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Local art exhibit spotlights Colorado inmates

INSIDE STORIES

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Clinton R. Hall - Then/Now Duality watercolor
  • Clinton R. HallThen/Now Duality watercolor

When a person is incarcerated, they often are set adrift from all that’s familiar and seek a new identity apart from the crimes they committed. For many of the more than 20,000 housed in one of the state’s 23 prison facilities, a healthier, more productive sense of self is being developed through artistic expression. Experts and prisoners report that Colorado’s new emphasis on arts and cultural initiatives is already having a considerable impact.

Department of Corrections officials believe their new programs will pay long-term dividends toward bettering the life and career prospects of the 95 percent of Colorado inmates who’ll someday be released back into our communities. The state has a 50 percent recidivism rate, so of the 19,000 prisoners expected to be released in the next decade, 9,500 will return to prison within three years.

Paradigm Shift colored pencil, ink - JOHN SHERMAN
  • John Sherman
  • Paradigm Shift colored pencil, ink

“It is part of changing the culture behind the walls, and providing opportunities for those who are incarcerated to be involved in programs that help them to make positive personal changes,” says Dean Williams, executive director of the DOC. “We know that when you make prisons places of starkness and idleness, it makes them less safe, and it does not help us to reduce the recidivism rate in this state. We need the men and women behind the walls to have a sense of purpose, a reason to get up every day and work to better themselves so that when they get out of our prison … they can be successful out in the community.”

About three years ago, the DOC began a partnership with the Denver University Prison Arts Initiative (PAI) to provide arts programs in correctional facilities across the state.

The PAI is currently in 10 prisons, and will add two more by this summer. 

And while it’s hard to measure how many inmates have participated in these programs in one form or another, PAI founder and co-director Ashley Hamilton says the initiative has already reached at least 1,000 inmates and is helping them make strides toward rehabilitation.

“I really believe that the arts ... have an incredible gift for creating spaces for growth and transformation to occur,” Hamilton says. “The art practice — whether that be theater, or fine art, or creative writing, or dance, or whatever — sort of creates this vehicle for incarcerated people to step into, to not just build a skill around their art, but to reflect deeply on who they are, where they’ve been, and where they want to go.”

PAI’s Colorado programs in correctional facilities range from theater productions and art workshops to leadership programs and special projects — a podcast has already been launched and a DOC newspaper, created by and for inmates, will soon publish its first issue.

Flies and Butterflies colored pencil - JOHN SHERMAN
  • John Sherman
  • Flies and Butterflies colored pencil

The organization has been collecting data since it began working with the DOC, but showing its efficacy in preventing recidivism has so far been hard to measure.

“It will be a few years before we have definitive data,” Williams says. “I can tell you anecdotally that we have already started to see a real shift inside as we roll out some of these programs. ... I hear it from both the offenders and staff, that these programs are encouraging people to take responsibility for their environment.”

Beginning this Friday at the downtown Cottonwood Center for the Arts, you’ll be able to view more than 150 pieces of artwork created by DOC inmates from six prisons: the Colorado State Penitentiary, Arrowhead Correctional Center, Four Mile Correctional Center, Colorado Territorial Correctional Center, Centennial Correctional Facility and Fremont Correctional Facility.

Much of the art will be available for purchase, with 100 percent of the proceeds going back to the inmates, unless the artist has stipulated a portion of their sales should be donated to PAI and/or Cottonwood.

The exhibit features a wide range of innovative and creative mediums including bar soap, flex pens and homemade charcoal, as well as more traditional ones like colored pencil, oil on canvas, acrylic and watercolors.

One of the artists who submitted a sculpture even included the plastic floss pick he used to shape and mold his creation.

Thin Blue Line: Jeeps oil on canvas - GREG ROMERO
  • Greg Romero
  • Thin Blue Line: Jeeps oil on canvas

“I think the most impressive thing about the work we have received is its resourcefulness,” says Rachel Gardner, lead organizer of the exhibit. “While some art supplies are available, the artists have shown an incredible amount of creativity in sourcing [and in some cases making] their own supplies and materials. We have sculptures made out of prison-issue soap, abstract pieces made from the backs of old note pads and calendars, and drawings created with charcoal made by burning pieces of wood ... Despite all this, the artwork is professional quality.”

Gardner, who previously spent time teaching poetry in a correctional facility as part of her Ph.D. studies, says she’s come to see the arts as a “unique locus for genuinely transformative dialogue.” 

