Art Business: Bringing Art Behind Bars

Many artists enjoy using their talent to give back to others and, for some, such enjoyment is gained by participating in some of the many prison-arts programs throughout the country.

by Daniel Grant

Teaching art isn’t for everyone, and teaching art to prisoners probably appeals to even less people. “It took me three years to get used to walking through cell blocks without having butterflies in my stomach,” says Lynne Vantriglia, an artist who has taught male and female inmates at prisons in Florida and South Carolina through Art Behind Bars, a volunteer program she founded in 1994. Eventually, however, Vantriglia lost those butterflies and soon began enjoying this part of her art business. “The inmates are always so appreciative that you’re doing something for them,” she says. “There aren’t many productive activities for them to do, and sometimes this is the only positive experience they will have.”

Boats on the Bay by Lynne Vantriglia, mixed media.
Boats on the Bay by Lynne Vantriglia, mixed media.

Vantriglia is not alone, as more and more artists are venturing into jails and prisons, gaining teaching experience and striving to make a difference. One of the benefits of these types of programs is that inmates are acquiring skills and discipline that may offer an avenue of self-expression other than violence. Other related events, such as prison art exhibitions, provide inmates with a feeling of self-worth and accomplishment. “People who do well in art classes gain confidence and take other classes, which is important because most inmates have very little education,” says Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, a painter and art professor at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, who has taught in prisons since the early 1990s. “These skills offer other outlets for anger and motivate them to change their lives.”

Still, many artists who participate in such programs are questioned about the safety—and the necessity—of bringing art into prisons. Like Vantriglia, Williams recalls feeling apprehensive during her first time teaching these classes but says she quickly got over it, preferring inmates to some other students in less restrictive settings. “I’ve never had any physical threats,” says Grady Hillman, a poet and the president of Southwest Correctional Art Network, which places artists of various disciplines in prisons. “I’ve encountered my share of sociopaths, but it’s no worse than teaching in a junior high school.” 

Other artists defend prisoners’ human rights. “You can’t just throw them away and forget about them,” Williams says. “Whatever they may have done, they are still human beings, who need to be treated as such and given creative things to do.”  Susan Wolfe, a painter from Wichita, Kansas, who has taught inmates inside the Hutchinson Correctional Facility, in Hutchinson, Kansas, for a number of years, counters criticism of her work in the penitentiary by quoting a biblical verse. “The Bible says we should minister to people in prisons,” she says. Jane Golden, a muralist and the director of the Healing Walls Project of the Philadelphia-based Mural Arts Program, defends her involvement in prison-arts programs by pointing to the power of art. “When these individuals are involved in something that gives back, they start to figure out how to reconstruct their lives,” she says. “Art can play a significant role in their rehabilitation.”

Before entering a prison, artists are given a certain amount of training, either from a sponsoring organization or from prison officials. Prison rules are quite strict for a reason, and artists need to maintain a structured environment even though they are encouraging self-expression in their classes. A limited number of supplies may be brought in or supplied by the prison—nothing with sharp points (such as scissors), nothing with toxic odors (such as oil-paint mediums), nothing that must be assembled and disassembled—and each item is likely to be counted at the beginning and end of a given class. Not all prisons follow the same security rules, but in almost all cases, safety is a top concern.

Classes may last from 90 minutes to five hours—depending on the project inmates are working on—and take place one or more times per week. In most instances, artists are paid by a sponsoring organization, a particular prison, or a government agency, at the rate of between $35 and $50 per hour (although some artists also go in as volunteers). Auburn University, in Alabama, Brown University, in Rhode Island, and the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, run prison-arts programs in which students are sent into correctional facilities as teachers for school credit.
Opportunities abound for artists to work in correctional institutions. There are currently 5,000 or so jails (short-term incarceration) and prisons (long-term) around the United States, one-fifth of which have art programs. In most cases, jails tend to offer fewer classes than prisons because of the more rapid turnover of inmates. State and county-bureau correctional facilities are likely to know of private programs that place artists in prisons, and many correctional institutions have their own recreation and treatment director who works with outside groups or arranges to bring in individuals to teach.

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About Karyn

   My heart has always been in art and I spend the free time that I can painting.  Currently, I work in acrylics and I'm creating a series of abstract pieces.  But, I'm a materials collector and I've recently purchased some pan pastels, some new oil paints and watercolor pencils.

I no longer work for Artist Daily, so I won't be checking the site regularly and have no ability to remove posts or images.  Please contact the staff of Artist Daily or American Artist if you need help.