The mission of this project is implemented through
both exhibiting outside professional artwork in prisons and through
conducting workshops with inmates
An Open Window has exhibited and donated artwork
to several prisons in a number of states. In response to these exhibitions
are the following comments by the inmates of those prisons:
"In some of the paintings it is as if the paintings themselves
are snapshots of
the moments just before or right after something happened. As
I look at these paintings I find myself waiting for the story
to unfold itself. Its the lack of information that pulls
me into the paintings and wanting to know more."
"I see myself in the boat on the river between the dark woods
and getting home. For me, it is a metaphor of my life."
"At first I was thinking that the paintings were too simple
until I viewed them over some time to a point of elegance."
"Some of the paintings come off as there is a sense of something
existing, something happened, something had once existed and now
"Most pieces seem on the cusp of night or day. Theyre
perpetually waiting I can identify.
An Open Window conducts workshops in several
prisons to facilitate an understanding of art that is not related
to therapy, rehab or busy time. My main interest in teaching art
is not necessarily to teach drawing and painting
but to teach how to see. Many students bring their preconceived
ideas of how the world looks to their art.
The problem of how one sees is compounded in prison because the
level of vigilance is very high. The prison has been the most intense
visual place I have been since art school; more so than art school.
The problem with this kind of vigilance is that all seeing
is seeing in terms of survival or manipulation. To some extent this
is obviously necessary, but it takes away from any other kind of
seeing: i.e. the seeing that one needs to experience the world as
a place of wonder, as a place of exploration (not exploration of
the world that reveals the crack in the wall
that is vigilance),
the kind of seeing that is required for creativity. This kind of
new seeing allows for a kind of freedom, the freedom
to see the world before it is decoded into concepts.
I had a student who said; I draw from the heart.
I replied that I thought the heart and head were overrated. If
you follow the heart or follow the head, the next thing you know,
youre in some dreadful place like prison. I suggested
to this student that he follow his eyes the eyes actually
have the capacity of listening and entering into a conversation
with the world without judgment. It takes practice.
Quail painting - by incarcerated
Skull painting - by incarcerated
I am not so interested in focusing upon the student's
self-expression through art as I think we have all done a fair amount
of self-expression and for some, this self-expression have resulted
in their incarceration. Of course, someone might suggest that this
self-expression should be substituted by more appropriate self-expression.
However, like that person one meets who only talks about himself,
self-expression is not only NOT art, it is boring. Van Goghs
art despite what people think is not evidence of self-expression.
This art has nothing to do with SELF; it is a relationship to a
vital world where the art is a manifestation of that relationship.
Therefore my approach to teaching art is directed towards facilitating
the students connection to a world where art is the collaboration
of that relationship.
I am interested in how the artist in prison can develop
integrity in relationship to his/her art such that the viewer will
not evaluate the work based upon the fact that the artist is an
inmate. Many well-meaning people (staff) at prisons are impressed
with the artwork of the inmate. I ask how this evaluation can be
made separate from the implication it often carries, Not bad
for an inmate. Can the work be seen outside this status? After
all, Caravaggio was incarcerated for murder and lived a life of
crime. How often does a viewer looking at a Caravaggio painting
exclaimed, Not bad for an inmate! And even if another
inmate-artist does not fulfill the status of genius,
how can artwork be seen independent of stereotypes.
Through An Open Door - monoprint
(donated to men's prison)
Much of the artwork of the men/women that I meet with
are hard-edged, closed formed copies of drawings from various books
or things made up from imagination. The artwork at various prisons
tends to be very similar. This is not surprising. Artists learn
from imitation and if there are few sources for this imitation,
it will tend to be the same. It has been my experience in conducting
workshops at various prisons that there are five main influences
of art in prison: Bob Ross, Miss Centerfold, photos of loved ones,
cartoons, and tattoos. The obvious problem with this is there is
little room for creativity. There is little room for expanding the
world as the artist sees it. It sets off a closed circle of what
is art and restricts who can do art because its standards
In the workshops at prison I rely on art history bringing
in many books for students to review. These books initiate discussions
answering questions as to why would an artist like Matisse be so
famous; what is artistic about Mondrians lines, when is more
less and when is more more, what is beauty, what is ugly, when is
a picture finished, what is Renaissance space, what is Cezannes
space, what is fine art, what is illustration, what is sublime,
why did Plato throw the artists out of his Republic? In addition
to stimulating questions, art history introduces new visual ideas
into this closed mimetic system of prison.
An Open Window and Prisoner Express are combining
efforts in developing an art-through-the-mail curriculum. The Prisoner
Express is a project affiliated with the Alternative Library of
Cornell University that creates a writing journal newsletter for
inmates with a membership of 2000 members. Through this newsletter
an invitation will be sent to those members inviting them to participate
in this art project. When an inmates chooses to be part of the project,
he/she will be sent a packet of exercises, photocopies of art from
different traditions throughout history with art history lessons
and writings on the philosophy of art. The project invites them
to develop their drawings skills in a context of critical seeing
and thinking. The inmates' art can then be return for feedback.
It is the hope that this project will generate more specific projects
to help integrate the inmate artist into a non-labeled art community
such that the label "inmate artist" can be eliminated.