Art of Conviction

Dawn Villella

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.

I didn't ever do artwork before, even over at Oak Park [Heights]. I've only been doing it for the past five years. I was in construction. I was a sheet-metal apprentice and I spent four years in the Air Force as an aviation mechanic. I've got a two-year degree in auto mechanics. Over at Oak Park I was mainly working on my AA degree. I've got that now and I was working on my B.A. degree here and I'm nine classes short of that. Then the college program here folded so they pulled up and left. So I'm stuck trying to figure out how I'm going to finish nine classes. I've got another 10 years to do. It'll be correspondence through Metro State. It's a hassle getting anything done like that because it's such a bureaucratic nightmare. I call this the Department of Contradictions, because whatever makes sense doesn't make sense.

It's getting crazier and crazier and crazier in here. I've been down 10 years, and they keep taking and taking and taking. This is the only place I've ever seen where they've cut our wages three times. Three times. We're making next to nothing. Pretty soon, how are we even going to be able to afford toiletries? A bottle of shampoo in the canteen is $5. And when you're making a quarter an hour, and some of these guys have restitution to pay, how are you going to be able to afford that?

They just changed the hours now, and they're making us work an extra hour longer and paying us the same wages. And they've screwed up the civilian-staff schedules. They're shorting everybody's schedules. They just screwed us out of another hour of yard. You've got to have the patience of Job to live in here or you'll go nuts.

This is one of the things that helps keep me sane. Over at Oak Park I was in the hole quite a few times. But here I haven't been in the hole once because I don't want to lose my art. It means too much to me.

Rich Shelton, 35

Associate professor of art at MCAD; taught photography at Minnesota Correctional Facility, Shakopee, 1992-1997

At Shakopee, there's no guns and no walls. The women can just run. But they can't; it's much more complicated than that. They have marathon runners that actually watch the yard so if the women do run they'll run them down. It's deceiving to people who are visiting. It looks as if they could just walk right out of there. But in fact the women hardly ever have a moment when there isn't someone looking right at them. A lot of the women would prefer they'd put up some walls so they wouldn't have that kind of supervision.

The first day of class was really tough for me. I remember being nervous. In your training they're like, "Never trust an inmate!" I was told stories about how if you allow them an inch they'll take a mile. I got there really early and had written my whole lesson plan on the board so I wouldn't forget and would be professional. And the first woman that came into the room, she saw I was a man and she was startled because all they knew was my last name. They didn't know if I was a man or a woman. She sat as far away from me as possible. It was a big table with five chairs on each side. And then the next woman came in and saw me and did exactly the same thing. And then the next woman. And they filled up the room from as far as they could sit from me to as close as they could sit to me.

I had been at Stillwater, where it's very much the opposite: They get as close to you as possible and really intimidate you, and that really freaked me out. But this was fine. After a few weeks I slowly built their trust.  

I would give them different assignments: We'd go in the immediate yard and do portraits. They were allowed to dress up and wear makeup and we'd get fans and blow their hair back and make them look like models in magazines and stuff like that. That was a very popular assignment. Or we'd set up still lifes or do collages. We'd do a lot with double exposures and manipulating images.

I was drilled about lesbian imagery: no lesbian imagery in photographs. Don't let them put their arms around each other. You're working in a system where half the guards and administration are gay. Some of the inmates are gay, some aren't. But inmates all match up, whether it's sexual or not. [They don't allow that imagery] because the taxpayers would complain if those images got out. They live double lives.

Everybody wanted to be my friend so they'd tell me about [other people's crimes]. I'll give you an example: "Yeah, she was so hooked on drugs that she used her 13-year-old daughter to make money by prostituting her out to creeps." You get to the point where you just don't want to know, because you know them as very caring and loving people. You know them pretty much as people. And probably in a more emotional and deep way than you know most people. You probably see them more than they see their husband or children. I had long-termers who were in there all six years with me. Those are the people I miss. And they're probably the people that are in for the worst crimes.

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.

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.

I have almost another three years. This is a place for me to stop and let me look where I was headed. I was on a path for destruction. I was really gone for a while. I just didn't care toward the end, I didn't care if I lived or died. I was with a real abusive guy. All my life I went through abuse. From 2 years old I went through sexual abuse. I just got to the point where I didn't care about nothing. I had lost both my kids so I didn't have anything going for me and I couldn't care less. Coming here has changed that. It's made me see things a different way. I just caught myself in time and this is a place for me to get my shit together again.

This guy I was with still writes and he seems to think he owns me for life. But at this point I don't even want to think about that. All I want to think about is doing stuff with my kids when I get out. And stay away from the relationships. One piece in the show is about the abuse and him. It's called "Stealer of Souls"; it's a demon in a cemetery. And one is about losing my kids and ending up here, "Fall from Grace."

Bill Murray, 50

Has taught at Stillwater for 23 years

I usually hire murderers as my clerks because no one messes with them. Back when they didn't have metal detectors this place was extremely dangerous. I've seen guys killed. Inmates would make a shank--shanks are usually long pieces of metal--and they won't cut you, they'll stab you. [The inmates] aren't allowed to go anywhere unless all the tools are returned, and they'll close this place down like you wouldn't believe to find it.

Last week I didn't even have students because they were looking for a shank. Word was that it was a 12-inch shank with a wooden handle that was going to be used to kill a guard. One thing in here I have to be careful of is Plexiglas. They can take small pieces and glue them together and make a knife that would cut your head right off, and can't be detected by a metal detector.

