Interesting Ideas

Inmate Artists' Hard-Fought Visions

Prison artists are textbook outsiders, creating apart from the art world, with little or no formal training, under unsupportive conditions. They're also outsiders whose work typically amounts to cliche and bland imitation.

Noble Indians, sinewy basketball players, jungle animals, rugged princess warriors, pretty landscapes, celebrity portraits, fantasy beefcake: Most prisoners who try their hand at art make the same kind of uninspired, tediously rendered stuff that is liable to result from the artistic efforts of any more or less random population with time on its hands.

That should be no surprise. Labels like "prison art" and "outsider art" are essentially biographic. They don't demonstrate aesthetic distinction because they say nothing specific about actual work.

They're great for leveraging eccentric life circumstances, however, which can bring charm to work of modest quality while making more challenging material more marketable. It's no coincidence that many of the big names in the outsider field, whether Adolf Wolfli, Henry Darger, Bill Traylor, Howard Finster or any number of other artists, would be interesting even if their art were less so.

When it comes to the work of prisoners, bizarre biographies are even more liable to overwhelm sensible aesthetic judgment. Mass murderer John Wayne Gacy's paintings of clowns, Disney characters and other tired subjects, created with no special imagination, were of note only because of Gacy's horrendous crimes. But they brought both high prices and public condemnation as his execution neared in 1994. Richard Speck, the prototypical American mass killer who died in 1991, allegedly took cigarettes to sign his name to others' pictures, which then sold for a premium.

Hector Maisonet prison art ceramic sculpture
But just as clearly creative outsiders have their work roped in with labored imitations of eccentricity -- or the merely quaint -- the efforts of the notorious and the bored are not all there is to prison art.

Raymond Materson's miniature tapestries woven from disassembled socks have received well-deserved attention in Raw Vision and elsewhere. Michael Harms' tiny chairs of Ivory soap are as far from stillborn still lives as West Virginian S.L. Jones' idiosyncratic carvings are from the kitsch sold at country crafts stores across the U.S. Such cases of intensely personal talent in fact make labels like prison and outsider seem superfluous -- except that they define audiences, or expand them, for artists who might otherwise have a hard time gaining an outlet.

They also reflect meaningful conditions under which art is made. Life circumstances, bizarre or not, do have an enormous effect on the character of an artist's work (though not by any necessity a favorable one). Prison reality, including boredom, the drive to escape the oppressiveness of the cellhouse, and severely restricted tools and materials, clearly are enabling for certain sorts of work to be produced. Materson and Harms prison experience is directly relevant to the one's unraveled socks, the other's laboriously sculpted soap.

In fact, prison art shares with self-taught outsider art key qualities that do give such labels meaning. Most important, there is the extent to which style and technique are not simply choices made by these artists but the culmination of a (usually) lonely struggle to express. When that struggle is a success, the creativity doesn't just come through in the surface of the work. It's embedded in every stage of the process, every technical or formal step and every expressive variation -- each a blank-slate creative plunge by the untrained artist. When choices are made they are hard-fought and thus, one likes to think, more credible.

Arkee Chaney, until recently an inmate at Illinois's Stateville prison, is a case study of that struggle. With messages in mind and the will to try every possible way to express them, Chaney is voracious in his stylistic consumption. His paintings, drawings and sculptures pour forth in dozens of styles, whether he is copying well-known imagery, echoing the work of colleagues in the prison art program or trying to invent a unique look and feel. In one man's work it's easy to see the best and the worst of inmate art.

Ray Materson prison art needlepoint
Michael Harms prison art soap carving

Chaney's output includes paintings, drawings, jewelry, clay jars and ceramic sculptures. Some pieces are as simple as an unembellished green turtle the size of an ashtray. More elaborate is a clay pyramid whose top lifts off to reveal hieroglyphics, a tiny sarcophagus with its own lid, and burial detritus.

Many pieces echo African tribal art, with masklike faces molded into the tops of jars, set within a silver ceramic cage or adorning pendants. Growth in Chaney's skill can be seen in a piece that shows a white man in a stars-and-stripes tie sitting on a globe that is carried on the back of a kneeling black man. The finish is sophisticated, the modeling smooth.

