‘A way to deal with emotion’: how teaching art can help prisoners | Art

The American prison has a long cultural history, depicted in movies from The Shawshank Redemption to The Green Mile. They are generally portrayed as harsh, dehumanising places populated by hardened criminals and vicious guards.

Who better, then, to demystify prisons and those who live in them than artists themselves? “We’ve had this glorified TV version of what a prison is in America and sure, it’s not a cakewalk, but it’s also humans in there – our fellow humans,” says Brian Roettinger, a graphic designer based in Los Angeles.

The 44-year-old and his partner at P–R Studio, Willo Perron, 47, will next month feature as guests artists running classes for prisoners in California in what Roettinger calls “an opportunity to humanise them and maybe lend a hand to make the thing less scary and intimidating”.

The project is a collaboration between the Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a university-based programme that offers an arts curriculum in 12 California state prisons, and the global talent agency Huxley.

Guest artists include photographer Tyler Mitchell, American artist Sterling Ruby, British-trained fine artist Issy Wood and cartoonist David Ostow. Their subjects will include scriptwriting and creative storytelling, cartooning and illustration, collage making and creative mindfulness.

For their part, Perron and Roettinger will teach logo design and typography from 10 December. Roettinger says: “We’re planning on everybody working together to rebrand the Prison Arts Collective: thinking about how that logo and colour palette could communicate, creating it as a traditional branding project and going through the process and step by step on how we approach that.

PAC Annie and Participant CIM 2016
Photograph: Peter Merts

The guest artist programme is made up of 15 individual lessons over 15 weeks. The PAC will initially teach the new programne in one prison and eventually bring it to a dozen men’s and women’s California state prisons. Such work is a statement of faith in the transformative power of art and the redemptive potential of self-expression.

Perron reflects: “The arts are a way to channel and deal with with emotion and I think a lot of people that wind up in these difficult binds have just reacted or and didn’t have the outlets.

“We all need multiple different types of outlets from therapy to being able to talk to people. The arts is a great way to channel anything from sadness to anger to glee. [This is] to give people one of the tools to go to instead of something that could turn violent.”

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. When Huxley approached the design duo about taking part, they did not take long to say yes, having previously worked with a prison reform foundation led by the rapper Jay-Z.

Perron says: “The things that need the most attention in this country are probably healthcare and the prison system. We’re designers at work and we’re not in government or anything but it gives us the opportunity to do something that hopefully can help and push things forward a little bit from what our skills are.

“It’s people that get involved and have a contact and a sense of responsibility to what’s happening versus ‘This is where we throw our trash and we don’t know where it goes’. This is how we deal with with our society’s woes: we just put people in boxes and throw away the keys. And obviously it’s not worked and we have to start looking at it in a real way.”

He adds: “Society makes our problems, society makes our criminals. We’re all intrinsically linked to everybody’s decisions. For us to think that the simple solution is to lock people away and not deal with that is at best medieval.”

PAC Art Class Lancaster 2017
Photograph: Peter Merts

The non-profit PAC began in 2013 and reaches nearly 450 incarcerated participants each semester. Its founding director, Annie Buckley, a professor at San Diego State University where it has its headquarters, says the response of incarcerated participants has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People feel that it’s like an oasis for them within the prison, where they can relax for a bit and just feel safe and relaxed in their space and creativity,” she explains in a phone interview. “We might take it for granted on the outside but for them it’s quite profound.

“The sense of connection is really powerful: for them to connect with a university student who’s coming in to teach who they might not otherwise have met. To have that interaction about the arts through the class is something that is quite meaningful. Third is the ability for them to shape an identity that’s positive around being an artist or being a writer or being a student.”

Buckley recalled that one participant told her that his daughter now refers to him as “an artist” with her friends at school “which I thought was so powerful to be able to refer to that instead whatever she used to say concerning her father being in prison”.

The programme includes inmates ranging from those convicted of minor offences to those serving life sentences. “We don’t ask them why they’re there or what they’ve done because really the focus of our programme is about shifting identities and not having people only be known by the worst thing they’ve ever done. It’s to experience being in a collaborative, inclusive community and experience themselves as artists and students and collaborators and peers.”

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