Art of Conviction

Inmate artists and prison instructors talk about life on the inside

Our classes are a haven. I don't treat them the same way the guards do, or the administration does, or the warden. When they come into my art class they're not really inmates; they're just people who want to learn. If you give them that kind of energy they give it right back to you: I just want to be the best student I can and all I care about is learning how to do photography.

Photography class is a very solitary, individual time. The inmates can really get inside their heads and escape the institution while they do that activity. That's why I'm so upset about the darkroom [which was closed after students were discovered to have taken nude photographs]. They're still going to have photography, but they're going to send it out to be developed. The process that was so special for my students wasn't necessarily the shooting of it; it was the time in the darkroom, the time when they were really away from the guards. When they were in the darkroom they were in another world. We didn't even think of that area as the same world. It was another place and time for them. It's like behind the wardrobe or something.

Dawn Villella

Diane Sepulvado, 40


Sentence: 10 years, 10 months

Art was always really important to me and I had given it up many years ago when I got married and started having kids. I didn't realize how important it was to me until I was away from it for a long time. The first time I went to class was like a homecoming.

I do a lot of nature art. I really like landscapes, and for me it's been really helpful because it's something we don't get to see a lot of. I mostly work out of my head or from photographs. My family sends me photographs. A lot of times, I'll wake up in the middle of the night with a real vivid thing in my head that I know I've got to draw and I'll get up and do a quick sketch of it. Maybe it'll be a month before I pull it out and actually put it together. I like doing detail work in pencil, and a lot of times it's close-ups of a piece of something in nature: just the top of a flower. One picture in the show is a close-up of a couple of branches of a birch.

I'm a real perfectionist, always have been. It's a way of control for me. My life has been out of control for a long time and it feels like something that I can control, if I can just work on a small picture. Therese [an instructor] has been pushing me harder and harder to use bigger pieces of paper because I'm notorious here for using little tiny pieces of paper and doing tiny drawings. They pick on me all the time: Any little piece of paper lying around they'll say, Look Diane, something to draw on! It's hard for me to loosen up enough to fill a big piece of paper.

Lisa Marie Moloney, 32


Sentence: 3 years, 2 months

I was a ward of the state so I grew up in places like this. Whenever I was in an institution or group home I'd draw because it was a lot easier than talking. I never took classes, just doodled in a notebook.

I'm bipolar and am diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. I'm still waiting to be medicated right now. It's like, "Let's try this, let's try this." And I'm like, "Well, I've been on this and it's worked before." I know it would be worse if I weren't taking art. This is my one way to release. If I didn't have it I think I'd go nuts.

Everyone says my artwork is kind of dark. I still don't think anything I draw is any good. But I just don't think about it. I'm not trying to stress over it, just keep doing it. I've never cared for anything I've done since I was little. So it's just probably force of habit now. I've always been pretty down on myself so I pretty much stay that way now. My sculpture [in the show] is kind of about that. It's a person sitting there with two walls around them, really not going anywhere. It's called "Doing Time." Not going anywhere.

I work in textiles, sewing. I do the appliqué work back there on machines. We work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Tuesdays I come into art from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Wednesdays after work I come from 3 to 5 and from 5 to 7. Other than that I spend a lot of time in my room and that's about it. You start out working at 50 cents an hour and it can go up to $1, $1.60, somewhere in there. They take out about half for restitution and restorative justice. It's a program for paying back to the community what you've taken away. They say it goes back to the community. It doesn't bother me, as long as it's going to a good cause. But they don't tell us exactly where it's going.

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