Pointed subject matter turns up often in Chaney's best narrative work. Some pictures show innocuous urban street scenes past and present or bucolic images of cotton-picking. But many evoke lynching, slavery, poverty and other outrages. Carefully executed, these pictures are usually colorful, but dark. Sometimes their messages can be complex, such as one picture that shows a school yard, a bar and a church. It's called "Three Deadly Forces," and it expresses a critique that blasts all three institutions.

For artists like Chaney, creating is a way of asserting the self, of finding validation in a hostile environment, of doing something that is of value.

"The more I explore, the more I find out that I can do. It gives me a godlike quality, when I'm creating," he said in a 1991 interview with this writer for the Chicago Tribune "I got to find some kind of way to occupy myself instead of just laying back deteriorating."

There also is the urge, common to all artists, just to communicate. Said Hector Maisonet, then in Stateville's art program with Chaney: "I've done a lot of mistakes in my life, but I'm not evil. I'm trying to show the outside people my real inside."

Evil is a relative term, of course. Some of the artists mentioned in this article (though not Maisonet) are in prison for murder. To come to terms with prison art requires addressing or evading the question of how intimately an artist's character adds value to or detracts from his or her work. Specifically, to what extent does an extreme act of immorality contaminate everything the person creates?

"The whole idea of no redemption is such an un-Christian thing," art dealer Phyllis Kind told the Tribune in 1994, adding that "nobody ever has proved that genius and niceness go together."

Most serious inmate artists (and their collectors) prefer to focus on vision and expression rather than crime: What they did or didn't do is of less interest than what they are doing now -- or at least that view is required to make the work palatable. But it can still be unsettling to be swayed by the expressive vision of someone who is at the very least severely troubled and, in many cases, is not a good person by conventional standards.

That is the power of the best prison art, however. It is a measure of an artist's talent that he or she is able to create objects of beauty not only out of limited physical resources, but also out of the impoverished spiritual material of the prison environment and the often-compromised raw material of their own life history.

The individuality and aesthetic coherence of work by people like Frank Jones or Henry Ray Clark not only puts it clearly within the bounds of outsider art, but also involves a kind of transformation that gives the art objects an integrity apart from the moral status of their creators. When a piece of prison art achieves transcendence, it seems all the more significant, even poignant, because of the artist's situation, which cries out for that transcendence even as it seems to exclude it.

Not all prison art involves such artistic high ground, of course. Even putting aside from consideration the stuff that is just dreck, some interesting inmate work still falls into that class of curiosities that really are of interest mostly because of their weirdness or badness, or for biographic reasons -- simply because they were produced out of the blue by people with no art training or background.

Arkee Chaney prison art ceramic sculpture
Arkee Chaney prison art painting
Arkee Chaney prison art painting
Arkee Chaney prison art painting

That is, art can be interesting without being great, or even transcendent. Much of the best prison art comes out of long-standing inmate craft traditions rather than exceptional personal vision. The clever horsehair belts and other weavings at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge reflect logistical exigencies that have shaped prison creativity for decades. Similarly, folded cigarette-wrappers, tooled leather and matchstick constructions seem to relate more to time-bending activities like whittling or knitting then to the idiosyncratic ideas of their creators.

But they can nonetheless be marvels of both make-do craftsmanship and seat-of-the-pants product design. The elaborate matchstick jewelry boxes made by prisoners in the Michigan system, for example, echo tramp art with their impressive massing effects and often-intricate patterning in the wood. (The "matchsticks" are typically cut from larger pieces of wood to simulate the now mostly vanished smoking items.)

Maceo Willis takes prison materials -- matchsticks, cardboard, pictures clipped from magazines -- and turns them into intricate and idiosyncratic sculptures. Willis, an inmate at Illinois' Stateville prison, builds miniature roller coasters out of wood and cardboard, decorating them with magazine ads. These can cover up to a couple of square feet and rise 10 inches or so in Willis' effort to create a realistic scale model.

Another Willis piece is a detailed matchstick diesel locomotive which, like some of the roller coasters, comes in a presentation case of plastic-covered cardboard that folds up into a box for bookshelf storage. A paper insert in the box explains the history of the locomotive, while another sheet gives a day-by-day account of the model's construction ("Sunday 7:00 AM Paint wheels; address card; price it; done") as well as measurements of the model and its parts.

