It’s raining and Oola and I are in Sonora in California’s mother lode to visit a friend from my Prison Arts days, Stacy Hay. All during the leisurely drive up here on Hwy 120 I had time to remember my past many trips on this road and to note the changes – mostly bigger little towns and more subdivisions.
I made a point of stopping at Knight’s Ferry on the Stanislaus River, a place I had passed by so many times in the past (thinking I should go there sometime when I had more time, or when it was not so brutally hot). There Oola and I discovered a tidy State recreation area. And she noted that there is something strikingly melancholy about picnic grounds in the rain.
But Oola enjoyed her walk across the longest covered bridge in the State, and I found out that bridges are covered to make their wooden construction last longer. Wood can remain perfectly preserved under water, but will disintegrate in cycles of wet and dry. There must be a homily in there somewhere.
As we got closer to Jamestown my spine began to creep with the memories of working as an artist in the State Prison there, something that I 1) would recommend to all artists, 2) would never do again, but 3) am glad that I did. Surreal is a kind word for it.
For several years Stacy and I were Artist Facilitators (Fine Arts Administrators/teachers) and as such brought writers, visual artists, actors, dancers, and musicians into the prison to teach their skills to our inmates.
Artist Facilitators were a strange, efficient, compassionate, tough-minded, energetic, firm, knowledgeable, stressed, and inventive breed of artist. They had people with NEEDS (inmates, staff, supervisors, and family) pulling on them from all directions. They worked hard to make positive things happen in a (racist, sterile, hellish, and human) place few can imagine who have not been there.
I know that many of the institution staff where I worked thought I was bringing “milk and cookies” to the inmates. But I know that through the arts small miracles happened: that (at least in the moment) racism was overcome, that inmates kept out of trouble, and they kept trouble from happening in my program — because I had all the colored pencils and they wanted access to those colored pencils. And I also know that — through the arts — some lives were changed.
Stacy and I dealt with inmates who appreciated/needed our efforts, and we worked with jerks. I always said that I did not want to know my students’ crimes. Nor could I be responsible for their futures. As an artist I worked with individuals in the moment when they had the opportunity through the art form to be the best human being they could be at that moment.
The AIC program is gone now due to penny-wise, pound-foolish budget cuts. But some inmates’ lives were changed for the better. They are your neighbors now, and so, your lives are the better for it too.
AND…Oola –Ta-DAAA — was born in an Arts in Corrections class, one of the few where I had time to join in. The perfect doll, Oola stayed in a plastic bag for her first several years. But now she is an outspoken advocate — of what I am not always sure.
If you want to know more about Arts in Corrections and the Prison Arts program, here are a few links to get you started.