Men and Art Come Together Over Prison Wall

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By Staff Reports

(Victor Valley) – After eight months of hard work, inmates at the California Institution for Men in Chino, along with students from Cal State San Bernardino, have completed the mural that began with a simple request from the prison warden last spring: Could you teach some art classes?

The mural is part of the Community-based Art Program in CSUSB’s art department. A new and growing initiative, the program is staffed by university students who conduct art classes at several inland region sites that otherwise don’t have access to art, says Annie Buckley, the CSUSB assistant professor of visual studies who initiated and oversees the program.

The 7-foot-high mural is 45 feet wide – about the width of half a basketball court. Painted on one wall of the Chino prison gym, it depicts a forest enveloped in a nighttime fire, shifts to regrowth with dawn, and finally into a rich forest, full of sun and color and in full bloom.

CSUSB M.F.A. student Bee Wilkie, who began teaching an art history and critique seminar at CIM during the spring quarter, encouraged participants to “liberate” themselves from their situation.

Focusing on art can be a positive experience, he says.  “In our minds, we’re all equally free or trapped. It’s just a matter of perspective,” he adds. “I was just trying to motivate them.”

With so much time on their hands, many CIM inmates had already become artists in their own right, Buckley says, “creating powerful imagery with whatever materials they had on hand, including a detailed ink drawing on a plastic drinking cup and an inspiring self-portrait, based on the photo on a prison-issued ID, surrounded by Chinese characters for life, strength and wisdom.”

The inmates capture imagery, adds Buckley, in the most photorealistic ways, detail so exquisite that her descriptions of the inmates’ artwork, as well as descriptions from Wilke and Nancy Stevens, who graduated from CSUSB in June with degrees in studio art and art education, sound more like movie reviews. “Amazing,” “very, very impressive,” “stunning,” “beautiful.”

But the inmates have not just been producing a beautiful painting. Nor have they been trying to make some sort of statement to the world. The project has made a difference in their world. While they painted on the gymnasium wall, they also brushed back heavy divides.

One of the inmates not involved in the project approached Buckley one day.

He told her, she says, “You know, I’ve been kind of here just seeing the program ever since you guys first came a year-and-a-half ago, and what really stands out to me is the way that there’s a conversation and the connections that are happening. … You know, out there in the yard and in their cells inside there’s just frustration and strife. There are a lot of problems, and most of these men wouldn’t even be talking to each other out there.’”

Prison culture brooks no socializing between groups. That’s how the yard politics works. But in the gym, the mural and freestanding tables that serve as classrooms for art and creative writing classes are the common ground, where inmates collaborate with one another, where students are teachers and inmates are artists. At CIM, Buckley and student interns discussed the mural concept with the men before they began and everyone worked together throughout the project.

In fact, collaboration is what Buckley says the Community-based Art Program emphasizes. “All the classes, projects and workshops are born of the needs and interests of the site and the participating students, equally.”

When inmates requested writing classes, Buckley adds, CBAP found Price Hall, a Cal State San Bernardino M.F.A. student and poet, who has been leading a creative writing workshop since last spring.

Stevens and one of the inmates, Stan Hunter, who has as much or more experience than her in painting murals, were the lead artists on the mural, guiding the overall production, and have been coordinating her drawing class lessons with the lessons he has been giving in painting. When he needs her expertise, she paints with the students to demonstrate a point he’s making.

Throughout the project, no particular slogan or vision statement has guided the inmates’ work, says Stevens. They simply wanted the mural to tell a story. But, she adds, “If I were looking at it and I knew the story, I would say, ‘life finds a way.’’’

For images of the mural, call the Office of Public Affairs at (909) 537-5007. For more information about the CIM mural, call Annie Buckley at (909) 537-5813.

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