Albert Canstein project - MARK COMPTOM
  • Mark Comptom
  • Albert Canstein project

She says she’s excited about the show’s potential for facilitating a conversation about the role art can play in the criminal justice system — a sentiment echoed by Cottonwood executive director John Khoury.

“What might happen if arts, creativity and expression were a gift we insisted upon for every human being, as children and throughout their lives?” Khoury asks. “It is our responsibility as purveyors of arts and culture to give every voice, without judgment, an opportunity to be heard.”

Many inmates who submitted their work also wrote supporting statements that detail their thoughts on artistic expression, the pieces they created and the mediums they used — all of which will be on display at the exhibit.

“I’ve been incarcerated for nearly 34 years. I’ve done time [in] some of the most violent prison yards in Colorado. I’ve witnessed enough brutality, abuse and callous inhumanity to fill several lifetimes I’m sure,” writes John Sherman, an inmate at Four Mile Correctional Center, in describing his piece, “Flies and Butterflies,” which is featured on the cover of this issue.

“However, through it all I managed to maintain some semblance of my own humanity through the wonder of creating, sharing, and teaching art,” Sherman continues. “In the end, all that needs to be understood about me is evident in my art.”

Scorpion of the Mind soap, watercolor, nail polish - MYRON TODD
  • Myron Todd
  • Scorpion of the Mind soap, watercolor, nail polish

Some artists, such as Fremont Correctional Center inmate Jeremy Yachik, used their supporting statement to describe how they crafted their pieces without access to common materials.

In his piece “Abyssmal Baptism,” Yachik used colored pencil, corn starch, baby powder and soap, and described the process through which he sculpted a hand that’s featured in the work.

“The hand was made by using two bottles of cornstarch … that I put into a box I made,” Yachik writes. “I then collected bits and pieces of translucent soap and a bar of Dial Berries soap, shaved them into small bits with my ID, put them into a tray from my Kosher meal and melted the soap down.

“I then placed my hand in the [corn starch] and made a mold of my hand. I spooned the soap into the mold and let it set up. I carefully cleaned the baby powder off, [added] the details and [clear-coated] it with clear that someone had from a long time ago. So it’s a copy of my hand.”

Clinton R. Hall, in his watercolor “Then/Now Duality,” addresses how his time in prison has impacted his sense of identity.

“There is a duality of who we are as inmates,” Hall writes. “This piece shows a literal reflection of the artist but speaks of who I was before my fall as a happy and joyous but somewhat [ethereal] individual, still a prisoner to my criminal mind and my addictions … a person understanding of true loss and shame for the actions and my actual real existence which is now more focused and tangible, but steeped in sadness and a true day-to-day struggle knowing who I am.”

Passing colored pencils - BRADLEY OGLETHORP
  • Bradley Oglethorp
  • Passing colored pencils

When asked what people might take away from the exhibit, Williams says that an important part of changing the culture in DOC facilities is bringing people from the outside in.

“We need the community to be engaged with what we are trying to do,” Williams says. “Because we know that if an offender gets out of prison and doesn’t have a job, a place to live or community connections, they are much more likely to commit a new crime and come back to prison.

“We never want to diminish the impact of their crimes, but we also know that as a department we have to be able to hold both justice and mercy in the same space. Opportunities like this help to shift the conversation.”

If you go:

The Inside Stories: Art from the Colorado Department of Corrections exhibit opens Friday, March 6 at Cottonwood Center for the Arts, 427 E. Colorado Ave., in conjunction with the First Friday Art Walk. It will remain on display through March 28.

Admission is free, though donations will be accepted.

The opening reception begins at 4:30 with a presentation featuring Cottonwood Executive Director John Khoury and Cottonwood administrator Rachel Gardner; Colorado Sen. Pete Lee, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Dean Williams, DOC executive director; Ashley Hamilton, Denver University Prison Arts Initiative co-director; Rodney Wood of the Prison Outreach Initiative and ArtCar Museum in Trinidad; Rev. Ahriana Platten and John Weiss, of the Correcting Corrections Initiative and Colorado Publishing House; and Rev. Promise Lee, Relevant Word Ministries.

At 5:45 p.m., Hamilton and Wood will lead a workshop called “Empowering Incarcerated Coloradans Through Art: How to get involved.” It will feature short videos that highlight how artists and cultural organizations empower and engage prisoners. The showings will be followed by a discussion about the arts programs inside the prison system.

Disclosure: John Weiss is the founder and chairman of the board of the Colorado Springs Indy. Ahriana Platten is an employee of Colorado Publishing House, the parent company of the Colorado Springs Indy.

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