artist, Jesus Rios (although deaf, mute, and illiterate) started making staggering sculptures out of card stock and unraveled bed sheet threads. That was about 20 years ago, and since, he’s been in hundreds of exhibitions, and has been out of prison for the majority of that time as well…he was able to find an advocate to appeal for his release through his artwork. That does not happen without the Arts Program.

prison art jeffrey greene fredrick gunn
Frederick Gunn, Dua (for Sandy Hook), 2013. 14 x 17. Pencil, colored pencil on paper. CPA Prison Arts Program Permanent Collection.

Who do you think pushed the boundary of their own imaginations while living behind bars exceptionally well?

The exhibition at the Aldrich Museum was wall-to-wall work by artists who I think push (or eliminate) the boundary of their own imaginations while behind bars. A great example is the work of Lee Jupina. A motorcycle gang member, he came to the class, and for the first two months kept working on what I thought was a stupid drawing of Osama Bin Laden being targeted by a sniper in Mecca. Why was he doing this? It turned out he was just working on the drawing to give another artist in the class, Frederick Gunn, a Muslim, a hard time. (They were friends, and it seemed that Lee initially signed up for the workshop just to mess with Frederick, waiting years for the chance.) Anyway, we confronted Lee, and put a stop to the Mecca drawing. I cut up a bunch of card stock, gave him a fistful of ballpoint pens and assigned him the task of making a drawing a day, trying to use up a pen every day as well. He started making these strange silhouette drawings off the top of his head, alternatingly funny, brutal, sobering and confusing. He started making amazing drawings that were uniquely his own, and he’s made hundreds so far.

His friend, Frederick Gunn, was up to his own exceptional drawings too, creating his own hieroglyphic language to, first, illustrate the Koran, and later his own life…beautiful and strange drawings, that, again, are totally his own. Those two artists and their distinctive development will always be ingrained in my mind, together.

Of course, this is not always the way. We have an incredible draughtsman at Osborn CI right now, Arthur Gainey, who just can’t get past copying pictures. I’ve asked him, in every way possible, to get past this copying. I asked him to try and remember a dream, and he said, “I’m in prison in my dreams too. There is no difference between my dreams and the prison, in all my dreams I’m in my cell block. I can’t see anything beyond the prison.” He just cannot exercise any imagination – decades in prison seem to have sapped that ability from him.

Lee Jupina, No Escape.

How do various artists express similar emotional pain differently within the system?

This is probably too big of a question. Specifically, I guess, the pain of physical confinement is expressed in millions of ways. Artists sometimes try to make something bigger than their cell, trying to deny the existence of physical limitations. Artists turn to illustrating nature, trying to bring nature into their cells through their work. Artists turn to obsessive artwork that builds over time, documenting time and accomplishment, while, often, serving as meditative practices to get lost in. Artists might try to involve their loved ones, as subjects or even as correspondents or collaborators, to somehow eliminate the walls between themselves and those they love. Of course, many artists will turn to fantasy work, genre work, work that gives them a world to live in through artwork. I guess these are all examples of coping or alleviating emotional pain, but I think, also, examples of expressing that pain, as well. Artists will often make desolate work that makes the limbo world they constantly experience visible to others or themselves. And, artists will make violent work, as well, using the page as a world where they can still have control, or act out, without disciplinary consequences.

vincent nardone prison artVincent Nardone, Bitter Cup #36, 2011‒12. 24 x 19. Ballpoint pen on paper. CPA Prison Arts Program Permanent Collection.

In terms of the selling structure of art inside the prison system, how are artworks (envelopes, handkerchiefs, and other more sophisticated art pieces) sold to other prisoners?

There is no money in prison. Perhaps, a prisoner can have their loved one put money on the books for another inmate, but this is a dangerous move, that can result in severe disciplinary consequences if discovered. So, the currency of prison is artwork and items from the commissary. Prisoners are allowed to buy basic items (and some strange ones) from a list, with the money coming off their books. An artist will sell a decorated envelope for a certain number of blank, stamped envelopes, or deodorant, Cup O’Noodles, ramen, a Pickle-In-A-Pouch, Fireballs, Jolly Rancher candies, or blank handkerchiefs…etc.

When the artworks leave the prison system, how does their value inflate?

In prison, five dollars, or, actually, five dollars in the commissary, is substantial. When you make $1 a day at a prison job (making mattresses, sewing uniforms, cooking the meals, cleaning the blocks, etc.), five dollars of commissary is valuable. On the outside, of course, five dollars is just five dollars. An artist, new to the Annual Show (the only opportunity for artists in Connecticut prisons to sell their work), might be looking for that five dollars. Of course, we then raise that price to something more in context with the outside world, while, at the same time, not denying the artist the opportunity to likely sell the work.

