Art in Prison

Art in Prison

by Mike Menius

Several years ago, I received a hand written letter from a man who was incarcerated. He had somehow learned that I was serving as chapter president of the Colored Pencil Society of America (San Francisco chapter, which is now the San Jose chapter, DC 210).

“Bill” (not his real name) was incarcerated in a California correctional facility. While there, he took an art class and discovered colored pencils, although art supplies were quite scarce. Bill wanted to know more about colored pencil, because he had become fascinated with the medium.

Bill’s address on the envelope was practically written in code. It was an elaborate PO Box and street location that gave no indication of being a correctional facility. The address certainly was NOT for Bill himself, but only to the facility, where any mail would be carefully reviewed, before any inmate would be permitted to receive mail.

I decided to assemble an art supplies package for Bill. I chose several books by prominent colored pencil artists, including one book by Gary Greene which I had found to be quite helpful. There were also drawing pads, different types of art paper, a couple brands of colored pencils, erasers, sharpeners, etc.

It was a sizable package, loaded with art goodies. It occurred to me that there might be some doubt that this package was legitimate, so on the top of everything was a very official sounding letter, with letterhead and all, saying, “Dear sir: Thank you for your interest in the Colored Pencil Society of America. There is a national organization, and here is the website... There are local chapters all over the country. Enclosed are some materials to assist in becoming more proficient with colored pencils. Sincerely yours…”

Some of my fellow chapters members told me that my efforts had been a waste of time, because prison officials never permit inmates to receive packages – a well intentioned effort, but the materials would ultimately be thrown away.

That was the last I heard, for about three months. One day, another hand written letter arrived, from Bill. He told me, in great detail what had happened. First, he thanked me profusely for the package. He was deeply touched, as well as being thrilled about the art supplies. This is how Bill came to receive the package. One day, Bill was notified to come to the warden’s office. He had no idea why. The warden had the art supply package on his desk, with the letter on top. He told Bill what had happened and that it violated all policies to allow him to receive such a shipment, but the warden was attempting to figure out a way to be flexible, due to the unusual nature of this package.

Bill’s eyes were dazzled by all the goodies there, and he wanted to put them to use.

First, the warden insisted that all books would have to be removed from their binders, to be inspected for weapons, drugs, or other contraband. Bill’s first (internal) reaction was fury, but he held his temper and began to negotiate. The last thing he wanted was for the art books to be turned into a bunch of loose pages. Finally, they hit upon a solution: instead of giving the books to Bill, they would be given to the library, where anyone (including Bill) could go to use them.

There followed a session of item-by-item negotiation, and Bill received a good portion of what was in the package. To his surprise, he was permitted to keep the hand held pencil sharpener, which actually contained a blade, but somehow it went unnoticed. For Bill, this was an emotional and uplifting experience, a gesture of encouragement and hope.

Some time later, I received a final letter from Bill. It enclosed a drawing he had created. It was a rather finished landscape of hills, fields, and farms, probably based on a photo that appealed to him. He said his incarceration would soon be finished. His mother, who was nearby, was helping him make the transition, involving housing, work, and other support services. He didn’t ask me for anything and again thanked me for the package. I wrote back, commending Bill on his drawing, wishing him well with his art work and his future endeavors.

That is the end of the story. There are several things I never knew: 1) his age, 2) his ethnic back ground or 3) the nature of his offense that ended up in incarceration. The entire exchange was person-to-person about art.

I choose to believe that Bill moved forward in his life, with art as an important part. At that difficult time in his life, he saw that he matters to other people.


Mike Menius lives in California wine country.  He works in colored pencil and oils.  He depicts architectural themes, landscapes, and interiors.  A signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America, he has served as past president of the San Jose chapter, formerly the San Francisco chapter, of CPSA.

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Comments (5)

Brilliance Mike. I read from top to bottom. I couldn’t agree more. Art does a very personal thing TO everyone, if it is available FOR everyone- and we aren’t denied access physically or emotionally from it. I too was is an art confiscation scenario- where an individual denied me to learn or express- jealousy and control……we cherish it even more when we finally find it again. Warmly Karina

Karina Griffiths - May 26, 2017

Mike and Karina, thank you both for sharing. Your personal stories and insight remind us that cp/art is a great equalizer. I personally love that through the cp groups online, I am able to make connections and connect with artists from Australia, Malaysia, UK and Baghdad. Regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, color, and nationality, art is art. We as artist of varying levels of competency/expertise and experience each have something to contribute as well as something to gain from the process and the product. When we share with others, we perpetuate our love of art and help to give it life. Thank you again for sharing.

Linda Lilja - May 26, 2017

Loved this story Mike. I too envision “Bill” going on to lead a productive life, and who knows maybe we will see his work show up in the wonderful coloured pencil community that we have.

Sherry Telle - May 26, 2017

My son is in prison and he has rediscovered his talent, he only did computer programming before. He is a wonderful portraitist and he is learning to use colored pencil. I have bought his supplies for him and yes they are limited to how many pencils and other equipment they can have. He has lots of questions regarding colored pencil and I try to answer them. They are not on the computer, they can have a few books which must be ordered from Amazon and supplies must be ordered from Dick BLICK at his location. I would suggest that those of you who can please donate art to books to the prison libraries. It would be of great help to the prisoners. I also subscribe to Drawing and The Artists magazine for him. These and other art magazines would be great for their libraries. We all want prisoners to get out and live productive lives.

Louella Davis - May 26, 2017

My son is incarsurated with a life sententance. Everthough the tragic curcumstances he has always been a very sweet person.
While outside he was busy raising his daughters and didnt dabble in art but now with nothing but time on his hands has become quite good at drawing. To make cards to send to our family he has to find whatever paper he can and supplies. I need to find out what he may have

Donna Schaffer - May 26, 2017

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