Art in the Big House

Art in the Big House

by Alison Philpott

All my life I’ve had an artist’s heart. No matter what was going on in life I have escaped to the solitude and peace of my drawing.

A few years ago the time was right to expand my horizons and I wanted to start giving back using my art. That’s when I was introduced to a medium security correctional institution not far from where I live. Little did I know that my first tour in that grey, colorless, monotonous place surrounded by guard towers, chain link and razor wire, would lead to something I cherish.

Upon realizing there was no art program in this institution I tried to imagine what it would be like having no opportunity for visual art. Ugh, I couldn’t even imagine it. So began months of security clearance and letter writing, explaining the proven benefits of art in terms of rehabilitation. Finally the puzzle pieces were in place and permission was granted.

An example of a work in progress by an inmate just learning to paint with a steady hand.

That first class was a learning curve for me as I had never taught a class before. The prison had never sanctioned anything like this before and few of the inmates had ever attended an art class before. I had no idea what interest there would be, or the level of expertise the participants would have. It turned out, in every class we had everything from experienced artists to those who hadn’t had an art lesson since primary school! So flexibility on my part was crucial to a successful class!

This work in progress is by an inmate working out a logo for a business he wants to start after he is released.

They have special permission to keep their projects at their “house”. Those plus the certificate of completion each of them receives are all reminders of the positive time in class. I have them imagine their perfect day, and paint it. Or to think of a favorite word and illustrate it, a word that they can bring to mind when trouble happens around them to help them keep out of it. The word freedom or the name of a child is popular.

The class covers whatever the participants are interested in. Sometimes it’s color theory or portraiture while calligraphy is always popular. I always love to introduce them to colored pencil and to watch their fascination at what this medium can do.

Each class has some element of instruction after which they work on their own projects putting what they’ve learned to the test. Some of them prefer to work quietly in their own zone, while others ask questions and want feedback. They chat about their families, their lives, their plans after they are released…while they chat I’ve learned a thing or two about how to hunt and prepare venison, and about the culture of aboriginal people among other things. It’s relaxed and quiet while they focus and try new things. They are doing something positive and it is a wonderful sight to behold when the light bulb goes on in their minds. They sit back and gaze at their project as if to say, “I made that! Wow.”

Without art these moments would never happen. I think of one in particular who became a prolific painter, and continues to paint since his release. And another who discovered he had a creative mind without ever knowing it before the class. How does one get to middle age without knowing they are a creative?

Some of these inmates are hardened criminals, but many of them are the same age or younger than my own sons. They are the ones who break my heart. What brought them to this place? Murder, fraud, drug related crimes? I rarely know what any of them did.

This inmate wanted specifically to learn Haida Art using the grid system to enlarge a small reference image.

I’m often asked if I am ever afraid. I can resoundingly say never. I actually feel safer there than many other times out on the street. I do have visible ID, there are cameras, nearby guards and I have device with a big red button on it for emergencies!! Aside from that though, the men love their volunteers because often we are their only link to the outside world and we are there because we want to be. I am always greeted warmly and with respect. They never allow me to carry supplies or tables and as the weeks go by one of them may offer to make me a cup of coffee. These may be unremarkable things in the outside world, but for some of these men to think of offering to do something for someone else is sometimes a big step for them.

My time on the inside is time well spent and I treasure these classes and those who attend. If I influence even one of them in some small way for the good then I am more than happy.


About Alison:

Alison Philpott studied commercial art, taught herself colored pencil, is a contributing member of a local art group and has won international awards as well as having completed commissions on three continents. One of her greatest joys is teaching an art class in a nearby prison.

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