Willis' art-making has been disrupted by nearly continuous lockdowns at Stateville that has made it impossible to get supplies, he says.

Prison wrapper art
Aldo Vicuna, a Peruvian formerly in the Michigan prison system., takes matchstick construction a step further. His buildings and shrines are reminiscent of the birdhouses and matchstick churches that are longtime folk- and prison-art staples. But his intensely decorative efforts start them on the road to idiosyncratic extravagance (and to standing as compelling art). Open the door to one of his churches -- a breadbox-sized sanctuary encrusted with pebbles and glitter, topped by a bell tower and starburst cross and flanked by a pair of devotional alcoves-- and you hear a tinny rendition of "It's a Small World After All" as small diodes flash from the facade. Vicuna's creativity powers a compelling mix of the spiritual, the rustic and the kitschy.

Vicuna also builds shrines to love. Some involve pebble- or glitter-encrusted hearts mounted on pedestals, with a picture pasted on the front of the heart (in one case it's Santa Claus, but usually it's a couple). A more elaborate example has a large box for a base, decorated with the phrase "You and Me" in glitter. A pair of cutout hearts joined by an arrow rests over a framed picture of a couple in graduation garb, and flowers decorate the whole.

Michigan inmate Thomas Lathrop's hand-tooled leather wallets seem like conventional prison craft until you look closely at his images -- demonic clowns that appear to be tearing their way out of the leather. Lathrop achieves a creepiness not often seen in the prison art that makes it outside. Decorated with a rainbow of colors, these evil faces draw out the monstrosity that clown-haters find implicit in the purportedly friendly figures.

They also reflect a hard-edged vision that isn't always shared with outsiders. Most inmate artists seem more attuned to escaping their environment than capturing it. Even pieces with prison themes, though not infrequent, are the exception, and explicit sex and violence are even rarer.

Whatever the content, the ingenuity prisoners use to transform prosaic materials into art is consistently impressive. Delfino Maciel, formerly an inmate in a New Mexico penitentiary, rolls colored paper into long, tight tubes and then gathers them together to create colorful, elaborately patterned picture frames. Sammy Vigil, a New Mexico inmate, folds cigarette wrappers into pins, crosses, frames and other objects. It's a common prison art form, but Vigil has a distinctive style, creating striking abstract patterns based on repetition of portions of images and colors from Camel wrappers.

The creations of Vigil and other paper folders represent another echo of the obsessive workmanship of tramp art. The would-be Chinese immigrants incarcerated in 1993 after their ship, the Golden Venture, ran aground in New York may have brought the art form to its zenith. Their efforts, detailed in the Summer 1996 Folk Art magazine, are extraordinarily complex in their color patterns, subject matter and construction. The works included animals, boats, fruits, vases and other objects and in part reflect the competitive efforts of the artists to outdo one another.

Still another classic prison craft involves liquefying toilet paper or bread and using it as a kind of papier maiche. Timothy Duncan, another New Mexico prisoner, molds and paints toilet-paper-derived dough and covers it with glitter to create delicate fantasy images that include dragons and mermaids as well as religious pieces such as a Madonna in a glitter-covered cape attended by several angels.

Aldo Vicuna prison art sculpture
Aldo Vicuna prison art sculpture
Timothy Duncan prison art sculpture
Michigan inmate Chip Jarrett uses cardboard, soap, paper clips and other found objects to make elaborate and realistic models of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, which were included in the American Visionary Art Museum's "Wind in My Hair" show.

In a letter to Lynne Bailey, who collects and sells prison art, Jarrett describes how he came to make his bikes. He was depressed after the death of his mother, he wrote.

"I went to bed that night, dreading the fact that I had to get up for another day of heartbreak.

"The next morning, I went to dump the trash can from my room, and I had a vision that hit me like a ton of bricks!! I know this sounds crazy, but I couldn't help to wonder why I was throwing away all that good trash. I ... brought the trash back to my room and started to piece together something. Maybe it was just that I was bored and needed something to do, or maybe God planted a seed in me, but the product of the things from that garbage can was something I loved in my life and something that always allowed me to feel free.... the product of my first motorcycle made out of trash with a gas tank made out of a bar of soap!!"

