Aspen Times Weekly: Art on the Inside
It was a group art class like any other. Materials and tools spread across a table. An encouraging instructor. Willing students with varying levels of skill and enthusiasm. And, after about an hour of quiet and concentrated effort, finished pieces of artwork – some bound for a trash bin, some to be displayed by their creators with pride.
The distinctive thing about it was that when the instructor and my photographer and I departed from the classroom, the students couldn’t leave. They’re inmates at the Pitkin County Jail. The class, held every other Monday in the facility’s day room, is part of a jail partnership with the Aspen Art Museum that’s now in its ninth year.
All inmates are invited to participate and three did on this December afternoon (that may seem a poor showing, but in a jail that rarely has more than a dozen inmates, it’s not so bad). Some of the students make art regularly and on their own — before class began, a female inmate showed instructor Jen Johnson a pastoral drawing of a house on a hill that she’d completed since the last art class. Johnson, an education outreach coordinator for the museum, has been teaching these classes for the museum since last spring.
The museum doesn’t cater classes to the incarcerated — the format is the same as it would be in a local school or with another group, which introduces students to the work of an artist currently showing in the museum, then guides them through making art in the same style. Here the goal was to make abstract sculptures that define the space they inhabit, inspired by Anna Sew Hoy’s “Magnetic Between,” an exhibition on display in the museum’s sculpture garden through April.
Johnson started by talking a bit about Sew Hoy’s work, her use of non-traditional and found materials, and the way the pieces shape the space around them in the open-air garden.
“I want to see if we can create and define space with our materials,” she explained.
Jail guards inspected these materials on the way in — string, foam balls, aluminum foil, tubing, empty egg crates, and some items that clearly wouldn’t normally be in an inmate’s hands: a pair of wire cutters and 12 rocks.
She quickly threw out some suggestions for how to manipulate the materials — bending the wire, balancing other objects on them, and so on.
And moments later, the room was silent. Students were cutting foam, folding and molding aluminum foil, cutting wire and twisting string in quiet concentration. As sculptures took shape, a comment or question occasionally went out to
“It’s frustrating,” said one young man. “But thankfully it’s only art, so it can’t go too badly.”
There were regular exasperated sighs, followed by words of encouragement: “Be persistent,” a female inmate said, “it will come to you.”
One inmate goes to his cell and comes back with a set of watercolors, then uses them to add detail to his piece.
At the end of the hour, there’s a group showing. All of the works are laid out on another table in the day room. We all stand around and tour them. Each of us talks about our work — how we did it, what we hoped to achieve with it. And we comment on what we see in others’ artwork, offering critiques and compliments.
The inmates talk about craft, creativity, and the limits and possibilities of their crude materials. What was abstract to one artist looks like a drooping rose to another. They discuss scale, imagining walking inside of one sculpture if it was larger and outdoors. And they offer some more simple compliments: “That’s rad,” for example.
In one student’s sculpture, an aircraft is headed skyward, above wire swirls of smoke and a painted aluminum blast of fire. Attached to the plane is a cloth banner, on which he’s written “Heaven Forgives.”
The artist explained: “It’s flying from all this grief into heaven. … He’s going from where he is to something better, bringing heaven into his heart.”
He compared it to being in jail, and his hopes for reconciliation with people on the outside. This was the first and only time during the class any of the students brought up their incarceration. Until then, it’d just been about art.
Johnson said later that the exhibition part of the classes tends to bring out insights about the artistic process and, sometimes, personal revelations.
“Some of them want to talk about the work, some just do it, and sometimes they want to make it very much about their story,” she said. “Oftentimes just the making is the most
important thing that happens.”
Usually the instructors don’t know what their art students have been convicted or accused of, but Johnson inadvertently learned of the allegations against one inmate during our visit. As my photographer and I discussed what images we planned to print with a sheriff’s deputy on the way out of the jail, the guard mentioned that one student’s alleged victims were children.
“I didn’t know that,” Johnson said later. “It’s nice not to know that. It’s nice for them to have this moment when they’re not treated like a criminal.”
Launched in 2007, the museum program in the jail has brought art to hundreds of inmates over
Every other Monday, an educator from the museum goes into the jail. They’ve made sculptures like the Anna Sew Hoy class did, they’ve painted self-portraits and landscapes, worked in photography and graffiti and collage and printmaking, they’ve been abstract expressionists and surrealists.
When the museum approached jail administrator Don Bird about hosting the program, which is funded by the museum, he was grateful for the opportunity to give inmates a creative outlet, he said.
“We look at our mission as having people leave here in better shape than when they came in,” Bird said. “That usually has to do with their physical demeanor and health. We also like to think that we can make whatever good use we can of the time they spend with us, with the limited resources that we have available.”
In his estimation, the art program has been a success for many inmates.
“It allows for good creative use of enforced idleness and it allows these people to get in touch with a side of themselves that maybe they’ve never looked at,” he said. “A lot of people are very proud of their art projects. They might realize they didn’t know they have this creative side to them. Maybe they find a new dimension in their own life.”
Art programs have been adopted in jails and prisons across the U.S. in recent decades. But turning to art and the imagination has seemingly forever been a source of comfort for the imprisoned (Charles Dickens, on a visit to U.S. prisons in the 1840s, wrote of meeting inmates who had proudly transformed trash into clock-like devices and musical instruments).
Psychologists have extensively studied the effectiveness of art as a rehabilitation tool in jails and prisons, most often concluding that practicing creative arts helps the incarcerated to develop healthy coping skills and to communicate better.
Social psychologist Larry Brewster of the University of San Francisco, for example, has studied short- and long-term effects of arts programs in California prisons, concluding in a 2012 book “Paths of Discovery” and a 2014 paper published in Psychology Today that the arts reliably help inmates develop new skills and healthier attitudes.
“Inmates with arts education and practice are statistically more likely to approach problems with greater creativity and intellectual flexibility compared with those without exposure to the arts,” Brewster wrote in Psychology Today. “Further, we found a very strong correlation between arts education and self-confidence, motivation to pursue other educational and vocational programs, and self-discipline to manage time more efficiently and effectively.”
So the Pitkin County Jail, which has long prided itself on using a humane and rehabilitative approach, was a natural partner for the Aspen Art Museum, which has teamed with Western Slope schools and infused art into a diverse array of community organizations.
“The Pitkin County Jail partnership allows us to help foster one of the most important aspects of building good communities: communication,” museum director Heidi Zuckerman said in 2011. “We believe the experience of art can create better citizens, locally and globally.”