Journalists incarcerated in San Quentin produce a monthly broadsheet. Cowboys locked up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary perform at the Angola Prison Rodeo (events include a barrel race and a game of poker in which four men play while seated at a table while a bull coward fights). Recently at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison thirty miles upriver from New York City, several painters gathered for an art exhibit. “There was a second earlier in the day when I thought this wasn’t going to happen,” said Ryan Lawrence, who wore wire-rimmed glasses and paint-splattered work boots. He had a new stick-and-poke tattoo of a lion on his left arm.
“Oh man, it was tough,” said fellow performer Charles Minson, wiping sweat from his bald head. He wore a red cotton shirt pressed into green state-issued pants. “Last night they had a big thing in the yard…”
“…There was a big fight in the yard,” another artist cut. “There was a riot.”
Minson continued, “Tear gas, everything! You know, any time you’re in that type of situation, the tension builds, the wrong person can say the wrong thing, and it can get crazy.
Darrian Bennett, known as Plank – “I’m a ‘SpongeBob’ fan, and there’s a character called Plankton” – was listening. He added: “I have a policy: I don’t go to court.” He’s laughing. “I can’t paint in the yard. I can’t draw in the yard. I can barely read in the yard. Plank wore pink Pumas with pink laces and a pink sweatshirt. He continued, “I was always told, ‘Go to the school building.’ ”
In the school building, a classroom overlooked the courtyard of block A, which was surrounded by barbed wire. Iron bars on the windows, educational posters stuck to the walls. (“Ditch double negatives!”) Visual artists living in Block B and the Five Building mingled with actors and singers from the Seven Building. Spectators from the Honorary Housing Unit, who had just finished a dinner of white fish with white rice and greenish vegetables, took their seats. A prison administrator scratched his nose, which was sticking out of a cotton mask; a correctional officer wearing sunglasses slumped in a plastic chair at the back of the room.
One onlooker, Tim Walker, a soft-spoken, muscular man, pulled out a Moleskine notebook filled with poems and illustrations colored in marker. “I’m almost tempted to put my notepad up there,” he said, pointing to several works of art displayed on easels. Alen Haymon, who wore a state-issued white cotton mask over a salt-and-pepper beard, leaned over. “Art is art. It doesn’t matter the size or the style,” he said. “Put it up there!”
The exhibition was organized by Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a non-profit organization that works with dancers, actors, poets and artists in six New York prisons. RTA teachers organized art classes, workshops and performances with the aim of helping people in prison develop life skills. (Nationally, the incarcerated recidivism rate is about 60%; less than 5% of RTA participants recidivate.) The show was conceived by Plank, who said he wanted more attention for visual artists. “I came up with the idea for an in-house art show because I wanted to show the guys some love,” he said. “I wanted the guys to have the opportunity to be seen on a bigger scale.”
In 2019, RTA appealed to the prison administration to organize Plank’s art exhibition, and she accepted. It was the first event to take place since the coronavirus halted arts programming at the prison. “Tonight is about family and love,” Plank said, pointing to one of his paintings (title: “The One With All The Books”), which depicted writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah -Jones sitting behind a pile of hardback books. . “I feel like these two people have a lot of love for their people, black people!”
Plank introduced a few artists, who stood in front of a blackboard to discuss their work. First, Gary Butler: “I think this article deals with the whole ongoing debate about global warming and fossil fuels and all that kind of stuff. Her painting (“The title, I think, is ‘Mother Earth’”) showed a woman in a liquid shawl floating above a crystal clear river, which was certainly not the Hudson.
David McFadden: “I started working with acrylics because I couldn’t sharpen my pencils. We need a pencil sharpener! (Artists use nail clippers and emery boards to sharpen their pencils; oil painting is prohibited.)
Minson: “You see it’s brilliant, right?” He pointed to a painting (“Boo’d Up”) of a couple dressed up for a night on the town. “Well, it’s floor wax!”
Lawrence: “’Home’ is a word we use a lot here. It’s different for everyone. ‘What are you going to do when you get home?’ ‘Dude, I can’t wait to be home.’ But it’s not that simple for me. His triptych collage depicted a motorcycle. “I took so much, especially from my family. And it is now in pieces.
Walker: “We saw ourselves moving from ignorance to awareness and responsibility. ”
McFadden: “Instead of painting this room, I could have been outside playing crazy like the rest of these guys. But no, I choose to settle my dispute and express my anger and my frustrations on the web. ♦