Later, Jarrett wrote, "When I started making my bikes, I would go through the trash everyday looking for materials and the other guys used to laugh at me and make fun of me, but after seeing that first bike, they stopped making fun of me and started asking if they could get one."

The best inmate work is not delimited by prison conditions -- which includes extracting art materials from the trash -- but reflects them mostly as points of departure. Michael Harms started to carve before entering Stateville in 1991, but he certainly never would have wound up "cutting soap," as he calls his work, otherwise. Perhaps he would not have begun producing work of such astonishingly refined detail, either. In Harms' work prison craft becomes the medium through which the artist expresses himself.

Chip Jarrett prison art motorcycle models
Chip Jarrett prison art motorcycle models
Chip Jarrett prison art motorcycle models

Here is Harms' own explanation, in a letter: "My work isn't associated with guns, violence or bizarre stuff. It isn't meant to be. It's not made and I never learned it just because I'm in prison. The only difference is the mediums.

"I'm not impressed with my work because I know what I can do with the proper materials. . . . Now I'm just hindered."

Despite Harms' diffidence, his chairs, none more than a couple of inches high, are marvels not only of craftsmanship, but also of concentration. The intense focus the chairs embody is all the more exceptional because of the extent to which prison conditions -- the constant noise, the cellmates, the cell shakedowns by guards -- intrude upon the creative process.

Made from Ivory soap with a pair of sewing needles, the chairs' intricate lattice work, floral designs and geometric patterns would be exceptionally ornate even at full size. Harms houses them in richly finished display cases that he cuts out of Popsicle sticks with nail clippers. He colors the wood with a stain extracted from rusty steel wool and tinted with colored pencil, achieving surfaces that mimic fine veneers.

Harms, who is now at another Illinois prison, equips each of his chairs with an index card that records the number of pieces in the chair (usually around 30 to 60), the number of hours it took to make it, the pieces and hours that went into the display box, and other information, including care instructions. One example, a chair finished May 6, 1994, contains 49 pieces and took 21 hours. The materials are Ivory soap (the "state soap" doesn't work for carving, he says), white glue, acrylic and varnish. The display case has 48 pieces and took 17 hours to build using Popsicle sticks, white glue and plastic. The rose that sits on the chair has 34 pieces and took three hours. It was made from an emulsion of colored pencil shavings, water and glue.

Sometimes the figures are staggering. One chair is surrounded by a garland of roses that contains "approx. 300 leaves, roses (42)." It took 120 hours to make and, all told, contains 1,146 pieces.

Harms' chairs retail for $175 and up, which is on the high end for prison work, if not as pricey as Materson's tiny tapestries, which run in the four figures. Materson has continued his miniature weaving, though he is now out of prison - an achievement that eludes many inmate artists.

Although Harms started making his chairs at Stateville, where there was an active art program, he, like the Michigan prisoners, has mostly worked on his own. There is no formal art program at their facilities to encourage their efforts, though the Michigan prison system has helped provide outlets with a prison store in Marquette and a policy that lets inmates sell their work.

Inmate artists are at the mercy of state law. Indiana, for example, forbids the sale of inmate artworks. In Illinois, which first allowed inmates to sell to the public in 1966, 10 percent of art sales goes into a general fund that provides for inmate leisure activities. The other 90 percent goes into the artist's prison account, where it can be used in the prison store or for other approved purposes, including the purchase of art supplies.

In most cases the amount of money at stake is not enormous, perhaps $1,500 or so a year for a successful artist. Though not a huge sum, it is still significant -- in financial terms and in the public recognition it represents. The prospect of sales is a powerful incentive to be prolific.

That's if an inmate can produce work. Arkee Chaney has been transferred out of Stateville to a facility that does not have a kiln.

Hector Maisonet's socially charged ceramic sculptures of cells and other prison themes have been shown at Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago and Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York, among other venues. His miniature cellblocks at least partly reflect the fact that when he made them he was incarcerated at Stateville penitentiary. Its core is a 19th century prison build on philosopher Jeremy Bentham's panopticon model, which places a central tower in the heart of a large round hall with several floors of cells. But now Maisonet is doing time at a downstate Illinois prison where there is no kiln.

