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This inmate drawing on a prison envelope is part of the "Cellblock Visions" exhibit on display at SLU's Brush Art Gallery through mid-April. Photo courtesy Phyllis Kornfeld
This inmate drawing on a prison envelope is part of the "Cellblock Visions" exhibit on display at SLU's Brush Art Gallery through mid-April. Photo courtesy Phyllis Kornfeld

In Canton, "Cellblock Visions" shows off prison inmates' art

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There's an alternative art world flourishing in American prisons. "Cellblock Visions," an exhibit at the Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University this spring, features artwork by inmates from county jails to death row. Curator Phyllis Kornfeld, who has taught art courses in the prison system for more than 30 years, will give a lecture on the exhibit in Griffiths Arts Center, room 123, Tuesday at 7pm.

Todd Moe spoke with Kornfeld, who began her career teaching art in prisons in Oklahoma in 1983 (hear that interview by clicking "listen" above, or read the transcription below.) Today, she works at prisons in Massachusetts. She says even after 30 years, she finds the art created behind bars to be "fresh and amazing". Kornfeld says men and women inmates, having no previous training, turn to art for a sense of self-respect, respect for others and a way to find peace.

View pictures from the exhibit below.

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Reported by

Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

"Ying Yang Man," Ronnie White


"Blending In," Ronnie White


"Spirit Chasers," Faruq Shabazz


 "N.Y. City," George Dyson


"Untitled," Braulio Diez


"F For Fight," George Dyson


Blind Justice," Faruq Shabazz


"Sweet Surrender: Sleep", Ronnie White

Todd's Interview with Phyllis Kornfeld

TM: What are the common themes? Are there common images that the inmates are creating or is it really a wide variety?

PK:  There are really two kinds of art, as I see it, in prisons. There is a fairly small repertoire of images, many of which are based on tattoo flash, and there are certain common folk arts that are based on whatever the available materials are. People come into prison without any experience in looking at art and certainly making art, at least since they were children. So they look around and see what other people are doing and that’s what they do.

There’s no evolution in prison art. There’s not much difference in this aspect of prison art now than there was 30 years ago. In other words the same imagery: They do portraits of famous people, and portraits from snapshots. They do images on envelopes. There are a lot of rainbows and hearts and those kinds of visual clichés, and then there are the more aliens and monsters with fangs, dripping blood sometimes. There is constant repetition.

Then, there is what I call art, which is motivated differently. The art that I’m talking about here is more. It comes from a deeper place in a person. It’s very hard to find that in prison because of the circumstances. But that first day, when I started in Oklahoma, I saw some art that is still some of the best I’ve seen in all these years. They were just created obsessively by certain people for inexplicable reasons. And since I started art programs, I’m always going for that part of them that is yet undiscovered. So they are creating amazingly fresh imagery and it’s unlike most work you would see in galleries. It’s very high quality, but of course they don’t have the time or the materials to do what professional artists can do.

TM: I should tell listeners that you have a website “Cellblock Visions” that includes some of the art you are talking about and testimony from some of the inmates you’ve worked with.  And there are some really poignant comments from them. One of them, I’m paraphrasing here, said "art is the only thing I did in life that I didn’t get in trouble for."

PK: Yeah. Right. And that’s why after 31 years there is not a hint of blowout [for me]. I’m constantly witnessing this transformation and I see people really change. The man you are quoting, Ronnie White, had made art before he came to prison, which came out of sniffing paint and his use of drugs. He was very good with a ballpoint pen and he was doing all the popular subject matter. Then he joined the art class and the work started to deepen, and to change, and develop.

So, the quote that you are talking about is the whole point, in a way, is that these people, most of the people in prison, have seen themselves in a negative light most of their lives.  And it’s also reinforced in prison. What happens when they access a part of themselves that they hadn’t been aware of, which is really pure. They’re suddenly looking at themselves and saying, ‘"wait a minute, I thought I knew who I was but this is coming from me also, and it’s good. It’s beautiful, and it feels good, everybody likes it, and gee, there is a lot more to me than I thought."  And so they begin to lose their old habits and their old ideas of their own unworthiness.

TM: You write that this creativity in the arts stimulates a person’s better nature and that by allowing inmates to do art, it reveals them not as just faceless individuals, but as human beings.

PK: You are talking about the part of it that the public sees. When I give a lecture and do an exhibition, this has a huge effect on the people who are looking at it, because you think about people in prison, you don’t really think about them. In the back of your mind you think they generally deserve to be there and they’ve done bad things, and they sort of don't count in the big picture. And yet, over 95% of the 2.3 million incarcerated, most of them will be released at some point.

We want them to have discovered this potential for doing good and the realization that the limitations that they thought were part of who they are, were incorrect. That they’re not limited. The same thing happens to the public…The thing that is surprising is work of innocence and beauty of someone who has been locked away for 15 or 20 years. The result in the paintings is mysterious when we consider their lives have been so utterly devoid of color and beauty and all kinds of positive feelings, and they've been treated with not a nod to their individuality and their potential.

TM: Do you get wrapped up in the politics? There has been a lot of criticism here in New York about the controversy over whether to give inmates opportunities like college education.

PK: I’ve had the same experience with people about [providing them opportunities to do art]. These people are supposed to be punished and they’re sitting around doing watercolors? What I say to this, in my lectures, is the statistic that I told you. The way that I justify this to people of all political philosophies is this: These people are getting out, and they are going to be coming back into our communities.

We want them to be in better shape when they come out than when they went in. That’s the reason. I’m not talking about art that’s just for the sake of keeping them quiet, and giving them all kinds of privileges and fun.  I think Gov. Cuomo…we’re interested in helping people find the better part of themselves…You can humiliate people and punish, punish, punish, and what happens is they become more and more angry and  more and more enraged.

I totally understand and sympathize with people struggling to put their kids through college. We’ve taken art out of many of our elementary schools and children need that same thing. But as I said, these people are coming back out.

TM: You’ve been doing this now for more than 30 years and I’m curious, is there a joy for you, in this? You mention not feeling burned out on this after 30 years, so there must be some joy in this for you.

PK: Pure joy. Every single class. Last week I went to two men’s medium-high security prisons, and some of the men in my class have been there for 20 years, 30 years. The joy in the classroom is practically palpable. The high spirits, the appreciation, the hunger to learn and to grow.

Even though we are not personal in my class…they know nothing about my personal life…but we respect each other and there is a deep affection that's not necessarily expressed but everybody knows it's there, I personally find it exhilarating. I always think, "I wish the world could see what goes on in this classroom for this hour and a half." It’s almost indescribable. So joy, incredible joy, care, respect…It blows my mind every time, and I’m just as enthusiastic now as I was 30 years ago.

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