I started volunteering my time here teaching in 1974 because I knew some people who'd come to prison. I got in a fight with a guy one time when I was in the military and I almost killed him. I understood how a split second can change your life forever. So I came down here to see if maybe there wasn't something I could offer to people who had crossed that line. In 1977 the program went full-time and I was probably one of first nationally hired state art instructors in the country. Minnesota led the way in arts-in-corrections.  

When I first started working here we used to actually use the word rehabilitation. We don't even use that word anymore. It's not about rehabilitation; it's about keeping "them" away from "us." It's madness, that's all it is. It's just madness. Our society has gotten to the point where we're tired of this shit. We don't want to be in a position where we can't walk down the street without thinking who's behind me. I've talked to people who were very angry that there's an art program in prison: What the hell are those guys doing art for? They should be breaking rocks.

I'll say to them, OK, let's say an inmate comes to prison and breaks rocks. That's going to make him very strong, keep him extremely uneducated, make him very angry, and it's going to waste his time. When he gets out, he's going to live next door to you. Now, would you rather have had him in an education program, learning something, learning how to read, to write, anything? Or would you rather have him breaking rocks?

Dustin Kingbird, 22


Sentence: 3 years

It's harder to work in the block than in here. It's a lot more laid back here. I hadn't drawn much 'til I got into this class. I always had the ability to draw but I'm kind of timid. I didn't want to. Sometimes I didn't finish them. I've been going wild lately; I finished two pieces in two days.

It's kind of quieting for me. This one piece, "Thunderbird Country," it's probably the best one I ever did. This one I'm really proud of. I'm going to send it home. I was just reading this National Geographic and I was bored and I had to do it. This ad was for a '61 Thunderbird, and it said "Thunderbird Country." [In my picture] it's a Native American guy standing next to the car in the fields in South Dakota.

I've only got 15 months to go. I'll be eligible for a minimum [security facility]. They've got a point system here: If you behave for six months you get six points knocked off. I've been minding my own business lately and haven't been doing nothing but this.

Sometimes I don't feel like coming, mostly in the mornings. They crowd us in that little [entryway] and I don't like being crowded up like that. They do it to get as many people as they can so they don't have to keep opening the door. I don't know what happens if you come in late. I've never been late. In here if you miss two times you're out. They want serious art and anybody who's slacking off ain't really doing much for this program. I had a few days when I wasn't doing anything, just feeling grumpy. Nothing would come to me.

I get frustrated a lot. I ain't got no ideas.

Behon LaPrairie, 39


Sentence: Life

For me it's great to have an atmosphere conducive to my direction in life, which is to work on my spirituality. [LaPrairie was a lead plaintiff in a 1995 lawsuit filed by Native American inmates for freedom of religious practices in prison.] Like this stuff here. I call this "woodland Indian art." A lot of this is done up in Ontario, around Red Lake. It's done by a lot of Ojibwe Indians. That's my tribe.

Bill [Murray]'s got a lot of knowledge. He's a great teacher. People ask him why he works here, and I guess he's one of a dying breed of people who still believe in rehabilitation. He has hope in people, and some people don't--they just want to lock 'em up and throw away the key. Some of us still believe that there's salvation.

Sharon Miller, 48


Sentence: 6 years, 9 months

I've got a painting of a tiger in the show--like a Chinese watercolor painting--coming out of the forest. It's kind of like, OK, you're in the forest, you've been tangled up, and now you're coming out. But I don't really do any paintings that have to do with me being in prison. It's like everywhere you look there's such pretty things all around us all the time. Those kind of things are what I like to do. And I'm getting toward the end of my sentence, so whatever happened, happened; time is done.  

I've been doing a lot of healing in here, and the artwork really helps. It brings out a lot of positive things inside yourself, even if you're not good. Just expressing something pretty out of yourself gives you back your self-esteem.

I've been here three years, and I've got 10 months left to go. I'm really happy about it. I guess you can tell.

I was an art major at the University of North Dakota. I only went to college for a year and then I quit and got married. I had children and put the artwork aside and didn't touch it for 20 years. I came to prison and thought, gee, why not do something I might really enjoy? I've stayed with the art class probably longer than anybody in here. I've been in the art room three years now and I just love it. And if we make it into the art show or we don't, or we sell or we don't, it's just the fact that we are still producing something that looks really pretty.

I make art for my children. Everything I do I send to my kids. I haven't hardly done anything for anyone else. It's my way of connecting back with my kids and they've been just enjoying it. They just love what I've been sending them. If they don't keep it, at least they know that I'm trying.

You give up so much when you come to prison. You lose yourself when you come here. But what's done is done and you can't reverse what's happened. You have to figure out what got you here. And then you can leave and be a healed person--pretty much healed. And you know you have to start over and you've lost all those years with your family, but you can't change it. So when you leave here, do it right the second time. Either that or [prison] can really overwhelm you and can leave you a really, really angry, hurt, dried-up type of person. There's no benefiting from that.

My ideas of the justice system are not the best. I think it's a sideshow going to a courtroom. We have no statistics to go by, but it appears to the female population that women get longer sentences than men. I don't know if someone actually did a survey on that--it would be very interesting to see who gets what type of sentencing. We talk amongst ourselves and say, why would the judge take the same type of crime and give one person two years and another person five?

Like my friend said, there's a reason we're here. We're all guilty of something. But is it exactly what we were charged with? I'm not sure. I'm not sure at all.

Insider Art is presented by AMICUS, a nonprofit organization providing services to convicts. The exhibit is on display at the MCAD Gallery through August 13; a festival of documentary films on prison issues runs July 23 through August 13. Call AMICUS for more information; 348-8570.

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