In recent times, many of us have found ourselves in unfamiliar territory trying to shape the formlessness of our days while contending with physical separation. Many incarcerated people, however, have spent years figuring out what to do with their time in isolation. Some turn to faith, while others educate themselves through the literature that is available to them. Then there are those that become artists.
Getting to know many artists confirmed my belief that art making is a basic human activity that gives shape to meaning. In situations of extreme confinement, finding meaning becomes more of a need instead of a want. Most prison artists do not consider making art until they become incarcerated. For many, it is a choice of growth over deterioration. Some musicians also end up facing prison time for actions taken outside of their careers, and have to find a way to grow whilst behind bars.
For others, it can be a matter of life and death. In prison there is not much else to occupy the mind. If they do not find something to do, they would surely all go mad. Does that sound familiar to you? I recall talking to an inmate that was struggling with cancer and he had this to say, “I painted to escape the suffering and the pain,” he told me after he was released from prison. “Ten hours a day, seven days a week, for over seven years. And I overcame cancer.”
This kind of story is not exactly uncommon for those who discover art prison. For example, prisoners like Oliger Merko, who was born in Albania, is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole. He says “it really shakes you up to get that sentence” during an interview at Ionia Maximum Facility in Michigan. “I was totally hopeless, drifting, with no direction. I started thinking more deeply, and when I discovered art, everything opened. Now I paint for three or four hours a day and do not want to stop, even if it is chow time. It is a real second life more than an escape”
To make such a jump into artistic expression demands some basic human capacities that we often overlook but can be brought out under extreme circumstances. One involves finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, a requirement for many prison artists, who lack the financial capabilities for fancy art supplies.
Some would go on to learn that pretty much anything can be worked into a wonderful three-dimensional art object. There have been examples of inmates using toilet paper, glue, soap, cardboard, paper, stones from the yard, plastic lids, and bottles. It is amazing what us humans can do when we have very few options.
Many prison artists cultivate the ability to focus for extended periods of time. This discipline is a way to resist the monotony and violence of prison life. For instance, John Bone learned to draw by doing hundreds of drawings in his cell, sometimes working 16 hours a day, observing every detail of his environment. His scrutiny of something with no obvious beauty – coupled with laser attention to tonal values and spatial structure of his drawings, resulted in some impressive work.
There is freedom these artists can access in the choices they make about content, materials, marks, colours, shapes, texture, and surfaces. The very act of making these choices is a way to reclaim their agency. This is a significant point in a system that treats people like less than human at every avenue.
Overall, prison artists develop a practice in which one work of art leads to another, pointing them toward a path of endlessly unfolding creative output and a feeling of being grounded. To those of us living with stress and frustration during COVID-19 restrictions, these artists demonstrate how to develop an inner space of freedom – and how to live imaginatively and purposefully in a weird new world.