An incarcerated artist I work with wrote asking me to send him some photos. I wrote back, “Of what?” He answered, “Anything. Your life.” We communicate over JPay, an email service for incarcerated people and their loved ones. I went to my photo file and chose pictures of my house, my studio, my cat, my husband playing with our grandson.
He loved them. Of course he did. If you’re locked away, you want to see all that: the pink bloom of spring azalea leaning against the stone porch; white wicker chairs; a child—me, at age five—silhouetted in the bottom of a picture, looking out at the woods that open up to the quiet flow of the Sudbury River.
I included the view from the window of my childhood home because it was landscape paintings inspired by this personally iconic image that first drew me into prison. Twenty-four years ago, my husband, Buzz, invited me to show slides of my paintings to the men in his theater workshop at the Western Wayne Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Michigan. These were men he had worked with for many years, making stories from their lives into improvised plays.
When my images appeared in the dark basement of the prison, the projector quietly humming and the light beaming out from the woods and fields of my landscape paintings, I wondered what meaning they would hold for the men. Would they relate to these New England landscapes? I spent much of my childhood in the woods and on the river, absorbing the peace I needed to navigate a household of unspoken emotional currents and fierce, silent crosswinds. When I arrived at landscape painting as a young adult, I returned to this peace, this drama of light and dark, of flowing water, woods, and meadows.
In the prison basement, I talked about all that. Of one painting, Forest Floor, the men said, “It’s spiritual, it’s filled with spirit,” and I suddenly saw it as they felt it: a dark wooded space where glowing slivers come in from a mysterious light-filled place just beyond the horizon. Of course men who are imprisoned could relate to these images. We talked about light and dark, how to render it in paintings and drawings, and how it connects to spirit. We talked about Emerson and Thoreau. They connected their faiths to mine, to the pantheism I developed out there in the woods, and to art as faith. As I worked with artists in prison over the next couple of decades, I continued to see this transcendental connection to light and dark through their eyes.
Working in my studio early in the morning, the sun just touching the trees outside the window, the sky turned pink, I think of the ancient humans, of the creation stories, of the big bang, of the astronomers now looking into the stars. And then I think of an artist in prison, sitting in a room with artificial light, shading with pencil or making a painting, the miraculous yet oddly simple way to create light on form.
While light is intangible, it can only exist in a drawing or a painting through touch and texture. When Kevin Babcock used his pencils to make the bark of a tree and the tracks in a road, he pressed harder to make the darks, and lighter to make the lights, enjoying the physical circuit between eye, hand and paper. His careful attention to tones contributes to the picture’s quiet strength. Everyone who draws can have this feeling of power when they physicalize something so elusive and all-pervasive as light. This is why working in black and white is so compelling; it is the stark experience of bringing light into being.
Kevin Babcock, A Country Day, 2015, graphite on paper.
There is another powerful aspect to working in black and white. It is the translation of isolated forms, which in the world are separate, into a field of tones that are connected by their relative tonal values. In my experience of teaching drawing for many years, I have found that for everyone—twelve-year-old children, adults new to drawing, art school students, prisoners—this revelation, that form can emerge from the close observation of tonal values on a flat surface, is a very powerful interior experience. I believe it is not only the capacity to create form that is powerful, but it is also a change in our normal figure-ground perception. Instead of seeing objects existing in empty space, we consider the spaces between objects (negative spaces) to be as significant as the objects, making them co-equal on the paper and creating a connectivity that is satisfying in its wholeness.
Many prisoners, especially indigent ones, only have a piece of white paper and a pencil or a stick of charcoal. But this experience of wholeness is available to them with the simplest of tools. Since drawing is perceived as harmless by the authorities, this powerful phenomenological experience of wholeness is a source of freedom, a wonderful secret shared by artists in prison.
Kevin Ouellette, Man’s Best Friend, 2014, pen on paper
In Man’s Best Friend, Kevin Ouellette used many tiny pen strokes to describe the surface of the dog’s fur. In each section of the dog’s face and body, the marks follow the contour of the form, allowing the artist to cherish an adored creature, and allowing us to feel the soft surface of her fur. These many small marks are an equivalent for the tiny hairs that make up the fur that slopes down the neck, follow the turn of the ear and radiate outward from the nose. Making the marks closer together for darks and farther apart for lights creates the illusion of light falling on form.
We in the world are surrounded by textured surfaces—the fur of pets, the fabric of chairs and rugs, the wood of tables, the bark of trees, grass, the concrete and bricks of buildings, the shiny or rough surface of plants, the metal and wood of tools, the skin of another person—and some of these textures hold meaning and stories: objects we were given, family heirlooms, old and worn pieces of clothing that have traveled with us, people we love.
Incarcerated people have very few, if any, of these experiences. They are surrounded by manufactured objects of concrete, steel and plastic: desks, chairs, toilets, cups, sheets and blankets, all mass-produced as cheaply as possible with no regard for good design or comfort. Creating texture on paper is a way to create the textures of life, while cherishing the sensuous feel of art materials.
Dan Mullins, Prison Life, 2008, acrylic on canvas
In Prison Life, Dan Mullins painted the objects of daily life in prison: the orange and blue uniform, footlocker lock, plastic drinking glass, pad of paper and pencil, ramen noodles and coffee from the store. Even though these objects lack individualized personal value, Mullins painted each object with attention to its character and textural quality. We feel the crinkle of the food bags, the worn and thin pad of paper curling up at the edge, and the metallic surface of the lock.
Dan Mullins, Another Place Another Time, 2008, acrylic on canvas
In contrast, Mullins conjured up the objects and atmosphere of a place far away from prison in Another Place, Another Time. Here he could enjoy the surfaces of things known and remembered: the shingles of the house, particularly the green ones with the uneven warp; the shine of the metal car and its windows; the softness of the foliage and the wispiness of the clouds. With its dull light and worn surfaces, the house reveals both the presence and the absence of people, a nostalgia for habitation.
Duane Montney, Little House on the Corner, acrylic on canvas
Similarly, Duane Montney evokes a fall afternoon in a city neighborhood. The tinge of late-day light, the shadows, a premonition of evening, recreate a specific ordinary moment lost to the past. The painting recovers it in permanent form, giving us sadness for lost time and satisfaction for its recovery. For Montney and other prison artists, the act of painting, with its rich perceptual experiences and material qualities, creates another life in the space of the canvas, something that can be accommodated safely within the domain of prison.
For incarcerated artists, the paper or canvas is the one surface that can be developed into sensuality and significance. The surface becomes a portal for a journey that leads to peace, to beauty, or to an expression of rage, fear or fantasy. Sitting at a table in a recreation room with people crowded around, or alone in a cell, they carve out their physical and psychic space by placing the paper in front of them, by the arrangement of pencils, charcoal or paints, with the processes they have learned or invented. Light and texture emanate from the surface as they make marks or strokes, attuning themselves to nuance, comparisons and contrasts, illuminating the sphere that contains them and their work. Even if they are sitting on a bunk far from sunlight and weather, they are still lit by the light of other suns.
I think of all this as I drive back from work at dusk, seeing the trees’ reflection in the Huron River and think of the many landscape paintings I have seen by prison artists, paintings in which they remember childhood in rural Michigan or imagine a place they have never been. I am in awe of them, of their resilience and ingenuity, and in the ways in which they keep their spirits alive in the darkest of places.