Art of Conviction

Inmate artists and prison instructors talk about life on the inside

Insider Art, currently on display at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, is an exhibit of 148 pieces by Minnesota prison inmates. The works are diverse in medium and content, ranging from delicate soap-bar sculptures to abstract watercolor washes to primitive pencil drawings. Taken in whole, the show serves to remind viewers that while prisons form one of America's fastest-growing industries, the industry's faceless raw materials are also people with poetic imaginations and real talents.

Art instructors in prison say they don't like to ask inmates about their crimes. Such information shouldn't matter in the classroom, they say; others have discovered through experience that they'd rather not know. In another sense, though, the crimes seem central to any consideration of the exhibit: To understand that a murderer is also capable of creating subtle and generous art presents a challenging paradox for the viewer. In an attempt to balance these competing principles, the inmates quoted below are identified by the lengths of their sentences instead of the nature of their convictions. (The time they ultimately serve will typically be less.)

The program at the Stillwater prison is the most extensive. Inmates stay in class most of the day, every day. Stillwater, a maximum-security men's prison, is an odd facility whose architecture betrays an ever-evolving approach to incarceration. The main, older part of the prison is designed to make a prisoner feel small, and it works: The space is dominated by a cavernous, echoing hallway with enormous windows and primitive cell blocks shooting off either side; a visitor must pass through a circuit of some eight barred gates and vestibules to reach the art room.

By contrast, the education facility, whose entrance is unceremoniously tacked onto one end of the hallway, feels like any newer building on a college campus: low industrial carpeting on the floor, cream-colored paint on the walls. The large classroom is dominated by 23 drafting tables, permanent stations for each student to work, store materials, and display his art. Student pieces cover the walls and stand on easels; windows look out onto the surrounding woods. Potted trees and a fish tank extend the sense of normality. A rack with a TV/VCR and documentary videos stands at the front of the room; bookshelves hold stacks of Time/Life books on art history and photography, art magazines, travel brochures, and history books. A small storeroom, off-limits to inmates, holds tools; an elaborate checkout system is intended to prevent compasses, hand saws, and screwdrivers from being misused.

For most of the day, the inmates work quietly, listening to KMJZ or Cities 97, searching resource books for ideas. You'd hardly notice the video camera mounted from the ceiling. Instructor Bill Murray's body alarm, clipped to his shirt, looks just like a lecturer's cordless mic.

Therapists and new-age gurus wax romantic about the "healing" powers of art-making. If the inmates and prison instructors are to be believed, they're basically right. Granted, some inmates are more articulate than others in discussing their experiences with art in prison. Some seem to be towing a PR-friendly line--an adaptive skill that cannot be overvalued in this context. Others complain at length and in great detail about the workaday annoyances of prison life. (Some of these complaints may seem strangely familiar to readers on the outside, as well.) All, however, speak about art class in terms of escape. Does art pacify these prisoners, enable them to behave better in a maddening environment? Maybe. Some supporters argue that it also helps them survive once they get out into a larger, and often equally maddening, world.

Sean Merrill, 38

Minnesota Correctional Facility, Stillwater

Sentence: 29 years, 6 months

I'm really drawn to the old masters. I'm fascinated by the Hudson River Valley painters. They had some incredible paintings. They'd only paint 10 or 15 paintings in their life but the paintings they did were breathtaking.

I've been in the system since 1988 and I've been here since '93. I lose track of time in here. That happens a lot. I was thinking today--no--what day is it? You lose track because of your routine. Every day is always the same. Things change on the outside and you're not always aware of it. I've got a 12-year-old son and he was 2 when I came to prison. That's the hardest part about doing time: Your family goes on and does things. And when somebody in your family dies, you're not allowed to grieve the way you need to grieve because no one wants to hear it. They've got their own problems. My dad's 77 years old now and I'm waiting for one of these days when he goes and passes away. I think that's going to be really tough. Even if you do get to go to the funeral, they handcuff you and shackle you and take you down in a bright orange suit to the funeral home and you're there by yourself. It isn't really the same.

I make art for my family. My sister raises dalmatians and I painted her and her dogs for Christmas. She was really tickled and she took it around and showed it to all her friends. She takes my son canoeing. He's kind of living with a foster home. She sent me some photographs of their canoe trip, my son and her going down the Zumbro River and stuff. We used to run around together, me and my sister, and that was one of the areas we used to go canoeing all the time. I didn't tell her I was doing it, I just sent it to her.

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