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.
See more from Mike at http://www.mikemenius.com