Note, though, that the Program is not focused on art sales, quite the contrary. We encourage artists to send work to their loved ones, to hold onto or to enjoy. We also save artwork for artists, back in flat files at our warehouse, as artists within the prison have very limited storage space. The breakdown for sales: 60% in the artists account, 25% to a postage fund to mail artwork to families at the conclusion of the Annual Show, and 15% to the Commission on Victims Services “Victims Compensation Fund.”

Discretion is required when selling art outside of the system to keep the value stable for different markets. Why do art sales for prisoners necessitate this understated approach? 

Over time, artists involved in the program might start making staggering work. Their artwork can become very valuable. Then, we have to find some balance: we can’t start sending large sums of money into the prison, as we would then be found guilty of contributing to the economic enterprise of an inmate rather than just facilitating a harmless way to dignify the constructive endeavors in the prison and provide some small, but much-needed, funding for art supplies for artists.

When galleries become involved, it also opens up the always present danger of artists tailoring their work to the tastes of collectors, curators, and galleries, rather than tailoring their work to their evolving, ambiguous, arts practice within the prison. Of course, outside influence is always there, and, with our own constant critiques within the workshops, outside influence is already a part of the work…all in all, a difficult issue (or set of issues) to navigate.

Besides all of that, and maybe more importantly, we need to be careful not to bring negative attention to the work of the program…i.e., ‘Why is the guy who killed my son, being taught how to paint, and then make money off his paintings, while in prison?’ This is a valid question, and one we can readily answer, but the Department of Correction certainly does not wish to receive those calls. The operation of the work in the prison is paramount, so we need to keep that in mind in all of the so-called outside world work of the program.

Has anyone, upon release, been working as a successful artist? Is that a rarity, a hope, or something in-between?

I’d say that someone working as a successful artist, following art school, is a rarity…so, the same is true in prison. Our goal is that artists will take new skills, experiences, and mindsets into the outside world: work ethic, confidence, self esteem, an understanding of the process (and value) of long-term endeavors, communication skills, problem solving skills, the ability to think critically and accept, and act upon, criticism, etc. Also, we find that many artists continue to make art making a huge part of their lives while they ‘make a living’ at something other than art-making.

That said, there are many artists that leave prison as practicing, successful, artists. Ray Materson, who stitches 2 ½” x 2 ¼” tapestries out of unraveled socks, has found great success since his release, decades ago. Another recent example is the artist Danny Killion, who operates Weathered Wood, a showroom for his own artwork and furniture made out of found wood, as well as for the work of artists and artisans from throughout the Troy/Albany, NY area. Not only is he successful as an artist, but he, now, contributes to the success of other artists in the outside world as well. All is a direct result of his work with the Prison Arts Program.

Have you noticed any differences between female and male art-making within the correctional system? Are there any female artists you’d like to highlight?

Ok, another huge question, and I’ll likely only just touch on the answer here…When I began doing this work, decades ago, I was only, personally, facilitating workshops in men’s prisons. I would visit and collect work at the women’s prison (there was one, compared to 20 men’s prisons in Connecticut, when I started), but I did not run the workshop. At the time, and still today, I think, there are 20 times as many programs and volunteers for women as men. People clearly think women are more savable. As a result, I simply collected work from all the projects going on in the women’s prisons. The problem was that most of the work was lazy and not very good…five-minute drawings of flowers, or of a woman crying behind bars. Why did it pale in comparison to the men’s work we were collecting?

Many colleagues had ideas: men had control issues, and quickly took to controlling the page, while most women in prison, I was told, were victims of abuse, and did not have the confidence to make great drawings; or, men make work for themselves and women make work for their children; many reasons that in the end were just sexist and/or simply incorrect assumptions. The real reason (I think) was, that volunteers going into the women’s prisons were spending their time fawning over five-minute drawings in an attempt to instill self-esteem in the women. Rather than be critical, and encourage endeavors that, in the end, and through hard work, would result in something great, volunteer instructors and counselors were selling the artists short and allowing the artists to sell themselves short. When I finally started teaching at the women’s prison, for the first year, everyone would say, “He’s the guy that will tell you your drawings are shit.” But, we all know when we’ve done something good (or great). Telling us we’ve done something great when we haven’t, doesn’t instill self-esteem. We are all smarter than that.

