The brotherhood of invention

It seems obvious to say so, but there’s nowhere to buy paint in prison. Or brushes. Or canvas. Or any of the other supplies to which one naturally assumes the average artist has ready access.

In prison, artists have to improvise.

Arnold Davila, an inmate from Texas who was paroled two years ago, describes the first step of his brush-making process in a 1997 letter to his pen pal, Carol Strick: “I got the hair off Magoon — I clipped a portion — to make (4) paintbrushes. I had to feed the guy for a w[h]ack of his hair. I used one to paint a little on a project I was helping my celly with.”

Davila is one of 29 prisoners from around the country whose work appears in Inside Out: Jail-House Visions, a two-part exhibit showing at The Red E and The Big Idea.

For the pieces in this exhibit, Davila used his human-hair brushes to daub color onto tiny pickup trucks he sculpted out of wet toilet paper and glue. There’s no telling what he used for paint — though in the past, according to Davila’s letter, he’s worked with “a mixture of oil — acrylic — (my hair) — and (top secret!!)”

Their work doesn’t immediately suggest it, but all the artists featured in Jail-House Visions create with similarly inventive materials and tools. “They’re poor, and they can’t buy paper,” explains Carol Strick, the exhibit’s curator. So they draw on paper bags using ballpoint pens — incredibly, finely detailed illustrations of everything from ancient Mayan culture to modern prison life. They swab the dye from M&Ms and the pages of magazines to paint vibrant scenes on 10-cent panuelos (the handkerchiefs of choice of incarcerated gang members). They stack endless toothpicks to build enormous models of ships and boats. They create fine art and craft using the coarsest materials imaginable. Strick, who designed jewelry for the Metropolitan Museum in New York during the 1970s and ’80s, believes that if people on the outside can view the art produced by those on the inside, they’ll begin to question commonly held assumptions about prisoners.

“Art makes people inquire about the artist. You know, when you’re moved by art, you say, ‘Well, who made this?’ And you want to know about the artist and you want to know about the subject.”

Viewing their art does bring to mind certain questions about the artists. Some of the answers are clear from the work itself: how it feels to be in prison; what kind of background the artists come from. Morbidly but perhaps inevitably, viewers also want to know for what kind of crime the artist is serving time — but that question goes largely unanswered in this exhibit.

However, both shows feature three-ring binders filled with the artists’ statements — some are self-conscious explanations of the prisoners’ work, lives and philosophies; others are in the form of letters to Carol, bits of information that offer even more insight into prison life.

Strick was drawn to learn more about — and to help — prisoners long before she discovered prison art. She was 10 years old in the mid-’50s when her mother first tried to describe the concept of jail to her. “She said, ‘It’s where the bad people are.’ And I said, ‘You mean like in a house all together?’ And she said, ‘No — in cells.’ And I said, ‘So you mean it’s a zoo for people?'”

Strick continues, “Something bothered me about that. And all my life I, when I got older and then in the ’60s, with all the movements against the war and against prisons and everything else — even though I was working for the Met — my heart was in [the prison-reform] movement.” So when her husband died in 1990, leaving Carol desperately lonely, she struck up pen-pal friendships with two inmates.

“I had opened up a progressive magazine [published in] Tacoma, Washington. And it said, ‘Lonely prisoners seek pen pals.’ And I said, ‘Oh boy. If they think they’re lonely, they should know how lonely I am.'”

In his first letter back to her, one of her pen pals — a Winnebago Indian from South Dakota — enclosed a drawing he’d done. “I had never seen anything in my life so beautiful — and I’m an artist; I knew every picture in the Met.” During the next seven years, Carol began corresponding with hundreds of other prisoners. Soon, she was writing a column called “News from the Gulag,” based on her pen pals’ experience and published in the North Coast Xpress.

But she still didn’t feel as though she was reaching as many people as she could. Then, one day in 1997, she thought of the drawings her friend in South Dakota had sent her over the years. “I said, ‘Art would be good. I’ll put on an art exhibit!'”

Carol wrote her pen pals, telling them about her idea. “I said, ‘Do you know anybody in your area — on your pod or in your tier — who’s an artist? Have them send me some work, and I’ll exhibit it.'” Within a few months, Carol had received enough work (mostly in the form of heavily decorated envelopes) to create an 8-by-10-foot collage. A gallery in New York City agreed to host the exhibit. “Because I worked for the Met, the New York Times sent a critic, and that was the biggest bonanza: After she came, and she put that in the Times, well, people were knocking down the doors to come in,” Strick remembers.

Once they came in, they started buying. And when they left, they started talking — which, Carol explains, was the genesis of Jail-House Visions. “Somebody who’d seen [the exhibit] told somebody in Houston that they’d seen this show of prisoners’ art and that it was really very interesting. So I got a call from the Art League of Houston, and they said that they were interested in displaying the art. So that’s how it happened.”

Since then, Strick has arranged exhibits around the country. The Prison Book Program of Asheville, a not-for-profit, volunteer-run organization that provides educational materials to prisoners across the Southeast, teamed with Carol to bring the show to Asheville. Proceeds from the sales go directly to the artist or his or her family.

“This is a way that they can contribute to their families,” Carol shares. “I think that’s more important to them than anything else.”

For Carol, the most important aspect of Jail-House Visions is bringing prisoners’ existence — and plight — to the public’s attention.

“They’re all victims,” she says of the incarcerated. “Some have victimized others. But they’re most definitely victims themselves. They’re victims of racism, they’re victims of child abuse, and they’re victims of poverty. There’s no one in [the exhibit] who went to prep school, no Harvard grads. Only poor people who were abused or victimized themselves. Our prisons are like warehouses for the poor,” she concludes.

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