Even at Stateville conditions for making art are not good. A rise in prison violence the last few years has brought about extended lockdowns in which prisoners are confined to their cells. That effectively shuts down the art program, which is ironic, since art activities appear to improve inmate behavior, both in prison and outside.

A 1987 study by the California Department of Corrections Research Unit found that "six months after parole, Arts-in-Corrections participants show an 88 percent favorable outcome rate (did not return to prison) as compared to a 72.5% rate for all CDC parolees.... Two years after release 69.2 percent of the Arts-in-Corrections parolees retained their favorable status as compared to a 42 percent level for all CDC releases." Another California study shows improved behavior inside the walls as well.

The Stateville program, according to its former director, Jeff Whitfield, had a similar effect on its members, though that might also reflect Whitfield's efforts to keep troublemakers out of his classes. The program, which grew out of a signmaking program in the 1950s, had significant successes in earlier years, but also some ups and downs.

Whitfield, in an essay that appeared in the Intuit newsletter in 1993, remembers when he first entered the art studio 10 years earlier: "Macramé nets hung from the ceiling and mosaic tiles lay incomplete in the room. Remnants of hook latch rugs and colored sand jars indicated the past direction of the program after" Joliet artist John Hudak's departure as chief in the 1970s. "A kiln ... stood in the corner, brand new but covered with dust."

Whitfield recalled that "the serious artists were attempting to protect the last few bits of the real art program started by Hudak, not wanting it changed by another artsy-craftsy ... instructor."

Whitfield, an artist himself, set out to encourage alternatives to "the typical 'Holiday Inn' [art] that portrayed cute puppy dogs and landscapes that were common to prison art." His program focused on real artistic expression and the teaching of basic skills rather than strictly recreation, a focus reflected in the quality of work produced by the inmates he led before departing in 1996 for another job at the prison.

Though a prison art program like Whitfield's is not likely to be rigorous enough to constitute formal training, it can "teach [inmates] about different media, so they have more access to expressing ideas," says Chicagoan Lynne Bailey, who has collected prison art for years and five years ago began dealing in it. "I think they're encouraged by other artists working. And extra attention is always a good thing."

Michael Harms prison art soap carvings
Michael Harms prison art soap carvings
Harvey Ford's work testifies to Whitfield's success in encouraging personal expression. Ford is the kind of compulsive visionary who might create work despite the absence of a supportive environment. But without the art program and the outlet to the public it offered, it's unlikely his highly idiosyncratic, sometimes difficult, creations would have got beyond his cell walls, much less found a constituency among art buyers and space, along with Maisonet and other prison colleagues, in the 1997 show Outsider Art: An Exploration of Chicago Collections at the Chicago Cultural Center.

But Chicago-area collectors snapped up the prolific Ford's work for years at Stateville's semi-annual art sales. His visionary drawings -- hundreds and hundreds of them, all laden with a stable of symbols and often-abstract imagery -- are executed on paper, usually with the carbon from burnt matches as his principal material, though he sometimes uses pastels or acrylics as well. As often as not they show a pair of naked, expressionistically rendered dancing figures, in many instances with a sort of lumpy pyramid in the background.

Ford also has experimented in three dimensions, including unglazed, painted ceramic plates whose images echo the figures in the drawings, though he applies brighter colors to the plates. He also has made hand-formed vases in the same material and similar colors.

Other sculptures are essentially blobs of foot-high papier-mache-dipped cardboard affixed to Styrofoam bases and painted in Pollack-esque dribbles and splotches. Like all of Ford's work, each has a title, usually enigmatic. "Mountain of Beautyness," one of the blobs is called; another is "Neighborhood Watcher."

The physically imposing Ford is clearly wrapped up in his visions. He draws all the time, he told the Tribune in 1991, even between washing plates in the prison cafeteria. In that interview he also tried to explain his work: "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 said, 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."

Most photos courtesy Lynne Bailey/art From the Inside.

Other writings on prison art (forgive the redundancy):
Michael Harms: Best seats in the house
Stateville artists

Harvey Ford prison art drawings
Harvey Ford prison art drawings
Harvey Ford prison art drawings
Harvey Ford prison art drawings

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