Anyway, there are no differences between the abilities of men and women in prison, nor any difference in motivation, subject, complexity, etc. There might be differences in construction, as the women are allowed to crochet, but that is about it. Some exceptional artists in the women’s prison include: Nina Robinson (née Massa) who made an abstract drawing a day, for the last year of her prison sentence, folding it into an origami heart each night before bed – her “Year of Grace and Mercy” was featured as the 2011 Annual Show poster; Gillian Estremera aka Jillian Vasquez, who lost herself in obsessively worked oil pastel drawings, drawings that she would only work on in anger, letting the anger dissipate as she completed the drawing; Yong Mi Olsen, who made incredibly composed and exquisitely finished drawings from the moment she started in the workshop; Lynda Gardner, who made the perverse decision to make highly detailed pen drawings as she lost her eyesight to macular degeneration; Kim Lebel, who would use a dental flosser to pull ink out of the back of ballpoint pens to create strange nebula/cavernous worlds on bright white paper; or June Seger, whose crocheted bacon cheeseburger hat stands, still today, as one of the greatest symbols of our work – in the brutal, limbo world of the prison, someone was encouraged and enabled to make a crocheted bacon cheeseburger hat – that is the sign of a great project, if ever there was one.

I will say this: the difference between men and women in prison, in my experience, is that the women are generally open and the men are generally closed, and both, painfully so! If something is going on in the life of a woman in our workshops, we will, almost always, inevitably know. A male participant could have lost his son in a motorcycle accident earlier in the day, and we will likely not learn this in class that night, or probably ever. For the men, it seems, the torment of the prison itself, apart from what is going on inside each prisoner, is too much already. It is already so brutal living in prison and living with your own torment, that having to deal with anyone or everyone else’s torment, as well, is just out of the question…shut up, keep going, bear it. At this point, my theory in regard to the women’s prison is that the women need a witness. It feels like the women must express their torment to confirm that it is real, valid, and not something simply imagined. In the women’s prisons, everyone’s torment seems to be out in the open, and everyone is not only navigating their own experience, thoughts, and feelings, but the experience, thoughts, and feelings of everyone around themselves, as well. For me, I find this incredibly draining, but, perhaps that is because I am a man? I haven’t figured it out, of course. These are all just my own observations to date, and I’m always trying to make sense of my experience, and, sometimes, foolishly so!

…in many ways her artwork and journal keeping led to the confidence to finally acknowledge truths about herself that she’d always known. She is presently living in a maximum security men’s prison but is the first Connecticut inmate to undergo transgender hormone therapy…

Finally: there is an incredible artist we’ve worked very closely with, who is transgender, Veronica May Clark. Her work is staggering, and, in many ways her artwork and journal keeping led to the confidence to finally acknowledge truths about herself that she’d always known. She is presently living in a maximum security men’s prison but is the first Connecticut inmate to undergo transgender hormone therapy. She is serving a life sentence and has expressed her great hope that she’ll make it to the women’s prison. So, of course, I’ve shared all of my above thoughts with her and cautioned her of what she’s in for! But, who knows, maybe that chaotic (to me) sharing of torments is right up her alley! Or, perhaps, as time goes on, all of these things I’ve described will change? Quite possible.

Veronica May Clark, Vogue Magazine Weave.

Given the privatized for-profit structure of prisons, what does it mean for collective economies that prisoners themselves can make money while behind bars? 

Connecticut is not involved in any for-profit prison structures, and I would imagine that for-profit prisons (privately operated prisons) discourage any connection between the prison and the outside world, eliminating any opportunity for art sales.

I would say that, in all prisons, whatever we can do to make life in prison a continuation of life (rather than a timeout from life), leads to released prisoners infinitely more capable of success and sanity back in the outside world.

Jeffrey Greene

I would say that, in all prisons, whatever we can do to make life in prison a continuation of life (rather than a timeout from life), leads to released prisoners infinitely more capable of success and sanity back in the outside world… Going from a world where a job isn’t a necessity, back into the outside world where it absolutely is, can be impossible to navigate.

What do you hope those outside the correctional system take from the showcase? And vice versa, what do prisoners and lawmakers learn from this?

What people take away from the annual show, and all of our exhibitions is that people are complicated, that the world is complicated and that many different lives are being lived in many different places…and those people and places are all real.

“Community Partners in Action: Prison Arts Program, Annual Show 2019” is on view through June 28th at Community Capital College, 950 Main Street, Hartford, CT. Monday through Friday 9AM-9PM and Saturday, June 15, 11AM-3PM. 

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