Interesting Ideas

Insider Art

When the Stateville prison art program puts on a public show, the result is a rich jumble of ideas and visions.

These artists have incentive and focus that few others experience: Art is one of the few productive endeavors available to them, and it's almost a bad joke to say they have plenty of time to concentrate on it. "I got to find some kind of way to occupy myself instead of just laying back deteriorating," says inmate Arkee Chaney.

(Like all the quotes here, this is drawn from interviews originally done for the Chicago Tribune.)

How significant are the crimes that put these men in prison? It's reasonable to feel a little curious, but in the context of their prolific creativity, the question doesn't seem all that pressing, more like wondering about a colleague's salary. It seems good manners not to ask.

For their part, the artists in the Stateville program reject the focus on crime and notoriety that identifies prison art with, for example, the clown paintings of John Wayne Gacy, which are novelty items interesting for their associations, not their content.

"I've done a lot of mistakes in my life. But I'm not evil," says Hector Maisonet. "I'm trying to show the outside people my real inside."

These inmate-artists are serious about their work. They show in person an eloquence and a passion that clearly reflect long hours thinking on what they are and what they're doing.

What they are cannot be simplistically defined as outsider. They don't necessarily possess the privileged access to the unconscious or to the alternate realities that are typically ascribed to the insane. And their isolation is clearly different than that, say, of a rural woodcarver. The Stateville program has an artist-in-residence--Jeff Whitfield--to teach technique, and the guys have each other to draw from, which they certainly do.

"I was more of a realist until I saw [Harvey] Ford's work," says Ulysses Jacobs. He drew a little before he got to Stateville, Jacobs says. But then the "older guys taught me how to work the charcoals, the oil paints."

Still, the inmates clearly are outside the mainstream art world--indeed, outside mainstream society--and the range of styles, quirkiness of technique and intensity of vision they display bear a strong affinity to the wholly personal imagination and ingenuity that are the hallmarks of outsider art.

Here are some of the Stateville artists who stand out for the individuality and sophistication of their work, though they are not, by any means, the only ones making serious art:

*Hector Maisonet is the most successful of the Stateville group, with several of his ceramic pieces recently appearing in a show at Carl Hammer Gallery, "Caminos Revelatorios," and in "Eureka! Recent Discoveries from Intuit Members' Collections."

Maisonet's output reflects the remarkable range these artists display. Side by side you can find a tropical vignette, a portrait of a lady in traditional garb and a depiction of prison life, each in a completely distinct style: the first picture lush and brightly colored, the second dark and dignified, the third stark, schematic. What you're seeing is the not-inconsiderable feat of making pictures that appeal both to aficionados of outsider art and to folks who just want a painting for the living room.

"I got things up here you wouldn't believe," says Maisonet, pointing to his head. "There's no limitation to art."

Maisonet's ceramic pieces, perhaps his most interesting work, combine seemingly divergent energies within a single object. The little prisoner's cells that he creates inside lidded jars have almost the quality of cartoons with their rounded edges and the feeling that they are liable to burst into motion before your eyes. Yet they unblinkingly depict ever-present isolation and threat of violence.

"You get into your own type of reality," Maisonet says, ernest and articulate. "This is a drug to me, especially when I create.

*Harvey Ford is a big man who washes dishes in the prison cafeteria when he isn't making art, but it's not often that he isn't. He draws all the time, he says, even between plates.

"You never quit looking. You sit there, look at a blank piece of paper, take a photo of your mind and wait for your hands" to go to work.

The result, he explains, is "something in a different dimension.

"...Anybody can draw a straight line. But you got to bring it to life, to make the straight line do something different.... You got to put yourself into that picture. If you don't, you got what everyone else does, a plain old flat picture."

Ford, who also had pieces in the Intuit show, often draws with burnt matches, though he works with pastels and watercolors as well to create his expressionistic pictures, boxes and boxes of them, backed with cardboard and wrapped in plastic.

Certain themes recur: dancing figures, singly or in pairs, that look like bundles of veins and muscles; pyramids; crosses; half moons ("A half moon to me is sexy.... My intercourse drawings, I throw in half moons to remind me of it."). The pictures, many abstract, really do look like they're portraying a different world.

"I'll never be able to finish the abstract," he says, "because there's so much you can do."

*Ulysses Jacobs, like Maisonet still a young man, also like Maisonet displays enormous variations in style. His black-and-white portraits of celebrities and sports stars could pass for commercial art--though perhaps they show more life than the typical magazine illustration. His more hard-nosed scenes include "The Ghetto," a painting of a child dribbling a basketball on a rubble-strewn court, alone, with rundown tenements and a yellow sky filling the background.

"Art gets you through," says Jacobs. "Your art work to you is like a diamond to a woman. It's a precious thing."

After being transferred out of Stateville to a more desirable medium-security facility, Jacobs, who says he copes with insomnia by painting through the night in his cell, cajoled his way back to be in the art program.

*Quinten Smith also is accomplished in his technique. His pastels are convincing, whether portraying street life, religious joy or everyday shapes. In "The Backrooms," faceless figures pass through a bare, flatly lit space defined by stairs and doorways: a man with a guitar, one with a cane, a woman standing in an open doorway, other figures stepping into or out of the frame. "Raising Glory" has almost a WPA feel as a woman lifts her arms in praise, the sun sending its rays down amidst nearly angelic clouds.

*Arkee Chaney started making pictures only a couple of years ago, after trying ceramics. "I didn't know how to draw," he says. But "when I started to do serious drawings, I found out I was a serious artist."

Chaney is another whose style varies widely, as does his medium. His pictures can contain biting social messages--"White Man Justice" shows a professorial judge with four black men hung behind him--or sometimes they just portray pretty scenes. Chaney also makes lots of ceramics, like the boxes and jars whose lids are decorated with expressive, though enigmatic, faces.

"The more I explore, the more I find out that I can do," he says. "It gives me a godlike quality, when I'm creating."

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