WHY CREATE ART?
An essay by Kalen McAllister, founder of Inside Dharma and
Chaplain at Farmington Correctional Institution
Why create art? What drives some to paint, draw, sculpt, write, perform, dance, or play an instrument? What is the force that drives people to create art in some of the most hostile environments where there are no tools, instruction, and appreciation is so limited ?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but they relate to artwork created in one of the world’s darkest places. Negativity, hopelessness, lack of privacy, lack of materials and even lack of color surrounds the prison artists 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The weeks stretch into years and years into decades for many of these people. And yet, the drive to create art continues.
To truly appreciate prison art, one needs to remember the environment in which this art is created. With the ink from ballpoint pens, the inmates manage to create tattoos on each other’s bodies. Tattoos require strong simple lines; there’s little room for shading. The subject is foremost. You see it, you get it, you move on. In prison there are only black tattoos. No colorful dragons or flowers like you see on the outside. Since there is a strong pecking order in prison, the images are often powerful. Although tattooing is illegal in prison, a majority of inmates carry this artwork proudly.
The portrait artist is truly respected in prison. Since most inmates spend a great deal of their time thinking about their loved ones on the outside, a drawing of them is valued highly. Portrait artists make good money. usually charging $2 to $5 a portrait (cigarettes, food items, stamps, clothing, etc. are used as a means of exchange rather than cash). I think the only other person that makes so much in “tips” is the prison barber. A good haircut, will cost you at least a couple of cigarettes. (Recently I took a just released woman to get her first haircut in over 10 years. On the way, she asked me how many cigarettes she should give to the stylist.) So a lot of the art Inside Dharma receives is portraits – usually famous people seen on television or in magazines or religious leaders. One year we had about 10 drawings of the Dali Lama donated to the art auction.
Other artists are very creative with materials. We have one artist that makes tiny scenes out of the most unusual items. He takes half a walnut and places tiny people inside and adds steps, etc. He also makes room scenes inside plastic cassette boxes complete with candles, overhead fans, fireplaces, people, rugs, etc. Once he couldn’t get walnuts, so he carved people into peach seeds. This year he made little guitars out of the wooden spoons that come with ice cream.
One man in Texas unraveled his white socks with the black band on the top edge. He crocheted the string to make a larger strand and then created a tiny Buddha. He used the black string for the robe and the white for the face. The tiny hands were in a gassho or bowing gesture. The entire Buddha is about 1.5 inches!
Soap can be carved into unique items and dyed with coffee. I heard about one man who made motorcycles out of toilet paper that were exactly to scale. However, (as the story goes) the correctional officers confiscated them saying the toilet paper was State property.
We’ve received beadwork of beautiful animals from Native Americans that shows incredible patience and skill.. The borders that hold the work together are #2 pencils.
Each year there is a man in Kentucky who creates a large paper mache sculpture and mails it to us at great cost.
It is amazing what can be used to create art. Some art may appear rustic or simple, but if we look more deeply we may be surprised (and delighted) by the ingenuity of the design and materials used.
One artist who drew and painted numerous motorcycles which were very good, but a closer look revealed that in the tiny review mirror was a police officer in his car with the lights on and, I am, sure sirens blaring!.
Nature scenes reflect a longing for the peacefulness of being outside in the wilderness and are chocked full of remembrances of an earlier time. Pay attention to what is in the painting or not in the painting. Likewise there are often many animal portraits. some so realistic you can almost sense them
The donations in this show are given from the heart. We receive letter after letter about how the artist was going to send this picture to a friend or loved one, but after reading about our work decided they wanted to help by donating their art to the auction. Many times they spend their entire monthly income to ship their work to us. We use the money we receive to purchase clothing for those coming out. Some of those who donate will never be released and take advantage of our services, but want to give so others can be supported on the outside.
Please enjoy the artwork and remember those who have created these wonderful pieces and the amazing creativity and generosity that brings
this art to us.